Arranged Marriages in India: An Outsiders View

I’ve thought a long time about posting this, because I don’t want to offend or upset any of my lovely Indian friends. But I don’t think anything I’ve said here is offensive, and I think this is something my NZ readers will find interesting… read on. Disclaimer: I’m not an expert, this is all based on what I see and hear around me and I welcome discussion if I have gotten something wrong!

How many marriages in India are still considered ‘arranged’? Technically, almost all of them. Marriage still works much the same as it has for hundreds of years. Mom and Dad find you a suitable match, and arrange an engagement ceremony. The guy and his parents turn up at the girl’s house, and they meet en masse. The guy sometimes isn’t even there- after all, this is about the two sets of parents agreeing on something, it has very little to do with the couple themselves. Most parents these days can take into account what their daughter says… If she says no, then the boy is sent away unsuccessful. If it’s a yes, then engagement is arranged. Dowries are still a possibility, more likely in rural areas.

This process varies across regions and families. Some couples are allowed to meet many times. Sometimes, entire families are at the engagement. The process is not one size fits all.

In rural areas and small towns, women are treated as commodities still, bought and sold with dowries. Conditions are placed on women still- yes it’s ok to marry my son but you aren’t allowed your career- and if it is, then your job mustn’t involve travel, or being away from home. No questioning of your life or direction, you will get married and have one or two children.

Potential partners must be a religious match, and caste match. Castes aren’t supposed to matter here still, but they do. Some of the Brahmin in particular, the supposed ‘top’ caste, still retain belief in their own importance based on luck of birth. The youth of India care a whole lot less about caste and this will continue to be less and less important by generation. Mixed faith Hindu/ Muslim marriages are unlikely. There are a number of sects of Hinduism and you can marry across them, depending on how staunch the parents are. (I would compare this to Catholics marrying a Protestant…) I attended a wedding (a love marriage) where the bride and groom were from different states, and their native languages weren’t the same, nor their sect of Hindu religion. So the ceremony had two sets of rites for the two sects of Hinduism.

Love marriages are becoming more common, as the youth meet and fall in love much how we take for granted here in Western society. If it’s a ‘love’ marriage, it still needs the parents to approve it before it can be realised, otherwise it can bring great shame on the family. I know a woman who has a boyfriend she loves and they want to marry, but her mother still arranges engagements, because the boyfriend isn’t an engineer. I have friends who were in love, and the love of their lives had to marry someone else, so those two people still love and pine for each other, but one is married to someone else because they had to. I have friends that met, fell in love, and told their parents, their marriage was duly arranged, and it’s been a beautiful thing. I have friends who had completely arranged marriages that have bombed, and ones that have flourished.

There’s a low rate of divorce here, but I believe it’s largely due to the shame associated with divorce. Love marriage or arranged marriage, it’s still just as fraught with difficulty as Western marriages, where we make decisions entirely based on our free choice. Look at me for example- with the benefit of hindsight, and an insightful comment from my Uncle, I now realise I thought I was marrying for love. So did my husband. I think we got married because the other had what we needed at the time. Graham offered me security- I offered him a pretty, intelligent girl, to hang off his arm to reflect more glory on himself. Once those needs were satisfied- the requirement for each other no longer existed. I don’t think my choice, based on free will, is any better than any arranged marriage I’ve seen here.

Matrimonial page in the local paper

I do believe this way of existing has created some social issues for India though. Men and women have lived totally segregated lives, which means that they don’t really know how to interact. I was driving through a village and noted that the teenage male and female children walked on opposite sides of the road. In schools, they are discouraged from talking to the opposite sex. The men here take very little encouragement to believe that they are In Love with someone, and they believe that persistence is the road to success. A woman can smile and glance at a guy, and it be interpreted as interest. It can be very difficult to dissuade a young man from his love theory, and I’ve been told many women simply acquiesce because it’s too tiring and stressful to keep saying no.

There is also a culture where Mom and Dad will find me a wife/ husband. I have had conversations where the man has been off travelling and he’s said ‘I’ll go home, get married…’ because he knows his parents will have found him a wife. No effort on his behalf, it’s sorted. A foregone conclusion. By the time they reach 30, if women are unmarried then it’s presumed something is ‘wrong’ with her… not that she’s picked a career, or travel, or not found an amazing man to marry.

So why do arranged marriages tend to work? I have two theories:

  • Families are close over here. Parents know their children better than Western parents do, (or there is the illusion that this is the case) so any spouse choice might actually be relevant.
  • Maybe Love can be a decision. And if you have no choice, divorce isn’t an option- you make it work. And it’s far less painful to love the person and make it work than to suffer in misery the rest of your life.

I don’t think arranged marriages are any better or worse than love marriages. It wouldn’t work in Western society, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It has, however, stripped women of their rights historically, and I disagree with that.

Imagine how scary it must be for the young couple, meeting each other for the first time. Parents in the room, expectations high, meeting a stranger that potentially next time you meet, it’s your wedding day. Imagine the wedding day, knowing you’re marrying some stranger that you have to spend the rest of your life with. Imagine that night, sleeping next to someone, having sex maybe, with someone you don’t know and have never touched before.

As I continue to learn more about Indian culture, the more I understand where it’s come from and where it’s going. Sometimes it feels like India is taking the bad parts of Western culture and losing some delightful things of their own, but the increasing respect of women and freedom being accorded to young people to live their lives is a positive I believe.

4 thoughts on “Arranged Marriages in India: An Outsiders View

  1. Totally agree with you on this one.I am an Indian guy from Delhi(19yo) who used to love western music,movies,dramas just like most of urban youth here.The more I learned about the west,the more I understood the value of my own culture.And I agree with you that India is bringing the bad parts of western culture into Indian culture.This is the reason why china probably censored the internet.So it can protect its own culture and family values.

    1. There’s so much depth and beauty in Indian culture. Nothing wrong with Western culture but it seems a shame for ‘India’ to get lost in the race to become America.

  2. It’s a good analysis of what you have experienced, but I think things have definitely changed in last decade or so. There are more and more love marriages (especially in bigger cities). This is mainly due to influence of western culture. But I still think that there is more sense of commitment when it comes to relationships amongst Indians.

    1. Yes, there are more love marriages. A friend is a love marriage- parents are ok with it- but the family wont be, so they have to lie and pretend it’s an arranged marriage. Yes, crazy. I’m not sure if it’s a sense of commitment any more than Western marriages… still not sure really. India is so diverse, I think the reason for the longevity of marriages is multi-faceted. Certainly tradition, expectations, family shame come into it.

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