Marriages in India: The Politics of Power

April 2, 2017
Society
Linked to the social ritual of marriage in India is also the sense of fulfillment of “familial obligation” towards one’s children in “getting them married” at the right time. It would not be wrong to see marriages in this light as no less than a “necessary” social security investment at the “right time” for perpetuation of one’s legacy.

Wedding celebrations in India are a huge deal in terms of the grandeur of the preparations and investments that go behind making it a “success”. Bollywood and popular TV serials market marriages/weddings to make the deal appear even bigger - spurring an insane competition among people to use the occasion as an opportunity to advertise the social standards that they would want to exhibit to one and all.

Taking a cue from the popular idea of Indian marriages explored in the preceding paragraph, let's have a look at the cultural need for such grand marriages and the factors which work behind marriages that are so lavishly solemnized in India.

Marriages as social contracts

indian marriage as a social contract
Photo courtesy of Peragro

In India, the community has always been a more important part of one’s life than one’s own independent, individual existence. By the phrase “independent, individual existence” we are hinting at the western notion of individual agency in navigating through society while always asserting one’s individual position as priority stake in decision making. In India, it is quite the opposite.

India displays a curious consciousness of social legacy where communities identify themselves as against  “others” in the same society along the lines of caste, religion, region, language, sect, etc. Though these identities are not water-tight compartments and have displayed varying amounts of flexibility over time, Indians still find themselves most often as “informally” more loyal to these identities as compared to their constitutional identity as “Indians”. 

Naturally, it follows that Indians pick out their life partners with active help from their communities to try and keep within the broad identity norms which bind these communities together. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs thus prefer to find partners in their own communities, keeping sometimes greater emphasis on caste requirements or sometimes being flexible with  caste as long as they marry within their religious community.

This is not to say that inter- community marriages are not a reality in India. Under the Special Marriage Act, post independence, inter community marriages were accorded legal protection and recognized as legitimate by the State. However, these inter community marriages, negligibly few in number, are rare instances of individual agency operating where the bride and groom take the primary step in decision making and not their families and extended families. 

For the scope of this discussion, we are going to look at “arranged marriages” in particular. This is because gender relation trends in society play out more actively in these marriages in comparison to the few “love marriages” which are taken to  be more of a new age thing.

Matchmaking in India: arranged marriages

In India, marriages arranged by families within their respective communities take into account a number of factors. The qualification and pay package of the groom, the complexion of the bride, her “reputation” in terms of maintaining her chastity, the bride’s efficiency in skills required for the position of a good homemaker, etc are a few points considered in most cases for the purpose of matchmaking. 

Clearly, the arrangements themselves emerge out of a stereotypical social expectation of gender roles as they are popularly understood to play out in a conventional marriage. Following the stereotypes that are thus intrinsic to the institution of “arranged” marriages, a woman quitting her job to commit to her marriage as a full-time occupation(unpaid of course) is regarded as only a natural thing to do, if not an implied pre-condition for the marriage itself. 

Educated women often find themselves having to follow the conduct code laid down by their in-laws after marriage and in doing so, they end up voluntarily giving up a significant portion of their right to self development and growth and most importantly their right to financial independence. This in turn, essentially amounts to the in-laws being given the full opportunity to determine her choices as suited to their needs rather than her own.

Interestingly, for men, the situation after marriage seldom changes. He not only stays with his own family but also is treated ceremoniously by the girl’s family as an asset, a security investment for their daughter’s future and thus someone to be kept happy and content with attention, gifts and sometimes money (dowry).

The economic reading of marriages in India

The economics of marriage in India
The economics of marriage of India

Weddings in India are more of a social statement as we have already seen from the introductory discussion on the same. Naturally, it follows that the wedding arrangements are taken to be so important as to nearly symbolize the honour of the families concerned in establishing the importance they give to relationships and social courtesy in general. 

There are cases where parents of girl children are known to have started saving up for the event right from the time of the birth of their girl. It is looked upon as the “responsibility” of parents of the girl child , to be more specific, a more “popular” responsibility of parents of the girl child even at the cost of cutting down funds or savings for her education which many still regard as an “useless” investment for a girl’s future.

The reader may be wondering at this point why “saving up” for the event seems to be the headache of only the woman’s family? There are a few  reasons behind this trend.

  1. Marriage as security

Marriages are looked upon in India as a “security” measure for the woman’s future. Parents invest in the event and save up as much as they can to ensure that their child gets most of the comfort and best treatment from her in-laws in return for the “token” premium that her parents pay for her at the time of her marriage. 

This amount includes dowry alongside the expenditure of the event itself. To add to this point, Hindu social law or customary law recognizes “streedhan” or certain permissible assets which the woman can always claim as her own throughout her life. This comprises the gifts and jewellery she receives from her parents and her relatives while leaving for her husband’s home.  Parents of the girl child naturally invest heavily in securing to her these assets before she leaves for her husband’s home.

  1. Marriage as social proof

Marriages in India have this element of being a platform to assert one’s social standing. This becomes an opportunity to garner some recognition for possession of assets, wealth and to earn respect for the arrangements one makes to feed those who are invited( generally relatives, neighbours, etc). 

There is also social pressure on the side of the woman’s family who hosts the wedding to match up to the expectations of the man’s family. His living standards determine the minimum standards to be met in organizing the event if not additional demands. One can look at it as the minimum premium the girl’s family pays for a certain standard of life that they seek to insure for their daughter through the marriage.

  1. Marriage as a financial burden (for the woman's family)

Studies have shown that receptions by the groom’s family are not dictated by the expectations of the woman’s family. It is because by the time the reception happens, the woman is already deemed to be a part of the man’s family. 

You don’t try to impress your own family members with so much effort do you? The same logic applies here. The woman’s family spends double the amount during the wedding. This helps clarify why families of girl children have so much saving up to do for the future.

  1. Marriage as a negotiation (if not ransom)

In arranged marriages where the family plays a critical role in the matchmaking, the terms and conditions of the families become more important. This is in terms of the “give and take” rather than the marriage itself of the two people tying the knot.  

Dowry has been known to be a primary cause behind the torture of women in their marital homes and also one of the social conduits through which the man’s family can expect to receive more wealth and assets whenever one wishes or demands.

Gender relations within the marriage

marital relations in India and domestic abuse
Marital relations after the wedding

The Indian Penal Code and the Laws specifically designed to address the cases of violence against women, acknowledge the vulnerabilities of women within the institution of marriage suggesting the possible prevalence of a  skewed and imbalanced relationship between the husband and the wife . 

“Torture by Husband and his Relatives” is one of the categories of the IPC (Indian Penal Code) with the least number of conviction rate records as per the National Crime Records Bureau Crime Report of 2015. However, interestingly, the custom of dowry had become such a nuisance that it has necessitated the formulation of a separate law to address the evil. 

There seems to be a definite disconnect between the reportage of the plight of married women in their husband’s homes and the well known trend in domestic violence which women have been known to suffer over generations.This brings us to the next important point : The institution of marriage as one that is essentially inclined towards legitimizing violence against women fuelled by gender based discrimination.

Personal laws of the different religious communities further serve to  keep women at an arm’s length from the “equal” laws of the land that they have been guaranteed by the Constitution, specially after they have been married off to another.

Social indoctrination of women : legitimizing gender discrimination

Marriage, discrimination and domestic violence against women in India
Marriage, discrimination and domestic violence against women in India, photo by Ananabanana

In India, women are brought up with the social conditioning that their ultimate home is that of their husband’s and that marriage is a necessity rather than a choice. Popular media, family, community keep reinforcing this idea over time.  Education is looked upon for these women as “a tool” to make one more “marriageably marketable”.

She is encouraged to look upon herself as a liability/trophy with a limited , marked out social trajectory that she is expected to obediently conform to. Consent for decisions in cases of marriages are only acceptable so long as she does not look at the alternative of spinsterhood as a viable option. 

Women have been known to deal with the emotional manipulation of their families to give in to the idea of marriage being a need that she will bend to one day in the future like everyone else as against her own wishes of maybe a different kind of life where marriage does not feature as mandatory for her happiness.

It is to be noted that men face no such social pressure to marry except for the consideration of passing on wealth and property to a legitimate heir.  Men have more scope of choosing to not conform to social expectations and are not hounded if they choose the path of the non-conformist. 

It is also to be noted that a man does not have heavily imposed household obligations if he consents to marriage so he can live the life of a single man almost as typically even while he is married. His emotional investment towards his family is not a factor that he is judged on the basis of by society at every given opportunity.

Skewed gender relations in Indian society can be further noted in the overt emphasis that is put on a woman’s “chastity” for labeling her as “marriageable”. Her sexuality is sought to be regulated through marriage for the purpose of pro-creation thus making her sexuality limited to the utility of her womb for furthering of one’s bloodline. 

Most women are taught since childhood to be “chaste” and preserve her “virginity” for her future husband as that would make her top the merit list of being a “good wife” or a woman who “deserves” to be married. This indoctrination about chastity leads women to having an uninformed notion and perception of the sexual act- something like it is bad when one is not married but becomes mandatory often even without the woman’s consent( in case of marital rape) after marriage. 

On the other hand, men suffer from no such restrictions in sexual conduct except precautions that they are coached to take to not impregnate anyone outside marriage. This is to ensure that the man’s property does not pass on to illegitimate hands. Somehow “chastity” for men is not even taken to be a legitimate parameter to determine whether or not he “deserves” to be married.

Popular perspectives, community sanctions and code of conduct coupled with social indoctrination has culturally disabled Indian women to opt for self assertion within the institution of marriage. The vulnerabilities listed in the IPC for married women give us an idea of the extreme end of the trends in thought and approach governing marriages in India. 

The most important need of the hour is to propose an uniform marriage law which accords uniform protection to both parties in the agreement with a special emphasis on the right of the woman to self determination within the bounds of marriage. Customary law should only be allowed so far as they conform to the clauses of the uniform marriage law. To add to this proposition, there should also be a regulation on the amount of expenditure that is incurred for a wedding given that the nation is yet to achieve a 100% mark in bringing the entire population above the poverty line.

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AUTHOR

Sohini Jana

I am an independent scholar, seeking to specialize in peace building and conflict resolution with special reference to the issue of global terrorism.

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