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The Indian marriage: Unequal tie

Oct 06, 2013

Debt because of marriage is very much a part of the Indian reality. In fact, the cash component of dowry has only grown over the years, tells Ravinder Kaur, a professor in a conversation with Pamela Philipose.

Delhi: Ravinder Kaur is a professor with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi. She is currently researching shifts and trends of marriage in South Asia. In this conversation with Pamela Philipose, she talks about why marriage is perceived as such an important milestone in India, especially in the life of the woman.

Marriage is destiny for both the woman and the man, although it does not have the same serious implications for both. As demographers have pointed out, marriage in India is compulsory and universal, which means that there are very few people in the population who remain unmarried. One of the important things to note about this country is that marriage is the primary way for people to attain what is termed as “social adulthood”, largely because physical relations outside of marriage are not given social legitimacy and recognition. It is, therefore, a rite of passage. While it may be normal to enter this phase without marriage in many other societies, this is not the case generally in India. One can conclude from the huge number of ceremonies that are built around marriage in India – as well as the high expenditure incurred because of them – that this institution enjoys a very special status in Indian society.

Of course, there are different patterns of marriage in the country, depending upon whether the couple is located in the south, north, east, or west. In the north, for instance, marriage is mostly patrilocal, which means that it is the woman who has to leave her home and move into that of her husband’s family. The burden of adjustment falls on her and patterns of inequality set in right at this stage. It means that she lacks the support structures that were once within her reach, and that her autonomy and decision-making abilities could be severely curtailed. So one could say marriage has been more oppressive and more difficult for women in the north – with the associated issues of virginity, of chastity, family honour, all of which are tied up with the behaviour and body of the woman.

Child marriages, incidentally, still accounts for a substantial percentage of marriages in India – the 2001 Census put the figure of girls under the age of 15 who are married at 1.5 million. These marriages have their own negative implications, with the inequalities and biases within the marital relationship even more stark. Yet, it is a tradition that has been highly resistant to change because of the belief that it will ensure the chastity of the woman and, therefore, the honour of her family. Also, often, less dowry is needed if the girl is younger and there is the feeling that a woman is more malleable and fits into her marital family better if she happened to be younger. Even today, communities will advance reasons such as these to argue why child marriages are desirable.

Change may be happening in some parts of the country, especially in urban areas, but the girl child is still socialised to regard marriage as one of the necessary steps she needs to take in life, even if she were to get educated and find a job. I have done field work in rural India and have noted how girls look forward to this event. It is typically tied up with perception of moving into the next stage of life; of finding a home of one’s own; of achieving future mobility. Boys, in contrast, define their mobility in terms of taking up a job outside the home, for instance, or going to another city. In the case of girls and women, the idea of mobility remains dependent on men/husbands through marriage, which also means bearing children and keeping homes going through the drudgery of domestic work.

Ultimately, marriage is an exchange of women, with a lot of the mobility strategies of families tied up with that exchange. This exchange at marriage of women and goods has been used in some ways as an important mode of building relationships between families. Typically, the attempt by the woman’s family is to marry their daughter “up” – and often this becomes one of the justifications for dowry because there is the implicit assumption that if you want to marry “up”, you have to pay for the higher status. Inequality is thus built into that situation. The control is in the hands of the wife takers.

The young woman when she comes into a family as a bride – and these are experiences prevalent in the north – would literally be at the beck and call of every single member of her husband’s family. She would have to get up early in the morning and go to bed after everybody else. Traditionally, there was not much in terms of the companionate aspect of marriage in such a relationship. Apart from reproductive purposes, families tried to prevent any independent relationship building up between the couple. The women would all sleep in one space and the men in another. Covert cohabitation would take place and children would happen, but families were authority structures exercising almost complete control over the lives of the young couple.

Of course, this aspect of conjugality is changing now, even in the conservative pockets of states such as Haryana and Punjab. There are increasingly instances of couples breaking away from the larger family and forming new units. But, traditionally, family control was very real and made for a situation of great inequality for the young women, who entered households as brides. Such relationships, therefore, can never be egalitarian by definition.

Marriage is also a household strategy based on sending female members out. Even if a woman is educated, and is earning an independent income, she has no way of fighting this system and the humiliation that it can sometimes entail. I have met parents in Punjab who have told me that one of their biggest concerns is that their daughter remains happy after marriage – they give her a car, give her a dowry, in order to ensure she gets respect in her marital home. But ultimately, she is always dependent on how her husband’s family is going to treat her. She can be treated badly even if she had brought in a good dowry.

Marriage expenses have grown over the year – even for the groom’s family – because they are status building exercises. The more ostentatious a marriage is, the better. Social competitiveness comes into play and the more such competition grows, the more will be the pressure to spend beyond their means. Debt because of marriage is very much a part of the Indian reality. In fact, the cash component of dowry has only grown over the years. Families want several lakhs in cash, branded goods, grand celebrations in expensive hotels. You go into rural areas and, in most places – especially in the more prosperous regions of the country – you will see very ostentatious “marriage palaces”. These expenses are very draining on family finances and help to explain why daughters in India came to be regarded as liabilities.

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