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Marriage as oppression

By Ravinder Kaur

The weight of a female-unfriendly political economy and society ensures that even for women empowered by education, marriage remains an oppressive and unequal institution. Marriage is still seen as an exchange of women and goods, a form of social mobility for the family, which will exercise patriarchal control through honour killings of inter-caste and inter-gotra unions

In India, marriage is destiny -- for the woman and the man -- although it does not have the same serious implications for both equally. Marriage in India is also compulsory and universal, as demographers put it, with very few people in the population remaining unmarried.

Marriage is the primary way for people to attain ‘social adulthood’, largely because physical relations outside of marriage do not have social legitimacy and recognition. It is therefore one way to enter a phase of life; a rite of passage. While it may be normal to enter this phase without marriage in many other societies, that is not generally the case in India.

So marriage becomes a very important milestone, especially in the life of the Indian woman. In many ways it is the basis for society’s reproduction. 

Of course there are different patterns of marriage depending on geographical location, and often there is a stark contrast between north and south. In the north, marriage is mostly patrilocal, where the woman has to leave her own home and move into that of her husband’s family. The burden of adjustment falls on her, and the inequality sets in right there. This means she lacks support structures that were once within her reach, and this affects her autonomy and decision-making abilities. One could say therefore that marriage has been more oppressive and difficult for women in the north -- with the associated issues of virginity, chastity, protection of girls, all of which are tied up with the behaviour and body of the woman.

Marriage as exchange of women -- and goods

Inequalities and biases are starkly visible in child marriages which still account for a substantial percentage of marriages in India -- Census 2001 records 1.5 million girls married under 15, and there are some pockets where marriages of children aged 4-7 still take place.  It is a tradition that has been extremely resistant to change. Communities will advance various reasons for child marriage: the belief that the chastity of the woman is kept and her family honour preserved by early marriage; that once a woman is married she becomes the responsibility of the marital family; that less dowry is needed if the girl is younger; that a younger woman is more malleable and fits into her marital family better.

Change may be visible in some parts of the country, especially in urban India, but the girl-child is still socialised to regard marriage as necessary, even if she gets educated and finds a job. Girls and women remain dependent on men and husbands to achieve various goals. My fieldwork in rural India reveals that marriage is tied up with perceptions of moving into the next stage of life, with future mobility, and having a home of one’s own. For boys, it is quite different as they define their mobility in terms of a job outside the home. In any case, it is easier for them to gain status as they grow older and get opportunities to actualise their potential and achieve something on their own in the world outside. For girls, the future is about getting married and bearing children, all of which also means acceptance of the drudgery of housework, which is not even recognised as productive work.

Ultimately marriage is an exchange of women, with a lot of the mobility strategies of families tied up with this exchange. Anthropologist Levi-Strauss talked about the exchange of services, of goods and of women as a feature of all human societies. The exchange of women tied families together. Hypergamy, a very common feature of Indian marriage, is a strategy through which a woman’s parents raise their own family status. They marry daughters ‘up’ -- and often this was one of the justifications for dowry. There is an implicit assumption that if you want to marry ‘up’ you must pay for the higher status, and since women are considered not productive, economically speaking, dowry was seen as compensation. Hindu scriptures have always considered marriage with dowry the honourable form of marriage. So the flow of wealth was supposed to be in one direction -- women go with wealth and goods, and wealth and goods would keep following her in the post-marital period.

This exchange at marriage of women and goods has been used as an important mode of building relationships between families. Hypergamy also meant that women in the top echelons of the higher castes were killed at birth because the inability to marry the daughter into a higher social status could spell a family’s death, socially. Hypergamy, by its very nature, implies an unequal relationship between what we call wife-givers and wife-takers, with the wife-givers -- the girl’s family -- always, both ritually and socially, occupying a lower social status.

Inequality is built into that situation. Control is in the hands of the wife-takers. The young woman who comes into a family as a bride -- particularly in the north -- would literally be at the beck and call of every single member of her husband’s family. She would have to get up early in the morning, and go to bed after everybody else. Traditionally, there was not much in terms of the companionate aspect of marriage in such a relationship. Apart from reproductive purposes, families tried to prevent any independent relationship building up between the couple. The women would all sleep in one place and the men in another. Covert cohabitation would take place and children would be conceived, but families were authority structures exercising complete control.

Of course this aspect of conjugality is changing now, even in conservative pockets of states like Haryana and Punjab. There are increasing instances of couples breaking away from the larger family and forming new units. But traditionally, family control was very real and made for a situation of great inequality for young brides. Marriage, therefore, could not be an egalitarian institution by definition.

The spread of dowry

Between north and south India there are many similarities and many differences. In the south, consanguineous marriages were the norm within some communities. This is also changing now, partly because dowry has emerged as a factor. It may not have been so important in an older order because when people married within families, the rationale for dowry did not come into play. Today, many people are saying no to consanguineous marriages, I believe, partly because they can then claim dowry.

This trend of marrying people outside the family is also giving impetus to the horoscope industry which again goes against the interests of the woman in some ways. In Kerala, for instance, there have been cases of horoscopes not matching and the potential bride being put through a process where proposals keep coming in and don’t work out because the horoscopes don’t match. Also, if a sufficient amount of gold is not given, the proposal may not fructify. All this goes against the woman who ends up not being able to make the ‘right match’. If she gets older in the process, that too goes against her eligibility as a bride. It is quite a tyrannical situation for her. She is caught in the trap of waiting to get married, instead of leading her own life.

My studies indicate that these are the women who are entering long-distance marriages with men in Haryana. You wonder why educated, self-reliant women from Kerala are opting for such marriages, but the fact is that their own families and societies are pushing them out. Even if a woman is educated and earning an independent income, she has no way of fighting the system and the humiliation that it sometimes brings. I have met parents in Punjab who have told me that one of their biggest concerns is that their daughter remain happy after marriage -- they give her a car, a dowry, in order to ensure she gets respect in her marital home. But ultimately, she is always dependent on how her husband’s family is going to treat her. She can be treated badly even if she has brought in a good dowry. Many parents therefore claim that they prefer not to have daughters as they cannot bear her suffering at the hands of her in-laws.

In Bengal too we find parents sending their daughters all over the country in marriage, partly because they are pressurised by society to ensure that a grown-up daughter is not left sitting at home. In fact, this still seems to be the general expectation almost all over the country. In my own research I have come across Bengali parents who marry their daughters to complete strangers from a different cultural region assuming that they are going to prosperous areas -- and that they will no longer be a burden on them.

Marriage, therefore, has its economics. Certainly, marriage expenses have grown on both sides, even on the male side, because these are status-building exercises. The more ostentatious the marriage, the better. Social competitiveness comes into play and the more social competition grows, the greater the pressure on others to spend outside their means. Debt because of marriage is very much part of Indian reality. In fact, the cash component of dowry has increased over the years. Families want several lakhs in cash, branded goods, grand celebrations in expensive hotels. In rural areas you will see very ostentatious ‘marriage palaces’. These expenses are draining and explain why daughters came to be regarded as a burden over a period of time.

Sex ratios and honour killings

In certain sections of society, there is a loosening of some of the earlier norms. For instance, the age of marriage is certainly going up. Even in conservative states like Punjab you will find women not marrying before the age of 25, which is very high by Indian standards. But even this trend can have unexpected negative consequences for women. We found in our research that this factor is also becoming a reason for perceiving the daughter as a burden because she is kept at home for a longer period before her marriage. For example, in Fatehgarh Saheb, in Punjab, I saw very bright, educated girls not being sent for higher education or employment. Their families insisted that they remain at home in order to protect their chastity, marriage prospects and family honour. Of course, this also means that they are seen as a burden, having to be fed, clothed and looked after not until they were 15, as in an earlier era, but for a whole 25 years!

The rising age of marriage should have been an important development in terms of increasing women’s choices, but this has not happened because they have not been given the leeway to carve out their own futures, choose their life partners, make their own lives. So in that sense, marriages continue to reproduce pre-set patterns which keep inequalities in place.

Arranged marriages are a way in which parents keep control over their children, and this control has always been very important in agrarian societies where there is no other source of old age social security. Parents look to their children, especially sons, to support them in their old age, and want to select their children’s spouses themselves. In an interesting study by academic Divya Mathur, entitled, ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’, a large number of families in Mumbai -- largely urban, upper middle class and middle class -- were studied. Mathur concluded that where parents were the matchmakers, they made sure that the daughter-in-law had characteristics that suited their needs more than the needs of the sons for whom they were fixing these matches. When people make self-choice marriages, parents lose this control, and this could give rise to feelings of insecurity and hostility on their part.

While in urban India things may have loosened up to the extent that the daughter can get to interact with a potential marriage partner and even reject that person, in rural areas women continue to know next to nothing about the person they will be marrying. This lack of information about her future spouse is a way of controlling the woman, in that she can be socialised into the ways of the marital home; she becomes a body that can be written upon.

It is through this prism that honour killings can be viewed. These have been occurring largely in Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, some parts of Punjab, and occasionally in the rest of the country. Two decades ago, no one heard very much about honour killings. Today, two kinds of marriages are being targeted. The first is inter-caste unions. Self-choice is involved here, because you have chosen a partner who is not of the appropriate caste, and endogamy is the last bastion of caste exclusivity. So retaliations and reactions follow. Second, unions within caste that violate gotra or village exogamy norms. These could be either self-choice marriages or those arranged by parents, but which invite violent social reaction. An important factor comes into play here: the ‘marriage squeeze’ created by a skewed sex ratio that has led to a shortage of girls in certain parts of the country. If you look at various marriage rules, there are pools of girls over whom certain categories of men will customarily have rights for marriage. What generally happens in honour killings involving gotra norms is that someone else is poaching on that pool. It is those who feel that their girls are being ‘taken away’ by people who are not eligible who then bring up the question of such marriages being ‘inappropriate’ even if they have been arranged by the parents.

Changes in the political economy have helped bring about such reactions. Earlier, land was the stable basis for social relations, and within castes, gotras had different rankings. Those rankings have today been upset because land is no longer the only measure of wealth and social ranking. A boy from a low-ranked gotra who has a good job may claim a girl from a high-ranked gotra, causing discomfiture to others in a scenario where there is an absolute shortage of girls. It is in such situations that khap sanctions come into play. So we see a link between skewed sex ratios and the emergence of honour killings. Who, after all, are the people who comprise the khaps? (Scholars like Prem Chowdhury have written about this.) They are older men or younger men who see themselves as ‘protectors’ of local customs and values of society. They may personally believe that their own respect and honour are being undermined; younger men who participate in honour killings wish to side with the traditional system, as defending tradition brings them honour and allows them not to face their own insecurities. 

Economics of marriage

There are other changes in the institution of marriage as well. For example, in Tamil Nadu, research shows that among the working classes, families are not unhappy if daughters elope or enter love marriages partly because it saves the parents the expenses of ostentatious marriages and high dowries. But in other places, kin marriages continue to be resilient because women can be drawn into the productive activities of the family, such as farming which needs a lot of labour. A strong, young, obedient woman then becomes sought after. This is so among the cotton farming communities of Andhra Pradesh.

Thus, various aspects have come to mark this institution which has also been given the high gloss of religious sanction. Marriage is supposed to be a sacred bond, yet hard economic realities play an important part in it, given that women are actually unpaid workers within families. If we are to use a Marxist framework, we could say that the surplus within the family is created by the labour of the wife. Today we see reproductive labour also entering the market in many ways, with wives becoming the source of income, as in surrogacy, where not only her physical labour but her reproductive labour is being used for the family. Scholars have questioned the wife/worker separation, arguing that wives are also workers. Somehow the identity of ‘worker’ is subsumed within the category of ‘wife’. Since the work a woman does as wife is not paid, its economic value does not translate into status and decision-making power within the family. Paid labour would have visibilised this value because it would have clearly shown how a woman is adding to the wealth of the family by her own labour.

Here, women’s economic self-reliance becomes very important and it would allow her to choose to marry or not marry. Women who are not economically self-reliant continue to fear divorce and are reluctant to leave even a violent relationship, especially if they have children, because they are worried about how to support themselves and their children. Many of them have, in fact, been socialised into expecting a protective kind of environment where they are looked after -- Deniz Kandiyoti calls this a ‘patriarchal bargain’. And so they don’t develop self-confidence even if they are educated. As we have seen, although women in Kerala have been empowered by education and the potential to earn a salary, they settle for marriages with illiterate men in Haryana because they perceive marriage as extremely important for their social identity.

Technology perpetuates traditional barriers

The inequalities persist even in so-called ‘modern marriages’. Look how the Internet has come to play matchmaker. Earlier you had the traditional go-betweens who brought suitable families together; then there were newspaper classifieds; now there is the Internet. The question is: Does modern technology result in modern marriages?

First, what do we mean by a modern marriage? Surely it would imply a more democratic relationship between the partners in the marriage, with a companionate aspect to it, with people wanting to first get to know each other before committing themselves to a relationship?

In fact, modern technology seems to be contributing towards strengthening traditional marriage in some ways. On the Net, profiles are posted of grooms and brides. People can self-post, parents can post for you, friends can post for you, and so on. The scope of what you say about yourself, or about a potential bride or groom, is much wider than in a cryptic newspaper advertisement. So the display of self can include family connections, accomplishments, achievements, in fact all kinds of criteria -- religion, region, language, caste, sub-caste, gotra. Technology makes it very easy to match ‘perfectly’ because the websites operate with proprietary algorithms which allow them to match people within seconds and send them a list of ‘probables’.  Worries about the ‘unsuitability’ of who you are going to marry, whether in terms of caste, community, religious persuasion, are taken care of by technology. Technology ends up perpetuating traditional barriers of class, caste, ethnicity. Of course, there may be a few marriages occurring of people who look beyond class- and caste-based matches, but what the Internet is enabling is a close match of social characteristics.

Is there a gender disadvantage built into the system? From my study I found first that far fewer women posted on the Net. Secondly, far fewer posted the information themselves. Therefore again, the agency was with the parents or the older sibling or the brother, who would then vet the responses. Interestingly, when I did some case studies of women in professions such as medicine and business management who wanted their choice of spouse to be broadened, I found they were not happy with the people their parents were suggesting as potential partners; they wanted to pick ‘better’ grooms. You could call it a self-propelled mode of upward mobility.

Looking at all these trends together, it would seem that not many Indian women are rejecting the idea of marriage. There are some who marry on their own terms. But clearly the great majority of women in this country are still caught in the old, familiar scenario, with the weight of a female-unfriendly political economy and society making marriage an oppressive institution.

(Ravinder Kaur is a Professor with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi. She is currently researching shifts and trends in marriage in South Asia)

Infochange News & Features, December 2012