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.