The decision that a son or daughter should enter the marriage market is usually made by the parents and as a consequence the process is initiated by parents or a trusted family elder. For somebody to raise the matter of their own marriage would be considered bold and indicate that they are self-absorbed rather than thinking in terms of the interests of the family. Many young people in fact choose to avoid or postpone discussion ofmarriage using education or career as excuses because they believe they will be heading off confrontation between their expectations of a partner in marriage with those of the family. Some view it as a battle they will eventually ‘loose’ as the family will eventually ‘force’ them to compromise and make a choice. Others view it just the opposite, using delay as a tactic to wear down their parents as they start worrying about the window of marriageable age slipping away and are then ready to allow the son or daughter to have an upper hand in the selection process. All this suggests the absence of open communication within the family as individual members try to conform to their expected roles while engaging in signaling and power play.
Traditionally, the parents and family elders would start the process by raising the matter when they meet relatives and friends that they have started ‘looking’ for a match for their son or daughter. With the changing family structure and weakening social networks, this increasingly poses a challenge for families. For expatriates, who have been disconnected from these networks in India, the challenges are only greater. Choices may be few, not match the desired profile and the family also opens itself to pressure from the extended family. Before online matrimonial services, families would rely on third-party matchmaking services and classified advertisements. Finding the right matchmaking service presented its own challenge as most would not disclose the demographic nature of their pool of prospects. They might be skewed towards a particular community that the family was not interested in or avoid a community altogether thereby reducing the efficacy of that brokerage service. Family elders indicate that until recently using matrimonial ads in newspapers was stigmatized and considered to be the last resort. Research in different national contexts indicates that till recently the users of matchmaking services were stigmatized (Darden & Koski, 1988). Classifieds were resorted to when families had problems finding matches the traditional way. Anonymous and charged by the word, parents would craft cryptic classifieds in attempt to compress all their myriad criteria in addition to posting basic biographic information into 50 words or less.
On the Web the restrictions posed by classifieds on the amount of information disappears. Whereas photographs would generally be exchanged only after the initial responses to classified were filtered, on the Web, most users post photographs along with the profile. This suggests that the stigma associated with using impersonal and anonymous methods has eroded in most cases. Many families view this as the preferred method because they feel that they have a better chance of finding suitable matches in view of the more detailed information and larger pool of prospects. By browsing the Web site, users can make a quick judgment about the demographics of the pool and its suitability to their selection criteria.
As it is customary in Hindu families for parents to search for their children’s life partner, my parents were doing the same by speaking with relatives and also circulating our ‘bio-data’ via various electronic resources4. г
Even with online services, parents continue to perform the role of initiating, searching and filtering potential partners. Gender stereotypes persist in the new medium. This is consistent with research on dating ads in other countries which suggest that gender and role stereotypes and expectations likely persist and change very gradually over time (Peres & Meivar, 1986; Koestner & Wheeler, 1988). Women indicate that in the Indian societal context even if they were actively involved in the process or actually posted their own profile, they wanted to maintain the appearance that the process was being initiated and managed by their parents. In all of our conversations, we seldom found the roles reversed or even an attempt to convey the appearance that they had been reversed. Women, in most cases, did not post their own profiles because they were afraid of being considered as ‘fast and easy’. They would recount the experience of their friends who posted their own profiles had ended up in situations where the men were exchanging messages with them without any interest in marriage and were just looking to have a good time. Parents also perceived a greater responsibility in having their daughter married at the right time with the right match because they perceived that they were custodians of their daughters until they joined their ‘true’ family. This put greater pressure on parents to initiate and start the search for a suitable partner. Parents also believe they can pre-empt their daughters finding their own partners or avoid the issue especially in the case of career-oriented and ambitious women who were not interested in getting married in their twenties. One 28-year-old woman who is a consultant in a multinational firm explained:
I have to agree to put up with the ad because my parents keep pressurizing me…. at least this way it appears to them that I am interested in getting married and at the same time I can keep rejecting the matches they get for me.2
Her parents said:
the girls today want a very specific kind of husband.. he should be liberal and modern5 in his thinking.. she does not like anyone we find in our community.. by posting this ad perhaps we can find such a person in our specific caste and subcaste somewhere else.3
Another woman stated:
My profile was created by my elder brother and every day he checked for a partner for me.4
While parents conceded to their daughters’ desire for a like-minded partner, they also sought to preserve traditional notions of the primacy of caste and community.
Interestingly, a greater proportion of the profiles ofgrooms were posted by prospective grooms themselves. Traditional gender stereotypes hold that men should be allowed greater independence (as long as they stayed or had their parents live with them). The perception that men are more technologically savvy created the circumstances for unmarried men to play a bigger role in online matchmaking. Parents felt they could deal with the low-tech nature of classifieds, but often felt ill equipped to deal with computers and the World Wide Web.
The shift from classified to online services has created increased opportunity for communication that was otherwise absent or predicated on nonverbal gestures and behavior. Once a classified is published, the action is followed with responses that come in batches and decline rapidly with time. The batched nature resulted in periods of waiting followed by some uncomfortable discussions among parents and their children. With online services, the profile has a greater shelf life yielding a steadier stream of responses. Moreover, there was the opportunity to engage in a more continuous as opposed to episodic search for potential partners. This created increased opportunity for communication within the family and more importantly for a tacit convergence of expectations.
Caste and sub-caste continue to be major considerations in search. In each of the online matrimonial services, a user could select bride or groom by caste, sub-caste, religion, language, state and age among other criteria. Almost everyone we talked to were very specific about religion and caste as filtering criteria. This was also reflected in the profiles that were posted on the Web sites. For example, a Hindu (religion), Brahmin (caste) female would want a Hindu, Brahmin male for a husband. In another posting, a 24-year-old woman from Mumbai sought a Hindu from the same caste speaking a specific language (Malayalam), but having moderate and liberal attitudes.
The profiles also reflected social taboos associated with suitable partners. Many users specifically mentioned smoking and drinking. Partners who did not smoke or drink are preferred. Social taboos associated with smoking and drinking persisted in the new medium. In talking to women, drinking alcohol was not preferred for men and absolutely taboo for women. Other criteria for search that persist in online profiles are horoscope and skin color. Most men sought partners who had a fair or ‘wheatish’ complexion demonstrating the continued belief in India that fair skin is associated with beauty.