Arranged Marriage in Tamil Nadu

Force, inequality and oppression are what I think of when I hear arranged marriage. I picture young girls pressured to marry older men – having their voice and power ripped away from them as they are reduced to a dowry. But this westernized impression was turned upside-down once I actually met people who have the first-hand experience with an arranged marriage.

The first explanation came from a 40-something-year-old Tamil man who grew up in Kuilapalayam and now owns not only a successful production company but an arts education foundation the promotes positive social change for children through multimedia. After casually mentioning his arranged marriage over small talk at lunch he explained that this marriage was a relief for him. He trusted his parents’ judgement and did not want to worry about finding a wife out of love. Meanwhile his wife, who speaks little English, sat and smiled at me while more questions burned in my head. But before I worked up the courage to speak he continued. He is a modern man and understands how quickly India is changing and therefore his daughters (ages 13 and 19) have the option to decide if they want a love or arranged marriage. He just wants them to be happy. But what if they don’t want either?

A week later, his 19-year-old daughter continued this inside perspective.  Our conversation began over lunch because her mother wanted to know about my plans for marriage. After a few jokes about becoming a dog lady or marrying for EU citizenship (which unfortunately got lost in translation) I reluctantly explained that I do not see myself getting married anytime soon or even at all. This answer was met with their understanding and enthusiasm as the 19-year-old daughter proudly explained that she just recently decided to have an arranged marriage by the time she would be 22 – my age.

She echoed her father’s explanation as she didn’t want to worry about finding a husband out of love and trusted her parents’ decision. She also wouldn’t be marrying somebody she didn’t know, or even didn’t like, because in an arranged marriage there is a five-month process where should would get to know the suitors and ultimately will the final decision out of the men her parents would select for her. If after they were married they decided to get divorced (although she reiterated many times that it is rare) she would have the financial and emotional support of her family. If she were to have a love marriage divorce would be entirely her fault and neither person would have familial support. She added that her family has no sons and must think about the dowry her family will have to pay while emphasizing that this marriage is for the benefit of her entire village and not just for her personal future.

She continued with a story about her “selfish” friends that had just married unexpectedly for love out of a passionate affair. In Tamil culture, a marriage should take both families and the entire community’s benefit into consideration as it is not about what just the couple wants. This is an important part of her culture that she sees fading with modernization and this 19-year-old girl does not want to see it completely disappear. She wants to be a strong, independent and intelligent woman and plans on studying to become a nurse and having a boyfriend or love marriage would only become a distraction.

So my expectations were wrong. Still it confuses me, as there were so many more questions I had but again was too shy to speak candidly about sex, love, and marriage. I know the roots of arranged marriage are patriarchal and there are situations in India and other parts of the world where young women are pressured into horrible marriages but part of me shared excitement with this girl as she was so excited for her future and had strong career goals as well as an arranged marriage.

In western culture marriage is entirely about love but still carries pressure. Pressure to find a soulmate and have a perfect fairytale wedding – while almost half of the marriages we are surrounded by ironically end in divorce.

I have no idea what is better and hate that I feel like I need to come to that type of conclusion at the end of this journal entry. An important part of traveling is to learn about cultural differences through non-judgmental observations and understand that my own upbringing in the western world completely frames my own perceptions. And today I had this demonstrated perfectly in front of me and is what I will remember about this trip.

So I may not understand why this 19-year-old girl wants an arranged marriage but I know she also does not understand why I do not. But what I do know is that as promised if I do get married I will invite my new 19-year-old friend to the celebration – as I already have an invitation to hers in 2019.

-Sarah Harper-Johnston

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