Indian women challenge arranged marriage and fight honor killings
MUMBAI, INDIA – “Girls are not suppose to speak their mind,” Aastha says. “My parents were totally against me marrying Vivan, who belonged to other caste.”
Aastha, 39, who requested her full name not be used, says that her father no longer speaks to her because she married a man from a different caste. A project manager for an information technology company in Mumbai, India’s largest city, says she met her husband in a computer class. After working for two years after the computer course, they decided to get married.
But Aastha says that because her husband was from a different caste, her family disapproved.
“I tried very hard to bring my family to an agreement,” she says. “However, after five months of persuasion, they accepted.”
But she says her father still refused to accept her marriage.
“He was concerned that our family would be given bad names because, before this, no one had married outside our caste, and, if I did so, he would have to face problems in our community,” she says.
Aastha says her father’s disapproval was strictly caste-based.
“He said that Vivan was good person, but I should not marry him because he is of a different caste,” she says. “He warned me that if I got married to Vivan, then I would never be able to step into my father’s house, and he would consider me dead.”
Aastha says she made a monumental decision six years ago when she married her husband.
“Marrying Vivan against my father’s wish was the biggest and bravest decision I’ve ever made,” she says.
She says her father did not attend her wedding, but her mother and brother attended against her father’s wishes. Her father has still not changed his mind.
“Even today, after so many years after my marriage, I haven’t visited my parents’ house,” she says. “Even after my child’s birth, my father did not speak to me or come to see my daughter. He still believes that I have broken family tradition of marrying outside our caste.”
She says she wishes there were peace in her family, but she doesn’t regret her marriage.
“I am unhappy with the mindset of parents,” she says. “Because of their false beliefs, families are broken.”
As the practice of arranged marriage remains common here, many say that young people should be able to decide for themselves whom they marry. But parents say that arranged marriages are more reliable than love marriages and that they can find better matches for their children than the children can find for themselves. For some, going against family wishes has grave consequences. Honor killing when it comes to marriage is still common here. The government of India has outlawed honor killing, but it does not have any laws against either arranged marriages or intercaste marriages. Meanwhile, nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, are advocating against honor killing and for intercaste and love marriages.
Various customs have governed marriage in Indian society. For example, “swayamvara” was an ancient Indian practice in which families and their daughters selected husbands from a list of suitors. The choice was based more on competition than love, as suitors had to display their prowess in various contests to win the bride.
Reliable statistics on arranged marriage are unavailable because of the unofficial and undocumented nature of them, according to a U.N. report. But they are most common in South Asia, which includes India. Various international and regional legal instruments recognize forced marriage as a human rights violation.
Aparna Lad, 45, who requested her name be changed, is a well-educated housewife. She says her parents arranged her marriage.
“I had never spoken to my to-be husband before marriage,” she says. “We were not allowed to see, meet or speak. Only our parents had spoken to each other. I did not know much about him apart from his qualification and his job, so I was very scared.”
She says she didn’t like what she found out about him.
“Unfortunately, he turned out to be an alcoholic and person with very bad temper,” she says. “I would have never married him if I had a choice.”
Another housewife, Veena, 26, who requested her full name not be used, says she was allowed to meet her future husband only at her home when everyone was around. She says this made it difficult to get to know the person she was to spend the rest of her life with.
“Meeting in presence of others was not comfortable, as we could not speak to each other freely,” she says.
Kripa, 25, who also requested her full name not be used, says that sometimes the tradition of arranged marriage varies by region, not by family. Kripa, who lives and works in Mumbai, says that although her parents don’t believe in arranged marriages, her 14-year-old cousin’s marriage was arranged nine years ago to a boy in her village in his early 20s.
“Although it was illegal and my parents were against it, but my uncle and aunt were keen on the wedding, as they said that the boy was good, and they did not want to lose such a son-in-law,” she says.
She says that although getting married as a minor is against the law, the community didn’t report this marriage to the authorities because the practice is common there.
“It was a common practice in her village, Nandigram, in West Bengal, that if there was a suitable bridegroom, then the girl’s parents would marry her off irrespective of the law, in hope of a better future for their girl.”
But Kripa says her cousin’s arranged marriage hurt her future because it ended her education.
“Unfortunately, her education was stopped,” she says. “She was not allowed to complete the school.”
Priyanka Parwardhan, 35, a lawyer, says parents arrange their children’s marriages because they think they can choose a better spouse than their children can.
“Many parents follow age-old tradition according to which the elders in the family always decide on all important matters in the house,” she says. “They feel that children could make wrong decision and also that children should listen to their elders as a matter of respect.”
Parwardhan says the most important foundation for marriage is compatibility – regardless of whether it is arranged.
“The success of the marriage does not depend on being arranged or otherwise,” she says. “It depends on compatibility. However, women are [hardly] given any rights to do things of their mind and decide for themselves.”
Pawar, who requested his name be changed, is the father of two teenagers. He says he is in favor of arranged marriage because it is less likely to end in divorce than a love marriage that spouses choose for themselves.
“In case of arranged marriage, the background check can be done about the boy and girl on their professional and personal aspects,” he says. “Data can be collected from their neighbors and office colleagues, thus ensuring that two sound people are getting married.”
He advises against basing marriages solely on attraction.
“When two people marry on the basis of just mutual attraction, it gradually fades with time, and other differences – like economic class, language, food habits, customs, religion difference, etc. – start to surface,” he says. “Some people ignore or adjust with these differences in their spouses, but some don’t. So it’s better to base a long-lasting relationship on more strong values.”
Still, he says he will not force his children to have arranged marriages.
But other parents are more insistent. The practice of honor killing, when families kill family members – mostly women – for bringing dishonor on the family, is another issue here.
When it comes to marriage, reasons for honor killing may include marrying against parents’ wishes, having extramarital or premarital relationships or marrying outside one’s caste. Some people believe that if a woman in their family breaks the marriage customs, then society would declare the entire family to be outcasts, subjecting them to criticism and excluding them from receiving the benefits of belonging to the caste and community.
The Law Commission of India under the Ministry of Law and Justice has recently drafted a new act – The Endangerment of Life and Liberty (Protection, Prosecution and other measures) Act, 2011 – to curb honor killing.
India, a country with diverse cultures and religions, has 13 laws regulating marriage and divorce, according to the government website. None of the laws prohibits marriage among different castes and religions.
In fact, the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that intercaste marriages are in the nation’s best interest because they can help destroy the caste system, which justices called a “curse on the nation.”
There are no laws against arranged marriage, although the Child Marriage Restraint Act sets a minimum marriage age of 21 for men and 18 for women.
There are also various NGOs that advocate against honor killing and promote intercaste and love marriages.
Love Commandos is a group that offers assistance to couples facing danger from their families or communities. Group volunteers offer help to couples who call to report threats to their safety.
The Honor Killing Fighter Club aims to provide a platform for youth to advocate against honor killing and to inform journalists, academics and the general public about their opinions and experiences regarding honor killing.
Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra promotes intercaste, interreligion and love marriages.
Parents in younger generations are promoting them, too. Aastha says her daugther will be free to marry whomever she chooses.
“I and Vivan will give this freedom to our daughter and hope other parents do the same,” she says.