The Indian wedding for Dummies - 1. The arranged marriage
The "Indian wedding" (I should say the Hindu wedding to be exact) has made the subject of numerous books, movies, visits to India. In short it’s an institution. I will try here to understand something to it!
Arranged marriage: and why not?!
Let's make the distinction between arranged marriage and forced marriage.
If I can de-dramatize arranged marriages (read below), it is impossible to do the same with forced marriages which are still widely practiced in India: 40% of women do not have a word in the choice of the husband, less than 20% of women (over 25) knew their husbands before the fateful day and worse, almost 50% of women have married before the legal age of 18 (source).
Which means that there are still thousands of people (Hindus) who, each year, follow the tradition and find out whom they are going spend the rest of their lives with only when they are already married: SURPRISE! As per the custom to groom arrives first, and his view is hidden with a bed sheet, which is removed once the bride is brought in by her maternal uncle and cousins and the consent of the parents exchanged. The bed sheet is simply a less sexy version (but more promising ;)) of the veil used in Catholic marriages, originally to hide the face of the bride (source).
The concept of arranged marriage, still very prevalent in India (more than 90% of cases), tends to shock the Westerners. Before crying wolf and saying Indians are horrible, remember that from the time of Ancient Rome to the 19th century (i.e. 2 500 small years), the marriage of convenience was the norm in our civilization. The family was then a “business of social or economic survival” and marriage a “contract” to ensure its sustainability*.
What about love in an arranged marriage? When a Westerner thinks of arranged marriage, he immediately gets the image of a pretty girl forced to marry a loser, too ugly and too stupid to find a woman by himself! While in fact, parents seek someone who matches as much as possible – and we can assume that they know their offspring pretty well! And the candidate has a whole lot of criteria to fill: religion, caste, skin colour (fairness being an essential criterion of beauty), income, location, diet (non-vegetarien vs vegetarian), horoscope to mention only but the most important.
Whatever said and done, it is likely that two “virgins of love”, that many things draw close (see above-mentioned criteria), which have been waiting for it since childhood, end up loving each other (they so want it!). The passion, the ignition of the body and desire, is less guaranteed but at the same time it is known to be ephemeral, isn’t it? ;)
Let's be honest: who has never felt, while celibacy and the thirties are at their full, as meetings on the Internet have only led to failures (ending up, at best, as entertaining sex buddies), as the stock of single friends’ friends is exhausted, when the anxiety of ending up as a lonely spinster eaten by her cat makes the ball in your throat so big even Häagen-Dazs doesn’t get down anymore : “if only my awesome parents who have (almost) always fulfilled my whims could find me the perfect match!” Who did not want to make this call, unthinkable, and yet potentially life-saving?!
In the same vein, it is a bit hypocritical to criticize arranged marriage when you see the success of online dating sites in the West (in 2007, 1 out of 8 married couple in the US met online! source)).
And then even if it is not written black on white, if it is not man-da-tory, despite our increasingly multicultural environments, we are still largely endogamic – most of my friends have married people from their tribe, and it is certainly easier to manage than for the eccentrics who get a partner from another country, another colour, another religion or another social class. Easier because two endogamic people only have to overcome the differences due to gender and personality and not all the others. But it is also probably less outlandish, enriching and rewarding!
So when you dig a little, you realize that what mostly shocks my fellow Westerners is not so much the “arrangement” itself but rather the idea of not having “tested the goods before purchase”, ending up on the wedding night in bed with an unknown person... I admit that in our culture where sex is ubiquitous, obsessive, glorified, overvalued (?), the idea is off-putting. In addition it is a bad one if I take the example of my (Indian) close friends’ experiences: unconsumed union, weird practices, very often the man is not “up to the mark” and this up till the divorce! Seeing a young couple on honeymoon who has nothing to say to each other in the first days (before things warm up) surprises me every time, and makes me reflect on the oddity (from my point of view) of the situation.
And yet it is still the rule. For the lucky ones, the “choice” to refuse an application is becoming increasingly available. So is the option to introduce someone (from school, from the office) and if the afore-mentioned criteria are met and that the union takes place, it will be called a “love marriage” (even if very often, there is no romantic relationship). Real love marriages, guided by passion and defying the afore-mentioned criteria, remain very rare and often end up in bloodshed (especially in under-privileged backgrounds).
That is why passion is exalted as the Holy Grail (something you dream of but will never get) in the movies, and in families as a trouble maker (the uncontrollable versus the social codes that govern a well-ordered life).
* “It is during the 18th century that the family ceased to be regarded as a business of social survival or economic to rely more and more on the feeling of love [...] The mentioned change was influenced by economic factors such as industrialization, opening markets, wage labour, the progressive improvement of conditions of life, but also by an encouragement of the Church and the State. […] We can see, for example, that today, despite the diversification of modern societies which are often multicultural, a trend quite generalized to contract endogamic marriages; the choice of the partner is often influenced by social origin, ethnic, racial or religious.” Source: http://www.asblcefa.be/cefa/images/pdf/9mariagearrange
“Marriage is first a contract between a man and a woman. Subsequently, free consent developed, and marriage for love gradually override the marriage of convenience during the nineteenth century, in parallel with the evolution of the role of women in society, aimed to being the equal of men. This process culminated with the legalization of divorcein 1884. » Source: http://www.mariages.net/articles/origines-et-histoire-du-mariage--c5102