Breaking Down the Concept of Arranged Marriages by Vibha Shetiya

13327613_10208448645447348_6913754683590458893_nOne of the first things my American friends and family ask me when they learn I used to be married to an Indian man is: was it an arranged marriage? I understand the intrigue, the bewilderment and even horror that the phrase “arranged marriage” can conjure up in unfamiliar Western minds. Images of forcing women to marry strangers encountered upon the street or child betrothals or women being dragged to the wedding site to be married off to mustachioed men are likely to flash before one’s eyes. While such incidents may have occurred from time to time, and in the past, as with child marriages, the long-established concept of “arranged marriage” is very different and not as frightening as may seem.

Traditionally speaking, proposals materialized through word-of-mouth – family and friends recommended a good alliance, or a parent would approach someone directly or indirectly to ask for a daughter or son’s hand in marriage. Even then, personal histories were well researched into, before both parties decided to “see” each other. Marriages in India continue to be alliances between families, and so it is important to check into family background – what are the parents’ and siblings’ occupations? How much does the prospective groom earn? After all, he may be the sole earning member of his family and may not be able to provide for his own family once he starts one. Is there a history of crime or mental illness? This investigation makes perfect sense in a society that is community and family-oriented, and wherein joint family situations are still the norm, especially in smaller towns and villages. It is thus imperative that everyone try and get along. “Arranged marriage” is certainly not synonymous with an “Oh-let’s-just-get-rid-of-our-daughter” arrangement.

Since this is a blog on religion too, I must add that women are no doubt accorded a secondary position in Hindu sacred texts. There are, however, contradictions, and people (especially those who wield power) tend to pick and choose to justify their actions, as is the case when encountering any religious text. Consider the following passages from the Manavadharmashastra or the Laws of Manu.[1]

If they desire an abundance of good fortune, fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers-in-law should revere their women and provide them with ornaments. Where women are revered, there the gods rejoice; but where they are not, no rite bears any fruit. Where female relatives grieve, that family soon comes to ruin; but where they do not grieve, it always prospers…[2]

Though he may be bereft of virtue, given to lust, and totally devoid of good qualities, a good woman should always worship her husband like a god. For women, there is no independent sacrifice, vow, or fast; a woman will be exalted in heaven by the mere fact that she has obediently served her husband. A good woman, desiring to go to the same world as her husband, should never do anything displeasing to the man who took her hand, whether he is dead or alive…[3]

Of course, the primary concern even in the first example is the well-being of the male in that he may prosper, but I digress.

Once the background research on a potential partner/s is complete and promising people short-listed, the two families in question decide on a meeting. Sometimes it involves just the prospective bride and groom and their respective parents. At other times, it may also include an aunt or uncle or grandparent/s. They exchange pleasantries over tea and snacks and the “boy” and “girl” may even be encouraged to pick up a conversation on their own perhaps in the balcony or a near-by room where they can have some amount of privacy. In modern times, they may even be permitted to see each other without chaperones especially if they live abroad, but even then, one may prefer taking a friend or cousin along.

Without experiencing the culture from within, it could thus be difficult to understand that such arrangements do not evoke fear and anxiety per se; the online dating scenario, on the other hand, is far more scary in that you never know who or what kind of person you may end up meeting.

That said, there are undoubtedly problems. The biggest one is that, do you, the marriage seeker, have a choice in the whole matter? The choice to say no, that is. Many families nowadays are supportive, but there is always pressure, especially on a woman, to say yes to a seemingly good match. She may not be dragged to the mandap or ritual setting but the constant reminder of having declined an “eligible bachelor,” or that you must think no end of yourself for having said no to several “proposals,” can be a heavy and sometimes confusing burden to bear, leading to much anxiety and self-doubt.

Another issue is that it is near-impossible to get to know each other within such a scenario. Dating is definitely out of question. A monumental decision, which by the way, happens to center around who you plan to spend the rest of your life with, needs to be made within a meeting or two.  This does not mean dating does not occur in modern-day India. In fact, it is on the rise in cities where online dating (and even online matrimonial ads) is also becoming popular. Dating, however, is not associated with arranged marriages, but with “love matches.”

And then of course there is the whole matter of deciding to go ahead with the wedding, but calling it off on second thought. If the man calls off the engagement, it’s because there was probably something wrong with the woman. If she calls it off, it’s because she’s difficult and too complicated to handle anyway – “Better late than never” becomes the whew-that-was-close mantra. Either way, in most cases, it is the woman who must bear the brunt in the form of a tarnished reputation. This ties in to my fourth point – there may be genuine reasons on both sides that lead to a broken engagement. But the burden lies with the woman and her family, which is when India’s strong societal and familial ties, which have certain advantages over individualistic societies, now prove to be detrimental because the underlying fear always is: what will people say?

I have, no doubt, simplified an age-old tradition – which has benefits as well as shortcomings, which has also led to happy and long marriages – for Western readers; there are many variables and subtleties at play. But it is evident that given its deep roots in the Indian psyche, the concept of arranged marriages is going to be around for a long time. I do, however, feel we must address certain issues and that modifications and adjustments are required on the part of society at large.

And, in case you were wondering, my marriage to that Indian gentleman was not an arranged one.

[1] The Dharmashastras are treatises that deal specifically with law. These comprise several compendia, but, as scholar Hilary Rodrigues says in Introducing Hinduism (56) the most well known of these are the Yajnavalkya Smriti and the Manavadharmashastra which have been enormously influential in shaping the values and behaviour of Hindus. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that the British perpetuated the idea that the Manavadharmashastra or Laws of Manu especially was normative in ancient times even though there is no concrete proof of this.

[2] Manu, The Law Codes of Manu, trans. Patrick Olivelle (Oxford University Press, 2004), 47.

[3] Manu, The Law Codes of Manu, 96. Of course, anyone engaged in serious scholarship on India knows of Manu’s injunction that: “As a child, [a woman] must remain under her father’s control; as a young woman, under her husband’s; and when her husband is dead, under her son’s. She must never seek to live independently” (Law Codes, 96).

Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico and also volunteers for the ACLU.


Categories: Family, Feminism and Religion, General, Marriage

Tags: , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for clarifying issues about traditions in India. European history is filled with arranged marriages, almost all of them among royal families. Some of them worked out. Others were disastrous. Avoiding an arranged marriage is also part of the reason why Juliet committed suicide.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Also the reason that many Indian and Chinese women committed suicide, and Europeans as well. In China they called them “marriage resisters.” The Seneca writer Barbara Mann refers to arranged marriages in the matricultural Iroquoian societies, but there it was not a hard rule, and divorce was easy, with women going on to form other partnerships. But in patriarchal societies there is a severe assymetry by sex of what this meant/means for females as compared to males, as Vibha alludes to. Men can take other wives or informal partners without stigma, while lifelong sexual fidelity to the husband is severely enforced, and typically the woman can’t get out of the marriage because of family pressure, for both social (prestige) and economic reasons. For her, the marriage is destiny, and shapes all her life possibilities, or slams the door on them. One reason for the cruelty of mothers-in-law in staunchly patrilineal societies, and the pattern of blaming the wife no matter what. Too often the considerations are the husband’s wealth and standing, rather than whether he will be a kind and loving person. And so you have women committing suicide, often by jumping into wells. A whole genre of stories about this in both China and India. In Europe, patrician women were often forced to marry into enemy familiies as diplomatic pawns and hostages.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. On the other hand, the ancient svayamvara marriages were the rule at one time in India. The woman chose her own mate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My apologies for the late response, Max. I’m glad you brought up the svayamvara marriage – remember, this was only with royalty. Also, the father would decide the parameters of the svayamvara, and the girl would have to choose one of those who competed for her!


  4. I was away when you posted this,Vibha.

    Arranged marriage was the norm in Greece at least through the 1960s–if not longer. I personally know two women in their mid-sixties who describe the marital act as rape every time it occurred, because they had never consented to the marriage or wanted to marry the man in question. Now arranged marriages still exist in remote villages, but even there are not the norm, and they may end in divorce, something that never happened in the past. This shows how quickly customs can change.

    In the middle and upper middle classes in contemporary India, arranged marriages with consent may work, but in the lower classes consent is probably less likely. This is not even to mention the age of engagement or marriage and the likely age difference between bride and groom.


    • Carol, I definitely agree with your comments. My post was only one side of the “arranged marriage” scenario. It was mostly an attempt to illustrate the process of the arrangement to a Western audience. I briefly touched on the problems that especially women faced even within families that were mostly supportive. Of course there are many instances in which the woman involved has absolutely no say. And most importantly, not all marriages with consent work. That said, the concept is embedded within the larger patriarchal Indian culture, with problems that would persist even if, hypothetically speaking, arranged marriages were replaced by “love matches” overnight.

      p.s. India still does not consider marital rape a crime.


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