A week after my mother's wedding, my mother and her strange, new husband headed to the Madras airport to pick up a visa. They were moving to America together; my mother had met him only once, ten days before the wedding. When he went to ask someone for directions—taking their luggage and all of my mother's money with him—my mother stood petrified and unmoving, afraid that this man she didn't know had abandoned and robbed her. That man was my father, and they have been married for 34 years.
I've been hearing this story my whole life: They laugh about it now. Their marriage was arranged by their families when my mother was 22 and my father was 28. During their wedding, my mother wore a bright red sari, a temporary gold ring in her nose, and dark eyeliner drawn on by her friends from high school. A thousand people attended. Terrified to leave her family and start a new one, she cried the whole time.
The first few weeks were awkward and strange, and the 34 years have been bad and good. Like any marriage, they've had fights and still do. Eventually, though, they grew to love each other. Even though their marriage is no better or worse than the marriages of my American friends' parents, to this day, my mother espouses the virtues of arranged marriage.
It's easy to do so. Divorce rates in India—though increasing—are among the lowest in the world. My mother reasons that, when families are involved with marriages and parents or older relatives ensure that the match is a good one, there's a decreased chance that the couple will encounter differences serious enough to lead to divorce.
As someone who grew up watching American sitcoms and rom coms though, I've always thought of of the road to marriage as a fumbling journey, sometimes awkward but always emotionally rewarding. Arranged marriages, on the other hand, seemed phony and foreign to me. However, my mother may have a point—rom coms don't take the twenty-first century phenomenon of "ghosting" into account, for one. Arranged marriages give you less choice, but they also give you little room for rejection. And, along the way, your family is there to provide support.
Arranged marriages give you less choice, but they also give you little room for rejection.
On the subject of arranged marriage, my father stressed the importance of family involvement as well. He explained that, for his marriage, there was little room for doubt because "I knew she was educated, I knew what she looked like, and I knew I trusted my parents to make the right decision." As Madhu Kishwar told the New York Times, arranged marriages work because India's youth experience less angst or hostility towards their parents.
Moreover, the passionless, pragmatic marriages of my parents' generation are not as common as they once were. As technology has changed, traditions have evolved along with it— arranged marriages have morphed into a culturally appropriate alternative to online dating and hooking up. A new practice, known as a "semi-arranged marriage," allows family members to still steadfastly hold onto more traditional notions of marriage and a woman's role within it while allowing for more individual choice.
My cousin experienced this type of marriage when he got matched up at 26. His wife, Prerana Uday, is an educated, modern, and sharply-dressed woman. When her parents approached her about a nice young man they wanted her to marry, she was shocked. But she gave in, met him for coffee, and they ended up dating for a while with the assumption that it would lead to a wedding. After a year and a half, they got married.
Arranged marriages have morphed into a culturally appropriate alternative to online dating and hooking up.
While Uday explains that dating is still somewhat of a taboo in India, she says that in most urban households, it is gaining acceptance. According to one survey from International Institute for Population Sciences and the Population Council, semi-arranged marriages like hers compose a quarter of marriages. Among her peers, Uday was the first to get married, and while some of her friends had an arranged marriage or a hybrid, others have dated and others are happily single with no plans to get married in the near future.
It's not farfetched, then, to think that the whole idea of marriage in India could transform in time. Uday explains that, as incomes increase and the population is exposed to varied outlooks and trends, the process of arranged marriage has adapted. Rising education, urbanization, and the use of matrimonial sites have indeed given young Indians increasing efficacy when choosing a partner.
In fact, there are now over 1,500 matrimonial websites in India, providing people with even more choices. Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, who has been married for two years, told me in a phone interview that he met his wife on a website called Shaadi.com. Unlike a typical American Tinder date, though, his future wife's brother was managing her account, and she thoroughly vetted Khubchandani before he was allowed to meet her.
Dating apps like Tinder and Hinge are also gaining popularity for young, urban adults. One app, TrulyMadly, adapts modern dating specifically for Indians, allowing women to feel safe talking to unknown men online by verifying its users through social networks, phone numbers, and photo IDs. Its algorithm even ensures that you're single.
But the process still has a long way to go if it wants to modernize, as women still do not have complete agency. Despite what Bollywood might have you believe, today, only around 5 percent of marriages in India are "love" marriages. And the marriages themselves leave much room for progress. Child marriage is illegal, but India has a third of the world's child brides, according to UNICEF. Marital rape in India is still not criminalized, which means that, if a woman marries a man she doesn't know, she has no legal recourse if things turn violent.
As long as the tradition of obligation (from the girl's side) and rightful-demand (from the man's side) doesn't vanish, abuse will continue to thrive.
There are few methods of escape, too. The divorce rate may be low (1 in 1000 according to some studies), but that doesn't necessarily mean that arranged marriages are more successful. One 21-year-old woman I spoke to, Kalyani Salgame, explained that while divorce is more accepted in younger generations, her parents' generation "speak about it in hushed whispers, often associating the woman with pity."
Purnima Madhivanan is an infectious disease epidemiologist at Florida International University who grew up in India and has studied Indian marital relationships in the context of public health. She explained in an interview that since arranged marriages are largely an agreement between families, not individuals, a woman holds less clout. Madhivanan said that when a woman gets married and leaves her house, she leaves "her family, her belongings, her identity, and takes on a new identity." That's a powerful loss. According to Madhivanan, some women do not have a say in "when and how they're going to have sex."
One San Francisco-based nonprofit I spoke to, Maitri, serves domestic violence survivors and victims of human trafficking in the South Asian community. Their outreach coordinator, Nandini Ray, told Broadly that they see no connection between India's culture of arranged marriages and domestic violence. "Domestic violence can happen to anyone regardless of culture, race, education, financial background, and gender," she said. Pearl Choragudi, a senior counselor at another domestic violence nonprofit, My Choices, agrees, saying that the method of marriage makes no difference. "As long as the tradition of obligation (from the girl's side) and rightful-demand (from the man's side) doesn't vanish, abuse will continue to thrive."
Because of this, India must prioritize increased modernization of marriages across India. Giving both women and men more choice in both who they marry and how it happens means they get more choice after their wedding day, too, allowing for increased happiness and—if that's not possible—eventual divorce.