ARRANGED MARRIAGE IN INDIA
A nation of over one billion people, India is a country of many contrasts and contradictions. A visitor may witness signs of a progressive economy in its infrastructure, media and use ofmobile communication devices. At the same time, institutions such as marriage and the role of women continue to be dominated by traditions. Sociologists categorize the Indian family structure as ‘patrifocal’ in nature (Seymour, 1999). Prevalent norms and values emphasize the interdependent nature of family relationships in contrast to independence and personal autonomy. From a very young age, children are socialized to identify with the family as a whole and discouraged from developing an autonomous self. They are conditioned to place the interests of the family ahead of their own. Alienating and confronting parents and family is still an anathema to most young people, especially in important decisions such as career selection and marriage. Furthermore, cultural mores frown upon the socialization among men and women in the form of dating and relationships. As a result, arranged marriage is still the dominant way for families and individuals to find partners for marriage. Once married, norms dictate that as a wife, a woman should put the needs of her husband and his extended family above her own needs. In a majority of instances, the newly married couple takes up residence at the bridegroom’s parents’ home.
The typical western view of arranged marriages tends to be biased by its own traditions and values which emphasize individual choice and responsibility. For many in the West, an arranged marriage represents women being treated as property. Their wishes subordinated to patriarchy’s desire for property and power. They find it difficult to comprehend that women (or even men) could be pushed into marriage, sight unseen. Although some of these views are well-justified for sections of the society that are socially and economically handicapped and vulnerable. For many others, arranged marriages represent a lifetime of commitment to family and mutual goals. Arranged marriages can provide a degree of emotional security and economic stability that most people in the West would not expect from marriage. Even when raised in a western culture, Indians prefer arranged marriages. The practice has left Indians with the lowest rate of intermarriage of any major immigrant group in the United States with fewer than 10% marrying outside their ethnic group (Bellafante, 2005).
The process of arranging marriage can be a long and elaborate process involving the extended family and friends that culminates in elaborate wedding ceremonies that extend over several days. Traditionally, parents start the process when their children are considered to be of marriageable age, which in the case of women tends to be 22 or 23 years of age and for men around 26 years. The process may be put on hold if they are pursuing higher education or hastened when they start drawing a regular paycheck. The need for suitable alliances is broadcast to the extended family as well as friends. Biographic information about potential matches is exchanged using formal (resume) and/ or informal (oral description) communication. The process of selection is layered and nuanced involving many different considerations. Traditionally, the caste of a prospective match would be a major consideration. More recently, anecdotal evidence suggests that even though caste and sub-caste play a role, primacy is often awarded to level of education, profession, economic background (and potential) and the family of the prospective match. Informal background checks are performed to assess nature, character, prior relationships, habits (such as smoking and drinking which are frowned upon) and reputation ofthe family. These checks are usually conducted through the informal network of friends and relatives. The screening process also involves astrologers (who may also perform the role of a priest for the family) who evaluate the horoscope of the prospective bride or groom for compatibility.
Once suitable matches are screened, the prospective groom and his family visit the prospective bride’s family for a face-to-face meeting to assess compatibility ofboth the families and the prospective partners. Usually, the prospective partners are allowed to spend a brief amount of time to talk to each other. At this stage the process has progressed closer to a likely successful arrangement and has greater stakes for the families involved. Too many rej ections (especially ofthe prospective bride) can create tension in the family and are considered to be a stigma on the family. More likely, one of a few of the handpicked matches results in satisfactory agreement among the families. What follows the agreement of marriage are complex negotiations about the logistics of marriage—where, when (at an auspicious time determined by astrologers), who will attend, number of guests, dowry if applicable, involvement of priests and rituals to be performed, among other myriad details. In most instances these negotiations exclude the bride and groom. The agreement is formalized with an engagement ceremony which can be relatively simple ceremony marked by an exchange of rings or in other instances as ceremonial as the wedding itself.
The brief description here summarizes the traditional arranged marriage, one that is still largely prevalent in the Indian society. However, over the past several decades, social and geographical mobility have weakened the extended family structure and increasingly replaced it with a more nuclear family structure. As a consequence, social networks provided by the extended family structure are no longer available to parents for finding suitable partners for their marriageable offspring. The absence of such social networks is felt even more by the large, growing, mobile and educated middle class of India. This led to the emergence of matchmaking services, classified advertisements, and more recently online matrimonial services. Rao and Rao (1982) indicate that such anonymous channels of matchmaking as matrimonial ads are more prevalent in urban India where a majority of the middle class reside. As the nuclear family structure becomes more prevalent, the trend in arranged marriage is to allow greater participation of the prospective bride and groom. Some argue that this is changing arranged marriage to one that is more of an ‘assisted marriage’ (Bel – lafante, 2005). Perhaps the most important change is the granting of ‘veto’ power by parents to their offspring on any marriage proposal introduced by them. Prospective partners often go on ‘arranged’ dates, which may be supervised under the watchful eyes of an elder relative. Sometimes there is an extended period of dating prior to a formal agreement to the marriage.
Earlier studies of arranged marriages in India have looked at role of dowry (Anderson, 2003), status of women (Rao & Rao, 1982) and application of Markov decision making models to the marriage decision making process (Batabyal, 1998). The advent of online matrimonial services introduces a technological artifact into the process of arranged marriages bringing technology to the forefront, amidst changing social practices. At the very least, the technology provides a number of affordances to families seeking partners for marriageable family members. In an otherwise information-sparse environment that consists of either the limited and cryptic information of a newspaper classified or the filtered and often embellished information provided by a brokerage service, online services allows their users to post extensive information about potential partners. No longer dependent on the social network, users have access to a significantly larger pool of prospective partners. The richer information in each profile enables users to perform more complex searches and use a variety of criteria to filter and screen potential partners. Depending on the online service, further communication may be facilitated with online chat and/or e-mail allowing for further exchange of information and interest. Finally, since the technology does not distinguish between parents or prospective partners, it has the potential to completely disintermediate the role of family members and emulate the more western model of individuals finding their own partners for marriage. Thus, the use of matrimonial Web sites in India provides a fascinating setting for examining how these affordances provided by the technology are appropriated. It provides an opportunity to examine changes in power and control structures and the relationship between technology and social institutions.