A Marriage of Families

Bridegroom and best man in the small village of Rohet

(Dana) No way.  I can’t imagine.  Subjugates women.  Not for me.  These are just some of the thoughts that I – and probably most of my female friends – would have voiced about arranged marriages.  But spending time in the villages of India has given me an appreciation of why 99% of marriages in this country are still arranged.

Primarily, families arrange marriages because marriages are between families.  Even today, 90% of married Indian couples live with the groom’s family.  This is definitely the rule in the villages, although with increasing exceptions in the big cities.  Traditionally, the new bride must fit into her new family.  But how hard could that be?

Turns out, it is much more challenging than I would have expected.  Although no longer recognized, there are five Hindu castes in India – Brahman, warrior, tradesmen, craftsmen and untouchables – and India is 80% Hindu.  Within these castes are thousands of sub-castes of specific crafts or clans.  Importantly, each of these sub-castes has its own traditions, jobs, aspirations, conversations, cuisine and even dialect.  And all of these vary by region of India.  So if a woman marries into and lives with a family that is not of the same sub-caste and general geographic region, she will feel like an alien.  Every household activity will be slightly different.  And at the extreme, she may literally not be able to converse.

While this may imply that marriages are arranged out of fear, on the positive side, the fact that entire families are involved in the process creates a strong foundation for the marriage. Everyone is invested in making this marriage work.  No undermining by in-laws.  No support for intolerance.  Just encouragement that living and sharing lives together will develop “the feel” and deep love.  Historically, the divorce rate in India has been very low.

The resulting engagement and wedding activities are still steeped in tradition and superstition that involve both families.  Astrologers – working with the date, time and location of the bride and groom’s birth – still dictate engagement and wedding dates and times…and even the initials of the names of resulting children.  The astrologers also measure the couple along 36 points of compatibility, with 18 being considered a minimum passing grade (maybe this is where eHarmony got its angle).

As the date approaches, the groom travels with his supporting male entourage to the bride’s village for the 5-day ceremony.  The entire village blesses the groom as he makes his rounds in full regalia on a horse with his young best man, accompanied by music and dancing.  The ceremony involves the bride’s entire family.  And fun post-ceremony rituals with full family participation are meant to encourage physical contact between a young couple, who may only have met a few times.

Whether I agree with the practice of arranging marriages or not is irrelevant.  The important lesson is that to understand the role of women and female traditions, I must put them in their cultural and historical context.  There are several times on this trip where I have had to remind myself of this filter when observing practices around the world.  Some of the ones that jump to mind include girls dropping out of school at young ages in most countries in order to learn household skills more valuable to a married woman or the covering of women in Muslim countries.

Or, at the risk of infuriating my female friends at home, female circumcision in African warrior cultures.  Believe me, I am not defending the practice in any way. But during our time in Kenya, I started to appreciate why it is taking so long to abolish the practice.  It is hard to come into a community and dictate change.  Change needs to be made in the context of what is important to these women, which for millennia was the rite-of-passage that allowed them to fulfill their destiny as wife and mother.

We embarked on 6explorers to teach our children.  I know that I have easily learned as much as they have and reinforced the importance of tolerance, understanding and open-mindedness.  Things I hope to keep in mind as I keep learning.

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2 Responses to “A Marriage of Families”

  1. Carter Wilcox 22. Mar, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    It looks like you all are learning a greaat deal on your trip. I am constantly impressed by your family’s conclusions. Keep up the great work!


  2. Hey Dana and Greg! I ran into someone today who reminded me you were on your “Journey Around the World”. I have now spent hours reading your entries of what you all are experiencing and the amazing gift of being together in the moment. I am thrilled Greg is ok and back with you guys. I realize I caught you towards the end of your journey, but I cannot wait to watch and learn from you in the final months. Be safe and relish every moment! Best to you guys, Sondra Bloch (YPO)