I’m always intrigued when I see people talking in glowing terms about arranged marriages in Pakistan, especially when comparing them to “love” marriages (or perhaps non-arranged marriages is a better term, since love and marriage seem to be mutually exclusive terms in Pakistan but not the rest of the world).
The argument seems to be that marriages arranged by parents for their children have a greater chance of success than marriages in which the two people marrying each other choose to marry without having the partner chosen for them by the parents (often seen as a “Western” style marriage). Of course there are different gradations of “arranged” marriage, with formal parental introductions on one end and introductions through friends and further members of family down the scale. And an arranged marriage is different from a forced marriage, in which one or both parties is coerced, with violence or threats of violence, to marry against their own wishes.
The majority of Pakistanis understand arranged marriage as “the best option” for their “kids”. But let’s get something straight from the start: when we talk about arranged marriage in terms of parents and their children, we’re already muddying the waters with these terms. They’re not “kids” or “children”. They’re fully grown adults, and an arranged marriage that infantilizes them by refusing to respect their age or their agency does not protect them from divorce, adultery, cheating, sexual abuse, domestic violence or any other pitfall of marriage.
This “best option” may be seen as just that: part of parental duties and responsibilities. But in reality, arranged marriage provides a way for parents to extend their control over their offspring long after marriage. The same parents who “arrange” the marriage then make their son and daughter-in-law’s life a misery. They give the couple no space or privacy, they expect the daughter in law to function as a glorified servant, and they insist on being given precedence in all the couple’s decisions. In Pakistan, we all know how this works: exercising control and authority over the newly-married couple’s lifestyle, living arrangements, and choices, even going so far as to decide when the couple should have children and how many. Quoting Heather Quinn, who participated in the Twitter discussion I was having:
“In-law interference in marriages can be destructive and devastating to the couple, and especially often the wife, because of historical devaluation of women in society.”
Egregious in-law interference aside, many marriages in Pakistan are miserable ones, and only last because the parties are coerced into staying, the wife is coerced into keeping quiet about her unhappiness, and her own family tells her that she will not be welcomed back into the family home should she leave her husband. Furthermore, the partners do not communicate, the son will complain to his parents about any little problem with his spouse instead of trying to work it out with her, and the mother-in-law becomes so overly protective of her (adult) son that she shows all sorts of resentment and hostility towards the daughter-in-law.
Our motivations for arranging people’s marriages are not always done with the pure intent of trying to help the two parties along the path to personal happiness and the building of a healthy family unit. Arranged marriage in South Asia is often a pretext for parents to cement family ties, clan ties or business ties with each other, using sons and daughters as collateral. Property and money, as well as social class and status are involved in the deal — oops, I mean the “marriage”.
But aren’t material considerations a factor in Western marriages as well? Heather Quinn had an excellent response to this: “In Western cultures, the material considerations are the responsibility of the couple, not the family. The couple live with the results of their decisions. Sometimes there’s family pressure, but it can be easily disregarded… Every culture has parents who put their own needs, including greed, ahead of their children’s needs. Because parents are in a natural position of power over children, this creates a risk in the marriage choice process. If the parents are involved, that is.” In South Asia, parents are far more involved in the marriage process and beyond than they can dream of being anywhere in Western cultures — and so are in a position of doing much harm to a marriage.
There are trends that point towards increasing divorce in Pakistan because some women feel empowered enough to leave, their families are supportive, they have a source of income other than the husband. But we see this as a negative development, proof of creeping Westernization and modernization in our country (as if this is a bad thing). We don’t recognize that it’s a sign things are wrong in the way we conduct marriages. We want to stay firmly in 1917, refusing to recognize that it is 2017 and times are changing whether we like it or not.
There are two things mandatory for any marriage, both in secular societies and in Islamic ones: consent and choice. But our South Asian milieu likes to overlook both, asserting that “children” don’t know themselves or their own minds well enough to choose their own partners. They only know themselves well enough by the time they’re old enough to start arranging their own children’s marriages, and having learned this marriage model to the exclusion of all others, the pattern repeats itself.
In the end, we’re not going to see arranged marriages disappearing from South Asia any time soon. It’s too embedded in our culture, and resistance to the alternatives which are practiced on a small scale in Pakistan at least is still very strong. And let’s not deny that the family support system does provide powerful incentives for people to go along with the tradition, ferreting out their small freedoms from a system that does not really encourage individuality and personal preference. But an arranged marriage (thinly-disguised forced marriage) that doesn’t guarantee consent and choice, not just at the engagement or the nikah but throughout the marriage’s lifetime, is the worst option for people’s offspring.
PS I’d be interested to know how arranged marriage works in African countries, China, or any other part of the world so please comment below if you have something to add.