Updated: Mar 11
I remember the first time I realised that my parents’ marriage would be considered arranged. I just couldn’t quite reconcile my headstrong mother and my opinionated, anti-establishment father taking part in something that was so regressive and backwards. There was something shameful about it, like they had been part of something terrible and didn’t even know it. A friend of mine told me that throughout her schooling, she would avoid conversations about how her parents met, as these would always end with a classmate asserting, “oh my parents actually fell in love, it wasn’t arranged or anything”, as though this was a badge of legitimacy for their existence. I remember when I asked my mother, “why?” She simply responded, “It’s just how we did things, it wasn’t strange for us”.
Why is Arranged Marriage Backwards?
Before we get to the heart of it all, let’s clarify some points:
1. Arranged marriage is simply a matrimonial arrangement that has been organised exclusively by a third-party. In the past, this was often done by parents, older relatives, or professional matchmakers. Today these options have been joined by online services like E-Harmony or Hinge.
2. Arranged marriage is not forced marriage. While there is often a tendency to conflate arranged marriage with forced marriage, the two are conceptually and legally different, and so this piece will exclusively focus on the former. We all know forced marriage is extremely illegal and highly unethical.
3. There will be no discussions or comparisons about the superiority of one type of spousal arrangement over another. Frankly, picking a side is oddly juvenile, and is like trying to decipher the secret to happiness.
Arranged marriage has a bit of an image problem. Research looking at depictions of arranged marriage in the mainstream print media found it to be overwhelmingly negative (Roger, 2011). The articles about it were highly sensationalised, with a focus on violence, Islam and family honour. There also seems to be a clear dichotomy between an arranged marriage and one wherein the partners found each other, termed a ‘love’ marriage. The discussion surrounding arranged marriage is often quite loaded, with questions of its progressiveness and its relevance in modern life.
Why are arranged marriages looked down upon in comparison to ‘love’ marriages? We need to examine our own inherent biases as a society and why we view some concepts as ‘right’ and others as ‘wrong’. Once we unpack them, we realise that there is no absolute truth.
The way arranged marriage and the cultures which practice it are discussed is not unique. The assertion of hegemonic Western ideas as the norm is predominant on a societal level, especially as globalisation continues to do its thing.
As the world has gotten bigger and the fish in the sea have multiplied, so to speak, it’s become harder to catch one, and we’ve seen a rise in organisations and matchmaking services that work in a very similar way to what would be considered arranged marriage. We are even on the third season of self-styled “relationship experts” putting together random people in shows like ‘Married At First Sight’. And yet all of this is somehow more socially acceptable than your local parlour Aunty setting up Ahmed and Fatima. It makes me think - is there a RACIALISED element to all of this?!
Is marriage (really) just between two people?
Modern Western discourse surrounding arranged marriage often sees it as contradictory to personal freedom and individual agency. The idea of an external source, especially an older relative, acting as the catalyst for marriage is not only unsexy, but seems almost impossible in a culture fostered by the narrative that ‘love conquers all’. In the Eurocentric ideal of romantic love, marriage is applauded as the union of individuals. Two halves of a whole, two peas in a pod.
Yet, this version of marriage is not transferable to other cultures. In many collectivist cultures, wherein the nuclear family is not the basic functional unit of society, marriages are the union of two whole families. This point is illustrated beautifully in a New York Times piece by Farahad Zama, relaying the story of his own marriage. Zama writes that a key factor in choosing his wife was that she was from the same village as him. His family also really supported this because there would be no need for a split holiday, and because they would already be spending so little time with them.
What struck me was that the marriage was seen as a union of families and lives, even before there was a marriage at all. Within this context, the marriage, though a rite of passage, did not mean the separation and creation of a new family, but the addition to and continuation of an existing one. It’s not that there wasn’t any agency or choice in the matter, just that other considerations were kept in mind. In his piece, Zama comments on the differences between him and his wife, and questions whether they would have married at all if they had met in a more Western dating fashion or if they’d have “given up on each other and moved on, searching for the perfect ‘one’.”
It is a choice; it may not be a choice you would make or even understand, but that doesn’t make it lesser or incorrect.
Why Are Eurocentric Practices The Norm?
It wasn’t until later in life that I understood what my mother had meant when she said, ‘it just wasn’t strange for us.’ Lost under my genuine failure to understand a decision I had no context for, was my unquestioned acceptance of Eurocentric lifestyle practices as the norm. It was the underlying understanding that ‘love’ marriages were superior and more progressive than arranged marriage. While both types of unions are rooted in the associated value systems of their respective society, there is a tendency to derogate the “Other”, regarding one’s own practises as not only superior but “normal”.
Within that mindset, anything outside of that norm is deviant and wrong. In the case of arranged marriage, it is viewed as archaic, with people often exclaiming, “how could anyone marry someone they don’t really know?” But even in a love marriage, the person you marry isn’t going to always be the person you marry. You’ll continue to learn about each other, again and again, for years to come. The journey may be different but the end result is the same.
It’s your way or the highway
We attribute much of our personal values and beliefs as inherently our own, but in fact they are derived from the external social forces of our broader context and influenced by cultural expectation. We understand that today’s world is informed by a number of historical factors. Secondly, cultural specificity already determines how we value certain practices and how they are perceived. Across the world, there are significant distinctions between what humans value, how they perceive the world, and what they do in their everyday lives. This is why it is important that we question our everyday thinking and ‘common sense’ assumptions. In doing this we can recognise that something can be true for us without being ‘right’ for someone else, and that’s ok.
In the wise words of my 11-year old cousin, “We look at them and think how weird it is that they do this, but you know what, I bet they look at the way we do it and think the exact same thing.”
Disclaimer: the writer of this article is not married, and is not planning on marriage (arranged or otherwise) any time in the foreseeable future. Sorry mum.
Lead Editor: Irisa R.
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Cherlin, A., 2018. "Marriage has become a trophy". The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/03/incredible-everlasting-institution-marriage/555320/
Duggi, D.B. and Kamble, S.V., 2015. Relationship satisfaction and attachment of couples in arranged marriage and love marriage. Indian Journal of Health & Wellbeing, 6(2).
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