The Politics of Arranged Marriage in 21st Century India

Arranged marriages today are still much more about binding families and much less about personal choice, fulfillment and companionship.

Professionally qualified match for a well-educated working girl.

This is what the newspaper advertisement read, eliciting suitable matches from across the Indian sub-continent and beyond. Siya’s parents had by the end of two years exhausted both tangible and virtual modes of groom search but sadly, to no avail. That is when she came across one of those typical matrimonial advices, but this time, from Madhya Pradesh Governor Anandiben Patel who said to young school girls, “You all are doing well in studies, but don’t leave [the] kitchen. If you know how to cook tasty dal [lentils], you’ll have good bonding with saas [mother-in-law]… If you don’t know how to cook well, your scolding will begin… Fights in the house will begin from there… that she doesn’t even know how to cook well.”

Also read: Tips for Girls on Cooking, Grooming From MP Governor Anandiben Patel’s ‘Finishing School’

Siya sat back and reminisced over her experiences of two years in the arranged marriage process.

“Your daughter is pretty, but career-wise, she seems ambitious,” a boy’s father had said. Siya’s father responded, “Your son is ambitious too and he is doing very well.” After a few seconds of tense silence, his father sheepishly admitted, “Sir, actually we are looking for a ‘homely’ and family-oriented girl”. Her father replied, “Alright then, all the best for your search.” The conversation did not astound Siya because she had become accustomed to such instances since her parents had begun the search for a suitable groom. Strangely but seemingly, familial bonds and professional aspirations are considered mutually exclusive. After all, a good wife is one who loves her family and family alone!

The inaugural proposal had set the bar very high for her. An expatriate, legal professional working at a multi-national investment company sought to strike the best financial deal with the girl who had a green card, was in a highly paid profession – preferably a doctor or lawyer –  with whom he could jointly file the income tax and comfortably reduce the aggregate tax liability. Siya’s conversation with him was more about the effervescent immigration politics in the US and the tactical maneuvers required to permanently immigrate to the land of opportunities. It was not surprising that Trump and his policies found more mention in their rendezvous than a Taurian man’s compatibility with an Aquarian woman. Providentially, the deal was not sealed!

The second was an educated and well-to-do businessman who dressed up shabbily for the first date to be doubly sure if Siya was not marrying him for his money. Although, he categorised girls as either ‘family-oriented’ or ‘fast’, surprisingly, he was unable to explain the intricacies to her. She also was not sure under which genus he had put her. Foodies as they both were, the discussion was more about the different cuisines that they relished and loved to gorge on. They spoke about the different places in the city that served their favorite dishes, fortunately, they had many in common. And finally, in an undertone he asked the quintessential question, “I hope you don’t eat beef?” She was quite shocked to learn that the ‘Indian anti-national’ test was relevant and applicable even to arranged marriages. Terrified, she asked him to drop her home as ‘fast’ as his Audi could move!

‘Twice bitten forever shy’ did not work with Siya’s parents. They were quick enough to come up with another suitor whom they believed was close to being the perfect match for their loving daughter. The only son of affectionate parents was alarmed by the rising number of divorce cases and instances of ‘malicious prosecution’ of the grooms’ families by ‘conniving girls’. He was a journalist with a news agency and dedicated to his work. Maybe the sympathy towards victims of malicious prosecution led him to suspect every girl he dated. However, the boy sans the ‘divorce scare’ seemed a sensible choice for Siya amidst financial deal crackers and moral policemen. Her conversations and dates with his parents and him went well, thankfully, they were closer to formally accepting each other when the stop clock screeched ‘times up’. He asked her, “You are confident I know, but do you have an aggressive side as well?” To this, Siya had no answer but she was sure, for him it would always be an ‘arraigned’ marriage!

Through these experiences, Siya gained an insight into the politics of arranged marriage in 21st century India. The common markers that most suitors cherish and count in a girl pertain to the physical, emotional and financial quotients. The physical requirements like fair skin, petite and slim stature have remained the same for generations together. However, the easy and increased access to reliable photo editing technology and enhancement applications has sowed the seeds of distrust among the groom community. As such, a girl is expected to duly comply with the groom’s incessant demand for her photographs to prove her ‘colour, length and breadth’.

Further, the emotional quotient has perpetuated the age old stereotype for a girl to be submissive, caring and nourishing as Governor Patel has emphasised. There is a heightened scrutiny of the girl in this respect because she should be the ‘best fit’ into the groom’s family. Arranged marriages today are still much more about binding families and much less about personal choice, fulfillment and companionship.

The financial aspect on the other hand is a newer addition which entails a girl’s professional ambitions and earning capacity. It is because a greater number of Indian women are pursuing professional degrees and subsequent employment. More importantly, due to a rise in the standard of living of an average Indian middle class couple that it has become essential for both spouses to earn. However, a word of caution doing the rounds within the groom community is that ambition combined with financial independence is a lethal combination; hence, it is essential to nip it in the bud. Or, better still, to select a bride who earns less than the groom. Gender pay gap is a prerequisite for an everlasting marriage!

Apart from these common physical, emotional and financial attributes that most grooms have chalked out for their ideal bride, their firm and unshaken belief is that the ultimate success or failure of the institution is the sole prerogative of the good wife. This belief justifies the extreme scrutiny of their potential bride. To conclude, the celebrated feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s observation holds true to describe the institution of ‘arranged marriage’ in India“[t]o ‘catch’ a husband is an art; to ‘hold’ him is a job – and one in which great competence is called for”. Probably, this is where Governor Anandiben Patel’s advice comes handy!

Prerna Dhoop is an assistant professor at the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.