Shane Jones’ inflammatory comments last week failed to understand the complexity of arranged marriage, serving only to repeat deeply entrenched racist colonial stereotypes, writes Josephine Varghese.
Last night I, an Indian immigrant, was having dinner at a small Vietnamese BYO in Christchurch (run by Vietnamese immigrants), happily savouring the lemongrass flavour in my favourite dish. I was interrupted when I heard the European immigrants at the neighbouring table, who appeared to be in their late 60s and 70s, loudly discuss immigration and arranged marriage. Their discussion about Indian people and arranged marriage unsurprisingly repeated racist colonial tropes. “Thank you, Shane Jones,” I thought to myself.
Back home, scrolling through Facebook, I saw members of the Pākehā community on public forums saying things like “don’t bring your s**t here, fit in or f**k off”. I wondered how well Pākehā would have fit in with tangata whenua principles of this land when they immigrated here.
It goes without saying that I was disappointed to see New Zealand First MP Shane Jones’ comments about Indian immigrants and arranged marriages. But was I surprised? No. Leaders like Winston Peters and Shane Jones are often uncritically repeating the narrative deeply entrenched in this nation and around the world by European colonisers, which has now become the dominant, “common sense” knowledge about formerly colonised peoples around the world. As an academic interested in postcolonial scholarship, I feel a sense of responsibility to discuss the common misunderstandings around marriage in India.
Firstly, not all marriages in India are “arranged” in the sense it is popularly understood. Many young people (many of my friends included) get married to their lovers/partners. But even when they do so, it is rare to have lived together (since we generally live in our family homes), although they would have dated for significant periods of time. It is true that the dominant system of marriage in India is arranged marriage, however, arranged marriage is often not understood in its complexity in Western narratives. Allow me to bust some common stereotypes (emanating from colonial narratives) about arranged marriage.
1. Arranged marriage = forced marriage
No. While forced marriages can be arranged, not all arranged marriages are forced. Increasingly, the preferences of the prospective bride and groom are considered, and often given priority within the arranged marriage system. Many studies back this up (see Netting, 2010, Sharangpani, 2010; Pande, 2015).
2. Arranged marriage happens between strangers
Increasingly, and especially in urban India, prospective brides and grooms meet and talk to each other for months before deciding whether they are compatible, between the various stages of the decision-making process around arranged marriage.
3. Arranged marriage involves no choice
This is completely wrong. There are various layers to the counter-argument. Firstly, arranged marriage invariably involves what scholars term “social choice”. Which entails the involvement of the family and community in the process of marriage, and in turn assures the community’s continued support throughout the couple’s life together and for their future children. And increasingly, as mentioned above, the prospective bride and groom are very much involved in the deliberations around this choice.
4. Arranged marriage stands in opposition to women’s agency
Quite to the contrary, recent studies (including my upcoming PhD thesis) find that many young women in urban India prefer arranged marriage over “love marriage”. The reason women often cite is that they did not have a partner, and that they would be happy if their parents can present to them a pool of possible grooms with certain qualities (such as education, employment) that they seek in their future partner, from which they could make an informed choice.
At a time when many young people in New Zealand, in their late 20s and 30s are unable to “fall in love” due to limitations in their social life (often working in homosocial spaces or because they have limited opportunities to socialise), elements of the arranged marriage system may provide a potential alternative. With growing number of young men becoming “incels” (involuntary celibates) in the West, having an in-built support system within the family to help you find potential partners might help the bleak love life of many young people. Additionally, scholars have noted that levels of marital satisfaction in arranged and non-arranged marriages are similar.
So yes, while the arranged marriage system can be abhorrent if marriage is forced, in its many other manifestations, the system provides emancipatory possibilities for young women and men seeking a marital life with a partner of their choice.