The Traditions of Arranged Marriages in South Asian Countries

In Westernized societies, physical attraction usually plays a large part in who we initially decide to date and will eventually marry. These chosen marriages are known internationally as ‘Love Marriages’. Arranged marriages – which are in part based on the assumption that young people will just seek pleasure instead of looking at the big picture – are much more analytical. In a typical arranged marriage, the parents do not allow the future newly-weds to have any say in their choice of spouse.

This form of arranged marriage is rare, but in some parts of the world, such as the Middle East, and parts of Africa and Asia, it does exist. If he or she refuses to marry their chosen person, they will be punished, or sometimes, even killed. In most cases, their objection is simply ignored, and the marriage takes place anyway. Modern women from around the globe struggle everyday with the fight for their freedom. Their traditional-style families will stand in their way, but for a woman who is determined to escape and reach for her own freedom, it is not completely impossible.

Arranged marriages are traditional in South Asian societies and continue to account for an overwhelming majority of marriages in the Indian subcontinent. Arranged marriages are believed to have initially risen in popularity in the Indian subcontinent when the historical Vedic religion gradually turned into classical Hinduism, substantially displacing other religions that were once more prominent (University of Florida). In the urban culture of modern India, the differentiation between arranged and love marriages is increasingly seen as a false dichotomy, which is when there are only two options available. With the emergence of modern thinking such as self-arranged marriages and free-choice on the part of the prospective spouses, arranged marriages are becoming less common, but still highly prevalent.

Marriages are usually arranged between individuals belonging to the same religion. Same-religion marriages are the norm in arranged marriages among higher caste people. Usually, first preference is given to the same caste. The ancestry of the individual and the family’s culture also play an important part. Most likely, prospective spouses are looked for from families belonging to the same region and having the same language and basic traditional values.

Also, the profession, financial position and the social status of the woman is also taken into account. Poorer families sometimes believe that since they are not wealthy, their daughter has a lower chance of being attractive to a man, therefore unable to be married. If her family is unable to pay for her dowry, money paid to the male’s family on the wedding, the woman can be punished or even killed using a practice known as honor killings. If the prospective partners express a desire to meet or if the families are enthusiastic about a potential match, it is customary for the prospective groom’s family to visit the prospective bride’s family.

In this event, it is traditional for the boy’s family to arrive (with the boy) and be seated with the entire girl’s family except the girl herself, who then makes a dramatic entrance dressed in fine clothes, often bringing tea and refreshments. This practice is sometimes called “seeing the girl” and has been attacked by some Indian and Pakistani feminists as a classic instance of gender-bias and the objectification of women (The Daily Cougar).

Reasons that arranged marriages happen vary from religious to social. The woman’s family may become extremely concerned that their social status will be affected if the daughter is not married off to a respectable, wealthy man. Parents use forced or arranged marriage to “place” their daughters because they are still considered to be subject to parental authority. Accordingly, parents feel they have to protect them and act in their best interests by having them married, preferably at a young age. In doing so, they seek to ensure a solid future for their daughters by marrying them to men whom they consider to be best for them as knowledge of the suitor’s family or relatives gives them the feeling that their daughter will be protected. In fact, they entrust their daughter to a husband and in-laws with whom they have a ties of honor, which is seen as a guarantee of security and proper treatment for the young wife.

According to a 2012 study by Statistic Brain, the global divorce rate for arranged marriages was 6 percent -a significantly low number. Compared to the 55 percent of marriages in the world that are arranged, this low statistic shows the success rate of arranged marriages (International Center for Research on Women). For many individuals, arranged marriages can be extremely destructive. While divorce is an accepted and relatively easy process in Western countries, it has remained stigmatized in countries and religions that encourage arranged marriages. Even discussing marital problems is limited.

In cases where arranged marriages become abusive, deeply dysfunctional or break down entirely due to incompatibility, the repercussions are severe. Attorney and mediator Geetha Ravindra said, “Some situations feel like bondage – the wife has no opportunity to continue her education or to work; she is often not allowed contact with her family back in India. She is precluded from having friends in the community. She has no income, no transportation, and is blackmailed by being told that if she leaves, she will be bringing a black mark on her family” (The Daily Cougar).

Marriages that are pre-arranged by the parents are historically looked upon as oppression of women and is a way of controlling women’s sexuality. Some parents see forced marriage as a way of protecting their daughters against the risk of romantic relationships, and most importantly against sexual relations outside marriage. Above all, they are seeking to avoid pregnancies considered to be illegitimate that could result from this type of relationship. As far as many families are concerned, their reputation depends on the proper sexual behavior of their members, especially the daughters.

The patriarchal standards that are still valued in these families are reproduced in the society in which they settle. One of those standards is the duty to preserve virginity, which arises out of the desire to control women’s bodies in order to preserve family honor, and thus patriarchal power. The father of the daughters would place an ad in matrimonial columns in newspapers and other media outlets, which may be seen as immoral or discriminatory towards women. This is more uncommon in Western culture, yet extremely popular in countries like India and South Asia.

More likely, it is that the foundation on which these societies and cultures are constructed rely on women being entirely submissive to the needs of men. By whichever means women are diminished – being denied education, being forced to cover up from head to toe, or by being pushed at 12 or 13 into marriages to men three times their age — they are forced to be the weaker sex by nature.

While not wanting to admit it, there is a winner and a loser in every situation. While arranged marriages are set up so the parents have full control, they do it to make sure that the man their daughter is marrying is the best option by them. Generally, women are the ones who “lose”. Women are seen as being objectified by their parents and by the men who want to marry them. In many cases, it is the mothers who have the biggest influences on pressuring their daughters to marry off. Jasvinder Sanghera, who ran away at 15 to avoid a forced marriage and later founded Karma Nirvana, a charity that helps women who are trying to escape such fates, says that in her case, her mother and other women in her family were the main instigators in trying to force her to marry (University of Florida). Such women-on-women oppression is far from rare.

Women often perpetuate other deeply exploitative practices. In Africa, for instance, female circumcision is devastatingly common, especially in countries like Egypt and Sudan. Supposedly, it is intended to “purify” a girl for her future husband. In this practice, the girls – who can be a young as a few months old – can die through hemorrhaging or by contracting an infection (The Next Galaxy). Despite having suffered the horrific procedure themselves, it is the women of the communities who force their daughters through this procedure to fit in line with cultural expectations.

Women can sometimes be the most harmful abusers, but this is only due to patriarchal conditioning that her parents and husband are responsible for. Seeing their mothers so loyal to the father is supposed to be encouraging to their daughters so they replicate this behavior. Even in cases of woman-to-woman abuse, the men are still the main source of the manipulation that exist behind the thought processes and behavior.

For men, arranged marriages can be stressful as well. Modern men who do not follow through with their parent’s wishes to marry pre-arranged are risking disownment or being exiled by their religious caste. These families rely on their sons to marry a specific woman of their choosing to have desirable grandchildren and an honorable social status. A lot of men may escape for mental dilemmas, self-esteem issues or internal family conflict. On the flip side, many men take advantage of having an arranged marriage as to not put any effort into a relationship. Also, men who were arranged into a marriage are more likely to become abusive towards their partner, whether it be mental or physical. From the start of the marriage, these men have a sense of ownership and entitlement towards their wife and feel they are in control.

Sexual assault is also a very large epidemic in arranged marriages. In the case of Lakhvir Singh, 28, she was forced to have sex with her husband and do nearly round-the-clock household labor, police say. She was routinely referred to as ‘bitch’ by her husband, slapped, and choked. Her life was threatened daily. Singh was quoted as saying “I don’t want this to happen to any other girl. My voice can finally be heard” (The Washington Post). Her marriage was an arranged marriage, put together by her parents and Singh’s brother. Her brother admitted after the abuse was discovered that he would have never forced her into a marriage with a man who was knowingly abusive.

This is the exact problem with arranged marriages, is that those involved are not truly aware of the circumstances they will be placed into. These men make it incredibly difficult for these women to leave the marriages without legal action, due to the fact that divorce is so dishonorable. Men will always get the upper hand in patriarchal-based relationships and it is very common in arranged marriages for men to feel a dangerous sense of entitlement towards their wife.

Escaping potentially dangerous arranged marriages for women can be very difficult. Without legal help, which is mostly unavailable to the women in accepting countries such as India and South Asia, these women can feel trapped in their relationship. Girls as young as 12 can begin to be watched by men who are much older than them to be evaluated as future wives. Escaping from situations like these can be extremely stressful for the woman, but also for her family. Usually, the family is required to pay a dowry on their young bride, enough for the man to fall in love with her. If this dowry is not paid, the wife may be killed, in a tradition called ‘honor killings’ (International Center for Research on Women).

These honor killings usually go uninvestigated, due to the husband having full control of the relationship. If the young wife does find a way to escape and leave her husband, the family is held responsible. They must finish paying her dowry, while attempting to locate the runaway wife to bring her back. These women are determined to get as far away as possible from their abusive or hostile husband, and many are willing to risk never getting to communicate with their families again just to escape safely. When marriages are arranged for citizens of the United States, the girls are usually transported back to their home country to settle there.

With this situation, young girls who suspect they are being brought to be married off have been told to place metal spoons or objects into their undergarments so they would not pass through the metal detector in the airport. This will delay them from getting on the flight, and during questioning with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), they can share that they suspect they are being brought for unsafe reasons. Foundations such as Karma Nirvana are dedicated to stop the scandal of forced marriage and honor-based violence. Karma Nirvana and other important organizations believe that cultural acceptance does not mean accepting the unacceptable abuse and making sure that girls are able to acknowledge the wrong-doing of their families and husbands (University of Florida).

The solution to forced marriages and consequences such as honor killings is quite simple. The extension of modern thinking and Westernization will help to decrease both. Educating those who participate in either activities will be the most effective. Speaking to victims and those who are at risk of being abused will help provide insight to those who are dedicated to prevention. Girls understand the obstacles that bar them from opportunities and have clear ideas about what needs to change in their lives in order to succeed. It is also important to support parents who support their daughters’ decision to continue their studies and enjoy their childhood – delaying the choice to become a wife and mother. These parents who are bold enough to go against what tradition dictates can be stigmatized by and ostracized from their community.

Finally, any effort aimed at ending forced arranged marriage must address how to strengthen girls’ education programs to ensure that girls stay in school and learn enough for parents to consider it worthwhile postponing their marriage. Education is the single most important factor associated with girls marrying before the age of 18. Even one more year of school than the national average can increase a woman’s earning potential by 10 percent to 20 percent (International Center for Research on Women). Educated women are more likely to be independent, financially stable and mature enough to make the correct decision for themselves.

Women around the world have a right to experience life – to make friends, become educated, pursue their aspirations and live a healthy life free from violence. The practice of arranged marriages and honor killings rob women of these opportunities. It does not need to be this way – in many Western countries, the desire to end these practices exist and local organizations are doing substantial work to help those in need. What is lacking is sustained and coordinated support from governments, the international community and recognition from the general public.

Arranged marriage continues to be a reality for many of the world’s women because of a variety of factors including poverty, lack of education and job opportunities. Also, the force of custom and tradition are a main issue due to lack of independence from the family. For these reasons, attempts aimed at eradicating these detrimental practices should target countries with high rates of arranged marriage and assist them in breaking down individual religious standards within these countries.

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