Monthly Archives: March 2011

No No…Don’t Have That Arranged Marriage!

Ok, here goes, my take on arranged marriage…a favourite topic because it never fails to ignite some good-ol’ fashioned argument.

Recently, I had a heated debate with my housemates about why arranged marriage is not an inferior form of matrimony to so-called love marriage.

As the daughter of South Asian migrants, I’ve often argued to friends that a system which upholds marriage as a union of families (where love and desire between a woman and man may only be one factor informing the collective decision to endorse a match) is no better or no worse than a system which upholds marriage as a union of two individuals. On the flip side, I’ve fiercely defended ‘love marriage’ to South Asian relatives who are convinced that in the west, marriage = divorce.

Despite this public commitment to cross-cultural tolerance and understanding, I have a personal confession: As daughter of South Asian migrants, I can’t help but feel disappointed – and yes judgemental – when I hear that yet another daughter or son of this-or-that Aunty has opted for an arranged marriage.

Dude, what are you doing? Don’t you know that you’re behaviour is setting a precedent for the rest of us? One down for the team…

(The thought occurs that expecting young adults to conform to the wishes of their peers is just as Nazi as expecting them to conform to the wishes of their parents. But let’s not digress.)

Let me clarify that up until 4 years ago, I was judgemental of ANY form of marriage, ‘love’ or ‘arranged’, convinced as I was through adolescence that marriage is a conservative, misogynist conspiracy out to get women. That view is softening somewhat since (predictably) I met L. In high school, most of my friends had a much more tolerant attitude towards marriage (‘love’ marriage in the context of this post) than I did. I actually have more friend in their 20s (my age group) married or planning to get married than friends in their 30s, and I’ve surprised myself by embracing this desire to settle down with the love of my life…a desire I’ve previously dismissed as romantic nonsense. You can hardly blame us romantics – most of us spent our teens under a conservative Australian government which championed a form of family values harking straight back to the 1950s.

Anyway, back to the point – migrant marriage patterns are influenced to various degrees by both the ‘host’ and ‘home’ cultures, so maybe a general political climate sanctifying ‘family values’ reinforces South Asian notions of family values and hence, for marriageable 20-somethings, makes arranged marriage seem like an attractive and moral choice.

And let’s make no mistake that, at least of the community of youth with whom I’m familiar, arranged marriage is to a large extent a matter of choice (i.e. not a result of outright coercion by parents). Parental pressure may play a role – it certainly does for my female cousins in South Asia – but nobody I’m close to has yet ‘chosen’ an arranged marriage in Australia so I’m unsure how the parental pressure factor plays out here (except for in my own case, where parental pressure is not FOR an arranged marriage, but AGAINST the current relationship).

On the grapevine, I’ve heard that those who are having arranged marriages (friends of friends) are doing so because they want to. They want to have their marriages arranged. They always have since they were a kid.

To sum up so far…they want to have their marriages arranged and they have a right to do so and who am I to judge them for going through with it?

What’s my problem anyway?

I could say that the extended family structure, which underscores arranged marriage (again, through the idea that marriage is a union of families endorsed by the familial collective) is too patriarchal for any woman to have to bear.

But in Australia, couples don’t necessarily live with the husband’s family after marriage, and as I’ve already pointed out, all forms of marriage are based on patriarchal ideals in one way or another (e.g. a father giving away his daughter).

At the end of the day, I guess I’m uncomfortable and confused by the fact that migrant youth my age are identifying with a practice and culture that I have always associated with another time and another world (my parent’s world – which for me has always been at the other side of the world).

STEPPING BACK

I always knew my parents had an arranged marriage. It was an everyday, taken-for-granted, ‘steel is grey’ kind of fact. Indeed, my parents had never seen or spoken to each other until the day of their wedding. Both my parents have older siblings who had ‘love marriages’ (but into the right caste) before them, both had finished their Masters degrees at the time of marriage and both come from relatively liberal urban families. (My mum’s mum, who had been married before she turned 10 and widowed with a large family to support, had given her 7 daughters a choice: we’ll sell whatever is left of your father’s belongings for dowry or spend it on your education…all chose education at a time when it was rare for daughters to go to university). Amongst their social group, it would have been normal for the couple to meet, once the match had been confirmed, in the context of a family gathering. But at the time dad was living in a rural area, and nobody owned a telephone, so no exchange until the wedding day.

I also always knew that arranged marriage was something they did over ‘there’, and that it had nothing to do with me. That too, was an everyday, taken-for-granted fact. I didn’t know anybody in Australia who had an arranged marriage or was planning to…who even gets married these days (much less – gasp – an arranged marriage), right? I remember teasing my dad about not being able to find somebody himself and getting his parents to do it for him. My dad – who has always been much more tolerant of my pigheadedness than I ever have been about some very basic aspects of his culture – replied with good humour that he went to a university with only 3 female students, and being the nerd that he was he never had a chance to meet anybody.

The first time I told my friends that my parents had an arranged marriage – and that they’d never even met before marriage – I was surprised by their surprise. I knew their parents had all dated before marriage, because that’s what people do here, and I’d assumed that they, like me, ‘knew’ that things were done differently in different parts of the world. This discussion happened in a high school English class, while completing an assignment on Jane Austin and arranged marriage (the 18th century English variety) versus contemporary marriage practices. I was even more surprised when one of my friends concluded during this discussion that because my parents had an arranged marriage, I would also take the side of arranged marriage. Again I had assumed that my friends would take what I took for granted: that anything I said about my parents and their marriage was something done over ‘there’, in a little-known country on the other side of the world, why would it have any relevance ‘here’?

These assumptions of course sum up my entire attitude towards my parents’ culture and their way of life, their religion, their language and even ‘their’ family (not ‘my’ family because they were strangers to me for a long time): that it belonged to another world and had nothing to do with me. We never talked about culture, or religion, or values, or marriage when I was growing up…unfortunately these expectations came out much later when I’d already been with L for two years. As a teenager, my dad had told me that when they moved to Australia, they accepted that their children would not marry somebody from [glorious homeland] because there wasn’t anybody from [glorious homeland] here to marry. Their attitude has been changing since they moved to a city with a growing community from [GH]. Studies of migrant communities point to this trend – as communities grow, the less they are forced to assimilate and thus the more ‘conservative’ (in the sense of maintaining/modifying traditions from home) they become. My parents (or more specifically, my mother’s) reaction to L is a case in point …but that’s a story for another post.

I realise now though what my high school friend (who is still a good friend) had known much earlier – that people aren’t just different because they’re in different parts of the world; they carry their differences with them because it’s a part of who they are.

AND YET

And yet I’m still uncomfortable with the fact that having an arranged marriage can be a part of who you are if you live in Australia. Not least of all because it gives my mother leverage to say, “See, [so-and-so] are marrying a nice boy from [the glorious homeland], if only I’d raised you better I wouldn’t have this problem!”

See how your arranged marriage is turning me into a problem?

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Filed under Adolescence, Arranged Marriage, Cultural Difference, Family Acceptance, Parents, South Asian Marriage

Colour Therapy through a South Asian Marriage

In keeping with the spirit of this blog, which was inspired by several excellent gori-girl south Asian-guy intercultural relationships blogs, I thought I’d lift my mood by sharing some colourful photos of a marriage I recently attended in the subcontinent. This is a Hindu marriage, but as a caveat I’d add that Hindu marriages are very diverse – to the point that the bride and groom’s families sometimes perform their respective parts of the ritual according to distinctive family traditions.  So not claiming that this is how ALL weddings go, but I hope it conveys the exciting visual experience.

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For a bride-to-be, a wedding starts weeks before the ceremony, when the women of her family take over and decorate her home with various fruits and ritual objects. These are sent to the groom’s family as gifts. Today, these decorated objects are often availabe ready-made at local markets, but this has not prevented the social aspect of a wedding allowing female relatives to celebrate and spend time together (if it’s anything like my family you could probably throw in a bit of fighting and tears to the mix!).

The ceremony itself tends to be rather long by western standards. One of the pivotal moments occurs when the groom extends a white cloth to the bride’s forehead and sprinkles vermillion (sindoor) along the cloth before eventually marking her hairpart red. In dominant patriarchal Hindu ideology, this symbolises the defloration of the virgin bride, and from this point on, at least in this part of the subcontinent, it is customary for married women to apply sindoor every morning. I emphasise that this association of sindoor in the hair part with defloration is the dominant/patriarchal way of interpreting this practice – obviously the practice can and does have different meanings to both the women and men who are accustomed to it.

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Filed under South Asian Marriage

Difference of Culture, Difference of Class, or Neither of the Above?

So soon after claiming that I wasn’t ready to write my own posts, here I am, writing my very first post. I don’t want this post to set the tone for this blog, as it’s gonna a bit gloom-n-doom (read: a reflection of the state of our relationship). But hey, I started this with the hope that writing and reading may lighten the mood, and I guess I won’t know until I’ve given it a shot.

My partner, L, has been engaging in some pretty self-destructive behaviour recently, both psychologically and physically. I can’t reveal the details over the internet – despite my care to remain anonymous – without betraying the trust that ultimately holds us together, but let me just say that it extremely painful to watch somebody you love hurt themselves REPEATEDLY in a way that undermines all their chances of achieving the things they have been working hard for; and thus in a way that defies all rational thinking.

Which brings me to my point: it’s so hard for me to make sense of his behaviour, and because of this my responses to him have been resentful, aggressive, critical, harsh…i.e. all the things that just fuel addictive, self-destructive behaviour even more.

And the more we become tangled in this the more I fear that it’s due to incommensurable differences in not only the way we think and view the world (‘the way we act in the world’), but our very experience of the world (‘the way the world has acted upon us’) – if I can be so naive as to draw this dialectic in the first place. I’m fumbling here to articulate something that goes beyond ‘culture’ (our socialisation, our value and belief systems, our sense of personhood and family obligations) to what I’m calling, for total lack of imagination and a better word, ‘class’. I don’t mean ‘class’ in the economic/Marxist sense…I just mean that L and I come from such different ‘status’ backgrounds. Another way of saying this is that I’ve had, relatively, a much more privileged life than him – and this is linked very closely to race.

What has been a struggle for him has not been a struggle for me. Not to say I have no way of understanding where he’s coming from. My parents moved to Australia at a time when there were very few migrants here from their home country. Life always seems normal when you’re young, but in retrospect I realise how much they sacrificed for us kids by staying in Australia, because they did, and still do, face isolation and a degree of structural racism that has often placed the family under strain (again, through certain types of self-destructive behaviour, though not the same extent as L). Unlike L however, who moved here by himself over 10 years ago from a country that still has no significant migrant presence, my parents bore the brunt of the racism for me. I am very fortunate to have grown up in an Australia where people from my background aren’t generally stigmatised or looked upon as some sort of exotic specimen (creepy old men might be an exception to this…but they are in every country and prey on anyone!). Unlike L, I have not: survived a civil war (he won’t talk about his personal experiences in this time), been detained without charge, been harassed by police and bouncers on a regular basis, faced discrimination in the workplace…you get the gist. So where he sees social barriers or a problem that seems ‘intractable’, I see a problem that is, yeah, undeniably a problem, but not something to despair about to the point of shooting yourself in the foot.

Cos where’s the logic in that right?

But unfortunately people’s responses to pain aren’t always logical and that’s the rub – I try to understand what he’s going through at the ‘logical’ level, but despite this understanding, when I’m upset and see him doing something I think is S-T-U-P-I-D any ‘rational empathy’ flies out the window and bubble forth all my (irrational) resentful emotions, chastising him for being unable to cope with a type of pain I can try to understand, but never actually FEEL. And because I can’t feel that pain, emotionally if not logically, I expect him to respond the same way I would, based on how I’ve experienced the world – that is, just get on with it and deal with it. It’s not that hard.

[Now let me shift the topic slightly to deflect any more self-criticism…]

On another level, I’m increasingly beginning to feel like our differences also affect the type of lives we imagine living, which makes me feel insecure about our future together. For instance, I have a passionate interest in travel and particularly foreign cultures; an interest which is largely channelled through what L calls an “academic/intellectual” curiosity because I studied anthropology and would absolutely LOVE to pursue these studies further. For L this curiosity is, at best, bourgeois (read: spoilt western arts student with time to ponder on exotic others) and at worst, outright colonial (read: spoilt western arts student with time, money and power to subject underprivileged ‘others’ to exoticising study). He has even refused to go on a mini-holiday I suggested because, he explained (half) jokingly, he suspected me of only wanting to go to “take photos with Aboriginal kids and post them on Facebook” [!!]. Where I saw a fun excursion doing and seeing something different (cos frankly, where we live, there’s not much to do), he saw insidious and suspect motives.

It’s funny, L and I have been together for over 3 years and only now am I starting to realise just how different we are. Not to say that the only thing holding us together this whole time has been the false impression, on my part, that we’re the ‘same’, but I can’t help feeling like the terms of our relationship are shifting and I don’t really know how to handle it…

Sorry for the long-winded post. I would appreciate any comments about how you see differences between you and your partner – are they cultural differences? Something else? Are they intractable? Or do you see difference as something that enriches your relationship?

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Filed under Cultural Difference, Interracial Relationships, Race, Racism, Western Privilege