Even the term alone feels offensive to you. Oppressive. Undemocratic. Backwards.
If you come from a country that values autonomy above everything else, it is unthinkable. Decades of media and Disney have drilled into us the evils of letting someone else make such an important choice for you.
So why do 65% of young Indians still prefer to have their parents arrange their marriages?
Why are 90% of all marriages in India still arranged?
Why have I already started to think about ‘alliances’ for my kids?
Maybe there is something we are missing…
3 Major Misconceptions you might have about Arranged Marriages in India:
Before I get into these, let me give a huge qualification based on #IndiasNotIndia. Most of my observations are centered on urban, New or Classic Indians, and mostly in south India. Arranged marriages among Majority Indians, especially in other parts of India, will undoubtedly have a very different flavor and I don’t pretend to understand those dynamics. The art of arranging a marriage varies from family to family, but some of these things will apply to the Indians you work and live with.
You should also be aware that the terms ‘arranged marriage’ and ‘love marriage’ are used as opposites in India. An arranged marriage means the parents take the lead in finding a spouse. A love marriage means two people find each other, ‘fall in love’, and then get married, with varying levels of family involvement.
Here are some likely misconceptions westerners have:
1. These are children. While child marriages were common earlier in India, as of 2011, the average age of marriage for men was 26, and that of women was 22. Among urban Indians, the averages are probably even higher. Parents are encouraging their kids to finish school (usually with a master’s degree) and establish a career before entering into marriage. That said, most parents will begin thinking and fretting over this decision once their child reaches the early 20s.
2. All young people hate the system. On the contrary, a majority of youth prefer that their parents choose a marriage partner for them. Some young adults defer to parents because they think their parents are wiser and have their best interests at heart (yes, you read that correctly). Others prefer not to find their own mate because of the pressure of dating, finding someone to marry, and maintaining a career at the same time.
3. Arranged marriage = forced marriage. Again, this does happen in parts of India, but the majority of New and Classic Indian parents don’t force their children to marry a certain person. The young person (either a boy or a girl) usually gets veto rights and is given many options to choose from.
We aren’t looking for a wife for our son…
Now that you might accept arranged marriages as not 100% evil, here is some of the thinking behind it. Perhaps the single biggest difference between an arranged marriage in India and a love marriage in a western country is that in India, finding a suitable marriage partner is a family decision. In the West, it is an individual decision.
As one Indian put it to me, “We aren’t looking for a wife for our son, but a daughter-in-law for our family.” That doesn’t mean they will force their son/daughter to marry someone he/she is incompatible with, but they recognize that the marriage will affect everyone.
This is a reality that most western countries have lost, specifically the US. Parents who know that their child is making a poor decision in a marriage partner will keep their mouth shut because “It’s their life.” However, when you consider that this person will affect every family gathering and holiday, and will have a massive influence on the next generation, it’s not hard to realize that it’s not just ‘their life’ but ours as well.
For this reason, some parents announce that they are seeking an ‘alliance’. Despite its militaristic connotations, it is an accurate description of what is going on. Two families are joining together, not just a man and a woman. The kind of family your child’s spouse comes from is very important.
The role of finding a spouse for a child is taken very seriously. Parents see it as their main obligation to their children, along with a good education. They cannot rest until they know their son or daughter is married to a good person from a good family.
Someone like you
As we’ve said before, India is a culture of multiple societies, or intersecting circles. The community you come from is the most important identity marker you have. Therefore, ideally, you would marry someone within the same community.
Why is this ideal? Why not celebrate diversity and have inter-faith, -caste, -language marriages?
While many of these marriages work out, it is better for most individuals and families to have someone who speaks the same heart language, who serves the same family gods, and who does pujas in the same way. In joint families, the daughter-in-law often has important duties to perform that will take her a long time to learn if she did not grow up with them.
I have a friend who is a Tamilian, and wanted to marry a girl from Kerala (the next state over). The parents initially objected, not because they didn’t like the girl, but because as the oldest son’s wife, she would eventually become the matriarchal figure of the family and would be responsible for passing on traditions to the next generation – traditions she was not familiar with at all. It ended up working out for my friend, but not all situations have good endings.
How to Arrange a Marriage
There is no single way that arranged marriages occur, and every observation will have its opposite and exception, but here are some common elements.
Once the parents determine it is time to start searching for a spouse, they will start looking within their own community and their inner circle. If no one can be found, they may consult a matchmaking service. These services will use their own database to connect potential families together. The parents might also take out a matrimonial ad in the newspaper. These ads are a rich source of knowledge about India and deserve a separate article. Today, more and more parents and young people are using online portals to scan through thousands of prospective brides and grooms.
Parents will sort through the biodata of candidates. They will spend hours online looking through profiles, or through physical files and photographs. Highly sought-after young people can get mounds and mounds of this kind of material from potential suitors.
Here is some of the information included:
- Community and family history
- Horoscope and astrological sign
- Food habits (veg/non-veg)
- Where they grew up
- Father and mother’s occupation
- Languages spoken
- Employment history including current employer/profession/designation/salary
- Educational background (including test scores)
- Social status
- Overall financial position
The parents shortlist candidates and give them to their son/daughter who will say whether or not they are interested in anyone. If there is some promise, then the families may meet together up to several times, feeling out how compatible both the couple and the family are (click here for some funny stories). If things move forward, both families will use their social circles to perform a background check to confirm whether or not the information is accurate and if the family indeed is a good one.
Sometimes, the young people are allowed to meet a few times on their own to get to know each other. However, in the case of people living in different cities or countries, the couple might only meet once and agree to the marriage immediately.
Eventually, plans are made, dates are set, and invitations go out for a grand Indian wedding!
Is it really backwards?
I realize that this aspect of Indian culture is the least likely to rub off on countries like the US, but it has come to be one that I end up defending the most, especially when it is done well. I find it hard to swallow when American families who have children who are divorced, broken up, and with children living in multiple households still think that the arranged marriage system is a symptom of India being ‘backwards’.
As I mentioned, I really like the idea of the arranged system when it is done well. Accepting the role of the overall family in the choice of adding someone seems like a great idea, especially when elders are acting in wisdom. I know this is not always the case, but it seems to me that the more idyllic situation includes the blessing and wisdom of people who know a lot about marriage.
When I asked my wife’s parents if I could marry her, I was taken aback that my future father-in-law’s response was “We don’t know very much about your family.” My young American mind couldn’t understand why it made a difference what my family was like. Just judge me based on my own merits.
After approaching eight years of marriage, and with five years in India nearly completed, I can see a lot more wisdom in that statement than I used to. As a young father, I want to respect my children’s role in selecting a spouse, but I also expect them to respect their role as a smaller part of the larger family and trust them to choose someone who fits well for the long-term. (And I hope they are willing to listen to dear old dad give his opinion.)
For the Cross Cultural Manager:
If you are working with Indians, this is an area where you can really show your cultural sensitivity and intelligence. If an Indian team member tells you about her upcoming wedding and you find out it is arranged, the correct response is not, “Oh my god, how could you do that?!”.
Instead try something like, “What do you know about her/him?” or “What do your parents think?” Or, if you can stomach it, “You must be so excited!”
Arranged marriages are just one of the more obvious ways that India and the West are different, but it is also one of the richest areas we can learn from.
Image Credit: Mr Bichel on Flickr