Marriage First, Love Later

by Aanya F Niaz

Adverse Effects of Arranged Marriages on Female Empowerment in South Asia; in particular regards with traditional societies of rural Pakistan.

Arranged marriages are still prevalent in many traditional societies of Pakistan. The family is a vital cause of this prevalence, as they regard themselves as the sole benefactors who are ‘all-knowing’ in making the decision to unify their child with someone. Indeed, arranged marriages fundamentally join two families together, not just two individuals. There are several reasons behind such parental participation in making the decision of marriage and behind the commonness of arranged marriages. These include, the daughter’s responsibility to uphold the family’s honor, retaining wealth within the family, avoiding societal gossip, reducing the likelihood of divorce and, parental concern for safety of their child.

Many of the reasons behind arranged marriages are concerned with the ‘role of the female’ and in fact greatly hinder female empowerment. This is because typically females are forced into marriage at an early age, required to submit to a domestic role and not allowed to pursue a career, compelled to bear children, must uphold the husband’s standard of honor, forced to undergo physical and emotional abuse due to their position of being the female gender in the marriage and last but not least, females usually suffer from no right to love, as they are forced to marry a specific man chosen fro them. The notion of love is specifically highlighted to contrast with the modern ‘western’ understanding of ‘love.

Since ‘love’ in the western and developed world (where females are arguably in a much better position) is seen as an ‘individual’ decision, in arranged marriages, ‘love’ is the result of a decision that two sets of parents or elders made. It is love that leads to marriage in the modern societies of the West, whereas it is marriage that results in love when they are arranged. Therefore, the emphasis laid upon love is crucial to the theme of this paper, which aims to characterize arranged marriage, its reasons and subsequent consequences on female empowerment via a native Pakistani female’s perspective and the anthropological views of Leela Dube and David Schneider. The native offers a personalized view of ‘love’ in an arranged marriage. The anthropologist, Schneider provides information on the Western view of marriage and love, and anthropologist Dube presents a comparative perspective on gender and marriage in South Asia. Altogether, this paper confirms that arranged marriages do impede the advancement of female empowerment.

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The Management of Marriage

The parents’ decision is the key deciding feature of a marriage. The management of marriages in these societies is seen as the natural responsibility of elders (parents, grand parents or closely related relatives). In fact, giving young individuals the option to seek their own partner is often times rendered scandalous. (Dube, p.110) Parents residing in these traditional societies view their children as young until they are married, which is when their status is changed to ‘adults’. Therefore the decision of their wedding is automatically the responsibility of the parents and elders, not the children.

Muslim societies make clear that the honor of the family lies with the daughter, and she must not engage with men, emotionally or sexually. If she is to indulge in any interaction with a man that is not seen as appropriate by her elders, she is held accountable for ruining the image, status and respect of the family. The family requires that she does not indulge in any sexual activity with any man, even her husband-to-be before marriage. This includes no option to hold hands or share any type of kissing. She must guard her chastity with her life and remain a virgin till after marriage. Therefore, the female is not permitted to find her own partner, because in most circumstances if she does attempt to personally interact with a male, any prospects of her being eligible for an arranged marriage are eliminated. Interestingly, a “young man is [also] not expected to make serious advances towards a young woman, unless he is prepared to marry her.” (Dube, p.111) However, this rule only loosely applies to men, who openly pursue women and are rarely held responsible for their behavior. What is ironic is that even though they are not allowed to, but engage with women, they choose not to be married to women who do the same; they ask for females with no past relationships. Therefore, arranged marriages are seen as a productive way of ensuring no option of contact between a daughter and another man.

Many family members prefer marrying their children off within their relatives in order to retain familial wealth. Anthropologists have studied these ‘endogamous marriages’ in great detail and such anthropological literature finds that, in such traditional societies, a set of siblings shares the income of their parent’s one factory, one industry or one business. All the revenue and profits are to be used solely by the same family. In order to keep the money inside the family, they marry their son or daughter off to their cousin, whose parent is part of the same family business. The same applies for property retention. Land and territory owned by a family is to be enjoyed by just them and not shared with any ‘outsiders.’ Henceforth, arranged marriages are a suitable solution to force children to marry within their relatives in order to retain, and then be able to enjoy the wealth of the family.

The whispers of the society can cause much shame to the name and grace of a family. These rural and traditional societies are more prone to engaging in gossip, because females are usually bound to housework, and they do not have much other to do with their free time, but spend their time talking and discussing such issues. Undoubtedly, parents want to avoid the torture of having the community badmouth their daughter and ruin her chances at marriage, by creating exaggerated stories about how she was seen talking to, or kissing a man, hence the parents do not allow for personal contact between female and males. They make it clear that their decision is required for a marriage to take place. In this manner, the “community does not gossip” (Dube, p.112) as they know that there was no unacceptable behavior, but the parents’ explicit role of unifying a couple together. It reconfirms that no interaction had taken place outside of marriage as that could have potentially lead to a scandal that would have reached the community members. If their parents are marrying them off, it is assumed to mean that they have secured their eligibility to be married.

Many of these parents or elders regard arranged marriages to have a lower divorce rate than love marriages. Various Western cultures have criticized arranged marriage for its brutal and unjust system of selecting a partner for someone, and stripping them of their right to choose their own ‘lover’. Such behavior greatly contrasts with the vision of ‘individuality’ found in Western perceptions of marriage. However, an interesting reality lies in the success rates of arranged marriages. Comparing and contrasting the divorce rates of countries that greatly foster arranged marriage with those that rarely indulge in it underlines the rate of success in any given marriage. Gavin Jones[1] contribution to the “Population and Development review”[2] (Jones) highlights that “in all Western countries where divorce was legal, divorce rates have risen gradually since 1990; in the United States this rise has been continuous for over 100 years… when divorce rates were rising sharply, divorce rates in [Muslim Asia] declined rapidly”. (Jones) It is fascinating to analyze such data, which puts into question the ability to make individual choice to marry someone and have a higher chance of getting a divorce, than having your parents decide your destiny for you!

Another reason why arranged marriages are so prevalent is due to the parents’ concern for the safety of their child. They believe they can make the best decision of choosing a suitor and a family that will never hurt their child. Since physical abuse and rape is commonly found in such traditional rural areas, this is a great cause of concern for parents, which is why they take it upon themselves to ensure, as much as possible, that their son or daughter will be treated well by the new family. By carrying out background checks, meeting with the suitor and his family on a personal basis and by simply asking around the community about the potential suitor’s family’s values and morals, the parents try to seek their best option. Henceforth, due to safety being a prevailing problem, parents are even more inclined in choosing the suitor for their child.

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Hampered Female Empowerment: Unjust treatment of the woman

As described above, there are various reasons that continue to make arranged marriages prevalent and popular in traditional societies. However, these reasons put the ‘female’ in a very iniquitous position and their growth in society is hampered. Arranged marriages put-forth unjust requirements that females must fulfill before and after marriage. Unfortunately, since marriage is considered as ‘destiny’ (Dube, p.110) for all women in such a traditional Muslim society, they do not have any other option but to succumb to these requirements. It is also important to note that in many cases, societies that still believe in arranged marriage still uphold the following requirements for females.

These requirements include how females tend to be married off at a very young age, usually as soon as they have hit puberty. In many cases, their arranged marriage is planned the day they are born, so that when they become of age, their suitor is already chosen for them. These young girls are not given time to complete their schooling, or even mature into adults. At that age, they are even less likely to be given any position to voice their needs and wants. Their lives drastically change as soon as they are married, and there is no turning back for them.

Even if they are not married as soon as they hit puberty, as soon as they become wives, they are usually bound to managing household affairs and cannot pursue their own careers. Their lives are restricted to domestic chores and they are not given an option to engage in any professional field. Cleaning, cooking, attending to guests and catering for their husbands emotional and sexual needs becomes a routine for them. They do not have the luxury of individualism; which is afforded by education, experience and exposure. In these traditional rural areas, the house becomes the permanent home for the wives, and their husbands’ are their sole caretakers and commanders. As long as they do as they are told, or as they are expected to behave by their husbands’ family, the husband guards and appreciates their honor. As soon as they attempt to do more than housework, or try to emerge as strong, individual minded women looking for any jobs, they are usually shunned by the family and treated with the greatest disrespect. They are no longer allowed to return to the home, and it is at the discretion of the females’ own parents to take her back into their home or not. In areas where families have such traditional perspectives, the female is not accepted back into the family and must fend for herself completely.

It is not shocking to recognize that females are usually forced to have children. This is especially unjust in arranged marriages, where they are expected to have sexual intercourse with a man they have recently met, and who they do not necessarily feel comfortable with. Irrespective of the woman’s feelings, she must submit to her husbands’ needs and demands, as that is her duty. If she does not, she must face serious consequences of physical abuse by her husband. Additionally, in traditional communities, it is assumed that the more children you have, the better. Therefore, it is her duty to bear as many children as possible. Interestingly, David Schneider’s[3] account on the role of the women in marriage is similar to what those engaging in arranged marriages believe. Schneider states; “Women bear children, nurse them, and care for them. This, according to the definition of American culture, is part of a woman’s nature.” (Schneider, p. 35) In arranged marriages, the daughters’ parents make a promise to the parents of the son, that she is fertile and acknowledges her responsibility to have children, making her more appealing in the eyes of the boy’s parents to choose her as their daughter in law to-be.

Furthermore, the same way the female must uphold her father’s honor before marriage, now she is responsible for upholding her husband’s. Such an arranged marriage survives on the basis of female behavior. She must only have physical interaction with her husband, which includes kissing, hugging, holding hands and of course sexual intercourse. She must remain shy around other men and maintain physical distance, by never standing too close to them and not communicating with them for more than a few minutes. These are accepted norms and details of how women can interact with other men, well understood by traditional community members.

Arranged marriages have a high likelihood of causing emotional and physical pain to the female. This is because the husband knows that the wife does not have a choice, but to stay with him and accept his flaws because this will maintain her own family’s honor and dignity. When her parents married her to this man, their decision imposed a responsibility on the daughter to keep her parents decision out of respect. Due to this, the husband can have a tendency to exploit his wife’s position. He can ask her to have sexual intercourse with his male friends and he can engage in extramarital affairs himself. The wife must accept and remain quiet; otherwise it is her own honor and respect that is adversely affected. Traditional societies where arranged marriages continue to be a common practice also continue to view the female gender as the vulnerable one. These societies allow for men to do as they please whether they are married or not, but prohibit any freedom to women. Therefore, the position of the wife can be abused greatly.

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The Logistics of Love

Arranged marriages continue to hinder female empowerment in many more ways. A very significant area in which they suffer is their no right to love. This part of the paper will explore the American perspective and the native’s perspective on love. It will explain why arranged marriages can, conversely to above, actually develop into relationships where the husband and wife fall in love. However, this section will also highlight the ways in, which arranged marriages rob females of their right to what traditional societies call ‘love.’

Undeniably, arranged marriages are still prevalent in many parts of Pakistan, where courtship is seen as sinful and love seen as a result of a ‘forced’ relationship. Love, as described here, refers to the emotional and sexual relationship that comes out of interaction between male and female. This love is seen as a result of a relationship, which is an arranged marriage, where two individuals are compelled to spend their lives together. Individuals from these societies tend to believe, or are taught to believe that they can emotionally and sexually engage with each other after marriage, and that this engagement results in love. Indeed, it is implied that love is to be developed only after the marriage has taken place and it is an emotion that can grow within the couple after such a union. The parents or elders in charge of arranging the marriage render ‘love’ and courtship impermissible before the wedding has taken place. Since they are in charge of finding, selecting and approving of a partner for their child, there is no room for ‘love’ to exist between the unmarried couple yet, because any individual interaction between the couple is prohibited.

A Native’s Perspective on Love in Arranged Marriages

A native Pakistani woman, my own mother, provided a personal account of her notion of love having had an arranged marriage, which reaffirms the above-mentioned. “Love…” she said, “can be found after you are united with the man you are to spend your life with. Love is a result of solid companionship; it is a product of compromise and trust. Not only trust in him, but in your parents’ decision to have selected him, and knowing that the reasons, which made your husband stand out, are reasons enough for you to fall in love with him.” In my mother’s view, and in her understanding of love in her native language of Urdu (national language of Pakistan), she defines it as an emotion having to do with trust and patience. It is about learning to live with someone and then learning to love them. From being “shy strangers to becoming friends and most importantly, companions.” Since there is no intimate, whether it be emotional through communication, or physical through sexual activity between the two individuals before the wedding, the couple has no other option, nor any better knowledge, than to understand that love comes after marriage, not before. Henceforth, it is understood as a feeling that has the potential to develop once the couple has formed a relationship with each other after the wedding.

Sometimes, love does develop once the union has taken place. Other times, it does not. In either case, there is a huge risk of unifying two individuals because they may never fall in love. They are not able to share a relationship with one another and determine whether they feel love, and whether that is even enough for them to spend their lives together. Love becomes not something they have a right to, but what has a chance to develop. This puts females at a particular disadvantage. This is because, as mentioned above, they are the gender in the society that cannot let go of their family’s honor. They do not have the option of interacting with someone they might be attracted to, or even find good looking, because any such interaction would have serious consequences involving them being banished from the family or being burned alive. Traditional societies have extreme views about unacceptable behavior on the female’s part, therefore she is not allowed to develop any feelings, except for her husband, after she is married to him. Contrastingly, men have the luxury of doing so. Since they are seen as superior in such rural societies, they can afford to engage in relationships and affairs before and after marriage. They can learn what love is to them and feel it, without having the society turn against them. However, sometimes even if they fall in love with a particular person, they can be forced to marry a girl that their parent chooses for them. In this way, the couple is compelled to spend their lives together, and share an emotional and sexual relationship, without any prior interaction. Conversely, the modern world views such ‘love’ to be simply unjust for many reasons as discussed below. Furthermore, the following section compares and contrasts the ideals of marriage in American kinship and traditional and rural Muslim societies of Pakistan.

An Anthropologist’s Perspective on Love in American Kinship

In David Schneider’s American Kinship, a Cultural Account, a parallel can be made between the accounts provided by Leela Dube, David Schneider and my mother on the topic of ‘sexual intercourse’. Sexual intercourse is directly linked to love and marriage in all three anthropological accounts. Dube compliments the native’s perspective on love, which is a result of marriage, which permits a couple to engage in sexual intercourse. The female must remain chaste and untouched till the day of her wedding, as this is a matter of her honor and dignity. Once the couple has been wed, they are encouraged to have sexual intercourse with each other. Similarly, Schneider corroborates that in American kinship, “it [sexual intercourse] should be between husband and wife and between no other persons…between any other persons it is wrong and prohibited.” (Schneider, p.51) He adds that “sexual intercourse between persons who are not married is fornication and improper” (Schneider, p.38) which is similar to the views on sexual intercourse in arranged marriages.

However, when it comes to love, Schneider argues that Americans relate love with individualism and that, “…love is closely linked with the fact that in love it is personal considerations which are the crucial ones… Love is a relationship between persons.” (Schneider, p.48) The male and female both are openly able to develop feelings and emotions. The female in this equation of love is not stripped of her right to feel what she wants to feel. The right that man and woman possess to develop feelings for each other without an official contract cannot be left unacknowledged in American kinship. Indeed, those who find what they see as love can agree to get married as “Marriage is for love” (Schneider, p.49), contrasting with the characteristics of arranged marriages, where ‘personal considerations’ are replaced with that of the parents and elders of the family. Arranged marriages are not necessarily for love, but are arranged in order to provide protection to the son or daughter so that they may have someone to depend upon in the long run. Love is not the priority in arranged marriages, whereas in American kinship, love is the center of marriage and/or relationships.

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As we have seen throughout this paper, the causes behind the commonness of arranged marriages and the subsequent consequences of these marriages adversely affect female empowerment. Whether it is forcing females to marry as soon as they hit puberty, or compel them to bear more children than they would personally like to, women must endure severe costs due to their gender in the prescribed traditional and rural societies of Pakistan. Even though there are a few advantages, such as a lower divorce rate in arranged marriages, the undue requirements imposed on women hinder their advancement in society. The purpose of this paper has been to shed light upon a certain pattern of marriage that takes place in specific types of rural societies in Pakistan. The reasons behind the prevalence of arranged marriages, as described above, are deep seated in the minds and culture of people who dwell in these communities. It is important to note that a subtle shift is being felt within traditional cultures of Pakistan towards a western oriented approach of marriage, where one’s own choice is given ground. However, the consent and blessings of the parent are still considered necessary, therefore the role of the family will continue to exist in the future.


[1] Jones, Gavin. Modernization and Divorce: Contrasting Trends in Islamic Southeast Asia and the West. Vol. 23. Population Council. Population and Development Review. JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2010. <http://jstor.org&gt;.

[3] David M. Schneider. American Kinship, a Cultural Account. Second Edition. 1968, 1980. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. Print.

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