The embedded patriarchy in arranged marriages
Arranged or otherwise, marriage in modern India continues to be bound by rigid social-economic-caste structures
One critic calls it “this year’s scariest horror show about arranged marriages”. And on social media, there is a raging storm over sexism, casteism, colourism and other isms.
As Netflix’s eight-episode reality show, Indian Matchmaking (IM) kicks off, the conversation about the business of arranged marriages has gathered pace.
IM doesn’t claim a reformist cloak. Executive producer Smriti Mundhra calls it an “unscripted, fun, crazy, light look on the surface of the Indian marriage industrial complex.” It’s an industry that places a premium on women who are fair, tall, “slim-trim”, and, above all, “flexible”. Families must be “respectable”. After all, alliances are not between individuals, but families. One eager mum tells her son she’s looking for “someone to take care of you”. The son, no surprise, is looking for someone like mummy.
And yet, IM underplays the seedier underbelly of the marriage market. Dowry, for instance, is excised from the show. And non-conforming clients include a single mom as well as a Catholic man who says he’s open to meeting women from other religions. In one case, the match-maker introduces a woman who is seven years older than her prospective groom.
Reality is far grimmer. Arranged or otherwise, marriage in modern India continues to be bound by rigid social-economic-caste structures. The National Family Health Survey, 2015-16 found less than 13% of respondents had inter-caste marriages (just 2.6% for inter-religious). When young people exercise agency and rebel against family, caste and religion, the result can be a so-called honour killing — 251 in 2015. As caste-based societies modernise, there is greater wealth dispersion and this leads to dowries going up, finds another 2003 study. Ergo, the pull-no-stops big fat Indian wedding.
But while marriage remains an inevitable goal in most societies and certainly in our own, a new generation of Indian women is changing the rules.
An online survey of 10,005 respondents across 184 cities and towns by YouGuv-Mint-CPR found that a majority of women (68%) want to marry, but nearly two of three want love marriages. Some 61% said the ideal marriage age is between 26 and 30 and only nine per cent wanted three or more children. The study ties in with India’s largest survey of teenage girls. In 2018, 74,000 teenage girls across 600 districts were asked about their aspirations: 70% wished to pursue higher studies and 73% wanted to marry after 21, after they got jobs, found Naandi Foundation which conducted the survey.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence then that IM’s strongest characters are women: The 34-year-old lawyer from Houston unafraid of voicing her strong opinions, the self-made Delhi-based entrepreneur, and the sunny Guyanese wedding planner. IM is regressive, but not more than the patriarchy that governs the rules of marriage. “Spending time with myself is what I enjoy the most,” realises the Delhi entrepreneur. There is a happily ever after, even if it’s not the way society, or match-makers, might imagine.
Namita Bhandare writes on gender
The views expressed are personal