Considering arranged marriage
I'm single, the clock's ticking. Is it time to succumb?
Welcome to the first issue of Lychee, an advice column for South Asian Americans. We answer questions that range from the salacious to the serious, gathered from conversation with friends, academics, and industry experts. Got a question you want to see answered? Ask below.
This week’s question is timely because arranged marriage, a practice thousands of years old, is somehow making bank on Netflix. This reader asks: It sucks being single, is it foolish to reject my dad when he asks for my biodata to pass around to potential suitors?
My dad has been bugging me for my biodata as of late. No, he hasn’t seen Indian Matchmaking on Netflix, he’s just a brown dad who wants to see his daughter move on to the next chapter in her life. But I find that I have a knee-jerk reaction whenever he asks for it.
Truth be told, I’m turned off to the whole matchmaking process because I know how shallow and critical families can be in making selections. I’m a Bangladeshi Muslim woman and have seen it firsthand. Ideally, I’d like to meet and find someone on my own and avoid my parents setting me up, but dating is hard, and it might not be wise to completely reject my dad’s help.
Should I just entertain my dad’s light efforts for matchmaking even though I’ve lost faith in the process?
Considering arranged marriage
Hi Considering Arranged,
I wonder if your knee-jerk reaction comes from the same place as mine. On one hand, dating is monumentally difficult, and loneliness is a sinkhole. It’s natural to feel like that difficulty can be resolved with better options vetted by parents. On the other hand, there is little I trust or want to endorse about the arranged marriage institution, which at its heart encourages caste supremacy and purity, oppresses women, and prioritizes the needs of the family and the community over any individual. It’s hard for me to match my desire for change with my desire for companionship, hence the knee-jerk reaction.
But Considering, it’s worth acknowledging arranged marriage’s unfortunate allure between these two poles. I've felt a particular sense of loss when some of the things I cherish have been hard to find: one Hinge guy I’d been dating (somewhat successfully, I’d thought) insinuated that I was a “normie” for having a good relationship with my parents.
Perhaps you’ve been using the apps and have found that your connections are superficial, that bonding over favorite movies only runs so deep. Perhaps you’ve been looking for something more concrete, like shared family values, religious beliefs, a certain relationship with your parents. Perhaps your father is thinking of something a little more “modern” than the arranged marriages of yore, where you’re not being matched by skin color or caste. Perhaps you’ll be able to get to know your prospective husband for a few months before deciding whether you want to marry him.
Perhaps. To think through your question, I posted on a Facebook group asking to talk to people who had arranged marriages. I found three women: two who had bad experiences, and one who had a good one. The three women were upper caste Hindu Indian, Muslim Indian, and a Sikh woman who does not wish to disclose her caste, but describes herself as “non upper-caste.” The first story was that of Bharathi, a banker in Dallas who has been surrounded by examples of what she considers positive arranged marriages her whole life. Except for her own arranged marriage, which ended over a decade ago in a divorce.
In 2009, Bharathi’s sister made a profile on Tamil Matrimony, due to the same familial nudges you mention from your father. She matched with a guy from Bangalore who lived in Toronto, and the conversation went… decently. Before Bharathi knew it, her whole family (“mother, my sister, my brother-in-law, my niece”) had decided that they would fly out to Toronto together to see him.
Okay sure, Bharathi thought, maybe this will be the start of a big, bold Bollywood love story. But when they got to Toronto, Bharathi wasn’t impressed. “He was very quiet, and he wasn’t trying, and he’d say things that would make me upset,” she remembers. “I wasn’t vibing with him.”
So Bharathi flew back to her home in Austin, certain that the match wasn't worth pursuing. But when she got to her home, she saw that he’d sent her a gift: a box with a diamond wedding ring in it. Classic love bombing. Her father decided that this must mean that the two should have an engagement. They were married within the year, and Bharathi, as you describe yourself, was lonely, so she went along with it.
Of course, the problems soon began to pile up. He would talk about their problems with everyone, he was maniacally possessive, he never cleaned their home and relied on her to do all chores. Things got worse. Bharathi recounts multiple instances of physical abuse, and experienced mental breakdowns. “I’d rather have died than continue in that marriage,” Bharathi says, somehow almost laughing over the phone.
Hafsa (name changed), from Texas, shared a similar story. She was arranged to a family friend at 18 when he was 26, was married at 20, and divorced by 23 as she began to unravel his lies. Lies, Hafsa emphasizes, exist across all types of romance and dating, but in arranged marriages, lies are what make the structure work. A suitable mate must fit certain categories ordained by parents, sometimes loose, sometimes strict: caste, salary, relationship to alcohol, drugs, religion. Because those expectations are so particular, and because arranged marriages skip the time you might otherwise spend dating to unravel those lies, the truth is stark when it is revealed.
The last woman I spoke to was Ranjini, arranged at 21. At the time, she was living in rural Virginia where her dating options were slim; this was a decade ago, long before dating over the internet had grown popular. Ranjini considers herself to be very close to her parents, and she prioritized their relationship above all else. They had strict ideas about the type of person she should get married to, especially the individual’s caste and their relationship to their culture. Making these compromises to ensure that her relationship with her parents was peaceful and happy was the only option that Ranjini saw.
A decade on, Ranjini says she might not have been as easily swayed into arranged marriage had she been older — by 31, she would have decided on a job, a city she wanted to grow old in, came to terms with her individual politics that might have clashed with the process. But she doesn’t regret her decision. “The happiness it has brought me over the past decade is immense,” she said. “I remember I saw them all speaking my language and having a good time. If I had done this in a way where my parents could no longer be in my life, I would have been sad. Never for a second have I regretted it.”
Considering, I also paused for a moment after hearing Ranjini’s experience to consider my perspective. There are people who say that they have made arranged marriage work. By rejecting arranged marriage, was I also rejecting the love of the community that I had grown up with? And was I rejecting an easy match for a Sisyphusean search swiping through countless men on dating apps?
I soon found my way out of that thought wormhole. What worries me most about arranged marriage is what comes after you’ve agreed to it. You’ve chosen to take part in a regressive ideology not just for the time of your wedding, but for your life. What will it look like if you want to get a divorce? If you choose not to have children? “Patriarchal, oppressive structures are like an amoeba,” author Aruni Kashyap puts eloquently. “These things evolve over time, and they take many shapes, but their core does not change.”
For me, the answer is clear. I’d rather continue to swipe endlessly and go on goofy and horrific dates and maybe still be single at sixty than endorse a regressive matchmaking process. And I would worry that my endorsement of the system — after fighting against it for so long — would only make the option seem like it could be attractive for the next young woman navigating this balance, and on and on the cycle would go.
But Considering, not all of us want that for ourselves. It’s still your decision. It takes a lot of bravery to admit that you’re finding dating difficult. So many of us do, and it’s important not to see it as an indictment against our character or our physical traits.
Maybe we can reframe this question a bit. Why do you think your search for someone has grown so deep that it’s turned into this conundrum, where your happiness is stuck between a knee-jerk option and a Herculean feat on the apps? Could you find happiness somewhere in the middle, so you wouldn’t feel quite as stuck?
Some internet reads:
Suraj Yengde details the horrific history of arranged marriage.
Yashica Dutt addresses how Indian Matchmaking’s shenanigans, crafted as fun, only normalize caste.
Sanjena Sathian reminds us to be patient when we ask for change, and to understand the in-between tender moments when you overhaul an old system.
Aruni Kashyap’s beautiful How to Date a Hindu Fundamentalist. I won't ruin it but here’s a quote: “The way he forsook the greater good for the pleasures of the bed, or something like that.”