Monday, 1 September 2008

to arrange or not to arrange

i thought i'd focus on something other than politics today. quite some time ago, i mentioned that i might do a post about arranged marriages, and now is a good a time as any.

after i first got married, we went to live in palmerston north. we moved into our rental property, and were duly invited to tea by the neighbours who on the face of it looked like lovely people. the husband took us into the lounge and started the small talk, while the wife went straight to the kitchen to make the tea. she brought it in, started to pour, then turned to us and asked "so, did you two have an arranged marriage?"

it's the first time in my life i remember being so angry that i was rendered speechless. politeness is bred into us at a very early age, and it takes a person with much more courage than i to act against those years of training. so i didn't throw my cup of tea at her and storm out. i waited until the silence became really uncomfortable, then said coldly "it depends on what you mean by an arranged marriage".

arranged marriages somehow hold a deep fascination for... (um, what's the polite way to say whiteys? we're apparently not allowed to use "european nz'ers" or "pakeha", based on the hysteria generated at the last couple of censuses)... whiteys. the predominant view of arranged marriages is young people - but mostly girls - being forced into marriage with some horrible person, and having to live a live of misery and subservience because they have no other choice. not like us enlightened westerners, not at all, who are free to choose their own partners and who only marry after they have fallen in love.

of course, if that all worked out so well, there wouldn't be such a high divorce rate, would there? and if we somehow could manage to count the number of de facto relationships that broke up as well, the rate would be pretty damn high. there is also the fact that domestic violence is still such a big problem here. one could conclude that falling in love and getting married (or entering a de facto relationship) is not a particularly successful way to have a long-lasting relationship.

so, what do i mean by an arranged marriage? the obvious factor is that someone other than yourself is arranging the marriage for you. that someone would generally be your parents, although extended family do tend to help out. they would look around for a suitable young person for you, and once they find someone of appropriate age, the investigations start.

first they will investigate the character of the young person. what is their personality like? have they ever been involved in any scandals or unsavoury behaviour? heavy consumption of alcohol is bad (both sexes); smoking not very good either (but possibly forgivable in a male); previous girfriends/boyfriends definitely not good; frequenting brothels and houses of ill-repute very, very bad; dressing provocatively (female) not good. and so on, i'll leave the rest to your imagination. positive character traits are looked for as well: patience, friendliness, well-educated (both sexes), high income earner (male), good at domestic chores (female). you get the picture. oh, and looks do come into it as well. often caste or class will be a factor, as will geographical location (someone from the same area of the country as yourself is preferred).

the investigation then extends to the rest of the family. have the siblings been involved in any scandals? what is the family history and genealogy, are they known to be respectable people?

once the investigations are over, the negotiations start. expressions of interest are sent out through a third party; mutual visits occur. where there is a dowry (in south asia, the girl's family will pay the boy's family; in the middle east, the young man will pay his bride; not sure how it works in other parts of the world), the price needs to be set. a wedding date must be finalised.

as you can see, it's not an easy process. but the theory behind it all is that the parents love their children and want the best possible partner for them. also, because the parents are older and not likely to be "blinded" by that powerful emotion called love (or lust, if you will), they are able to make a much more sensible decision. ensuring common factors around social class, education and geographic location reduces the likelihood of cultural clashes and other sources of friction.

do the young people get a say? the answer is increasingly "yes". didn't use to be the case, but most countries where arranged marriages occur (asia, middle east, africa) tend to be moving with the times. in the olden days you got married first, and since men and women tended to be segregated, you met your spouse later that evening or maybe even the next day.

that doesn't happen much these days. the invention of the photograph meant that you could at least see a (professionally produced to provide the best angle) picture of your intended spouse. nowadays, it's quite common for the couple to at least meet once in the company of their family. technology is a wonderful thing, and many young people will converse by email and phone quite a bit before they get married. they tend to discuss likes and dislikes, expectations from the marriage, number of future kids etc.

and they do get to say no, in most cases. of course, when a young person knows how much effort and stress has gone into the investigations and the preparatory stages, they wouldn't say no unless they had a damn good reason ("but i don't love him/her" doesn't count!). but it is quite common for a young person to reject 2 or 3 potential "candidates" prior to committing.

the next question is how such marriages can possibly work. how do you become intimate with a person you don't even know, who you may have met for the first time on your wedding night? well, darned if i know, i never had to do that and it seems to be a quite frightening prospect. but millions and millions of couples have been doing this around the world and for centuries. i guess it's all in the upbringing and expectations.

a person entering an arranged marriage expects the marriage to last for the rest of their natural life. the stigma that used to be attached to divorce (so high that often not just siblings but cousins of the divorced couple would find it almost impossible to find a partner - they'd get culled in the "investigation" stage) meant that the couple went in to the relationship knowing they would never be leaving it. so they are mentally prepared for the fact that they have to make the best of the relationship.

they don't have the delusion that they are going to find their perfect soulmate, mr or mrs right as it were, who will complete them and be everything that they've been looking for all their life. rather, they know the person they're marrying will have many imperfections, and that adjustments and compromises will have to be made. also, they know that they want to live a happy life, so both of them do try to find a way to make each other happy.

having said all that, i'm not going to pretend that arranged marriages are the complete answer to relationships. i'm sure there are plenty of cases where couples make each other miserable and are trapped in situations that they can't escape. divorce rates in eastern countries are much lower than in the west. but that may be due to the social stigma attached to divorce, and the fact that many women are not financially independent enough to leave. and of course there are also issues around domestic violence.

i think it's impossible to determine whether one way is better than the other. i do know that even in these enlightened times, young people are choosing to have arranged marriages. that includes young people who have been born and brought up in the west. i think the main reason for this is that these young people are not willing to negotiate the emotional roller coaster that the "falling in love" method entails - the awkwardness, the insecurity, the relationship breakups. one relationship breakup is traumatic enough, i'm amazed at how some people may have gone through 10 or more by the time they hit 30. how on earth do they cope, and stay sane?

human relationships will always be a complex area. all i can conclude (as i'm sure better minds than mine have done before me) is that there are no rules that work. there is no perfect answer that will make everything turn out well. but i do think that there needs to be a lot less looking down at arranged marriages and those who choose to partake in them. let's not assume they are ignorant or uncivilised. and they do not, in themselves, lead to oppression for women. rather, it's the cultures and values surrounding the choice of spouse and the (in)ability to leave the marriage that can lead to oppression. take those away, and i'd say arranged marriages are just as effective as unarranged ones.


Hugh said...

Personally, seeing how badly my parents have screwed up their own relationships, the idea of them having any input into my own scares the bejeezus out of me.

muerk said...

We have family friends who are Sikh. Jasvindar's first marriage was one of love. He married a Muslim woman from Indonesia, they had a couple of girls and were wonderfully happy. Sadly though she died of cancer.

Jasvindar married again, this time the marriage was arranged (just how you described) with a Sikh woman from India. It's another happy marriage.

I'm a "whitey" :) And I think that a properly arranged marriage is a great thing. Love grows over time and studies show that couples with arranged marriages are often far happier 20 years down the track than those who chose their own partners.

Deborah said...

Just so, Anjum. The stats that I know of, vaguely, show that arranged marriages 'fail' at about the same rate as marriages based on romantic love. By 'fail' I don't mean end in divorce, because as you point out, there are lots of cultural constraints with respect to leaving arranged marriages, but 'fail' as in 'turn to custard but the partners continue to live in the same house and / or be nominally married to each other.'

Tui said...

Anjum, I am trying to keep an open mind about this after a childhood spent reading things like "Chandra" by Mary Frances Hendry and "Catherine Called Birdy" by Karen Cushman - arranged marriage horror stories, essentially. And some of what you say makes sense to me: practical commitments to marriage, rather than romantic onces. (I don't want to have a marriage that is *only* practical, but I think the romance of marriage has done more damage to the institution than anything else.) But two parts of this process really bother me: stigma against divorce, and the investigation process. Now, the stigma against divorce is neither inherent nor specific to arranged marriages, so I'll leave it out (because problems with it are pretty transparent and you indicated a few of them already.) But the investigation process really, really bothers me: particularly for young women, it seems to me to create a pattern of sexual conservatism, sex negativity, and entrenched gender stereotyping, where young people - but again, especially women - are punished for not conforming to the older generation's more conservative ideals. I can see, again, that this is not inherent to the notion of arranged marriage, but it does seem a lot less extricable, and as a feminist really bothers me. (It also seems to emphasise women as dependents, not independents, which I find very problematic.)

Hugh said...

Actually Stargazer having mulled this over during my lunchbreak I have a question. Given that you clearly feel that arranged marriages are no worse than non-arranged marriages, why did you get offended when asked if your marriage was arranged?

stargazer said...

i guess stories about happy arranged marriages don't sell so well, but i do see many of them (happy marriages i mean, not the books). i think horror stories abound regardless of culture and process to get marriage - i'm sure we all know of some pretty ugly situations that are happening in this country right now.

yes, i agree with you re the choice of partner thing. it's very hard to get around the fact that a potential partner should have positive qualities. that can have some extremely negative consequences just as the requirement of virginity does. but when the alternative doesn't seem to work any better (ie finding your own partner does not = eternal bliss), it's hard to know how to make positive changes. one thing that may help (or not) is the scarcity of girls, as so many of them are being aborted out of existence on the basis of gender. might make the parents of boys a little less picky.

re the dependency thing, au contraire. like the west, young women are now expected to be highly educated and increasingly able to earn an income, while not being relieved of their domestic chores. the difference is cheap labour (highly problematic) which means the earning woman can afford servants to do the housework and help with the childminding. not so easy to do that here.

all this i describe is of course middle class life. lower class women there are the same as lower class women here. have to do paid work, have to do the housework, often live lives of drudgery and exhaustion with little reward. women here are lucky to have the DPB as an option, as long as they're willing to take the social stigma of "breeding for a business" and being "lazy bludgers".

stargazer said...

ah, hugh, i was waiting for someone to ask! i got offended because it was just none of her business. i saw as the equivalent of me asking her "so, how many times have you been divorced" as basically the first thing i said to her. she didn't bother asking how we liked palmerston north, how we'd settled in, what our occupations were, etc. and knowing the negativity (especially back in those days) that was associated with arranged marriages, it was offensive. i don't know how to describe it better - the tone of her voice, the implied moral superiority of the questionner. i guess you just had to be there.

Hugh said...

I thought tone of voice and context might have played a part. It just seemed rather at odds with the rest of your post. You say that 'knowing the negativity (especially back in those days) that was associated with arranged marriages' played a part in making it offensive. Do you not think it's a bit uncharitable to assume your hosts were disdainful of arranged marriages because that was the prevailing opinion? Also, do you feel that arranged marriages are viewed more favourably by whitey than they were previously? (I'm presuming this was the 90s or earlier)

The ex-expat said...

What's odd is that 'arranged marriages' ie marriage for practical reasons rather than for love were fairly common up until recently in the west. Though the last high-profile one (charlies and Diana) didn't work out so well.

Tui said...

i guess stories about happy arranged marriages don't sell so well, but i do see many of them (happy marriages i mean, not the books). i think horror stories abound regardless of culture and process to get marriage - i'm sure we all know of some pretty ugly situations that are happening in this country right now.

I agree - the stories I read were fictional (although at least purporting to be based in fact), anyway (and, ex-expat, Karen Cushman's stuff is set in medieval England.) I do wonder how much stuff I read when I was small, that was being packaged as get-insight-into-other-cultures kinds of thing, has left me with rather less insight than intended, and certainly a bunch of knee-jerk reactions, even knee-jerk racisms.

but when the alternative doesn't seem to work any better (ie finding your own partner does not = eternal bliss), it's hard to know how to make positive changes.

I guess my maths would go arranged marriages do not = eternal bliss either, and arranged marriages also = some concerning social problems, so finding your own partner = better of a bad lot. ;) There does seem to be a movement for change within communities that practice arranged marriage - if there's an emphasis on independence for both partners change would be all but inevitable, I'd imagine. (And I can't really imagine Whitey's outrage being useful at all.) Thank you very much for an informative post and discussion! *tries hard to learn things*

stargazer said...

sorry, got caught up at work so couldn't answer earlier. hugh, i think you missed the bit where i said that this was the first thing this person asked me, who was a total stranger to her. add to the mix that this was the standard question that i'd been getting most of my life in the form of "are you going to/did you have an arranged marriage". it's like being indian meant that other people could pry into my personal relationship as if it was any business of theirs. it's not so much that i was sure she would have a negative view, more that i just hated that this was the first thing she could think to say to us.

as for your second question, yes, i think so. it's probably a result of the increasing diversity in nz, and more interaction with people who are entering arranged marriages.

tui: i guess i'd say that the choose your own partner is not without risk and social harm as well, especially in a society where misogynistic values are still ingrained. for example, you get issues around the excessive focus on appearance, the competition between individuals of the same sex which can lead to some pretty nasty behaviour and the like.

i think it's the misogyny that should be addressed more than the way relationships are formed. the current evolution of arranged marriages, which is really an arranged introduction with some serious discussions around expectations, seem to be a real improvement.

Carol said...

And how many people in cultures that support 'non-arranged', romance-based marriages are influenced or pressured by parents/family in their choice of partner/s?

I think I saw some stats a while back that showed most people in the UK married someone from a similar background to them, which suggests some social influence on choice of partner.

Julie said...

Great post Anjum, very interesting indeed.

It seems to me that people get married (or indeed start/continue long term relationships) for all sorts of reasons, of which love is but one. For some their primary motivation might be to have a family, to be financially more secure, to have regular sex, to avoid loneliness. I don't see anything wrong with some genuine assistance with this process from your family, as long as you are ok with it yourself.