A friend from university, who is now working in the development sector, is currently going through the lowest ebb of his life despite a good job. He had been in a relationship for more than six years, but after years of squabble, his partner finally gave in to the intense pressure she was under from her family, particularly her elder brother.
The girl, I am told, has been married to one of her cousins (Muslims can marry their cousins) and my friend has since gone into a phase of extreme alienation, suicidal at times. Yet, he has been trying as best as he possibly can to handle the situation maturely and keeping himself busy, and I am confident he will soon be over this phase.
That brings me to raise the larger issue of choice of marriage and the role of family/parents. In conservative and patriarchal societies like ours, and particularly among the middle class, a boy or girl's love and loyalty to the family is often judged on the basis of the choice of marriage.
If you are willing to marry according to your parents/families' choice, even if you have not been a "perfect" son or daughter - not very religious, have had many affairs or not really supporting the family financially - everything can be forgiven and you will be judged positively by your parents and relatives alike.
But if, as a grown-up, you choose your partner, all hell breaks loose. No matter how loyal, religious or financially supportive you had been, you may be regarded as a blot on the family and may even be forsaken by your kin.
Marriage becomes an issue of pride and families often are willing to go to any extent to safeguard their "honour". From religion to caste to social status, everything becomes important while the happiness of young couples takes a back seat.
In 2007 for instance, a young graphic designer from Kolkata, Rizwanur Rahman, was driven into committing suicide by his in-laws - industrialist Ashok Todi and his family after he had married the latter's daughter Priyanka Todi. Streets and homes in Kolkata had animated discussions on the issue of love and marriage.
|Rizwanur Rahman, was driven into committing suicide by his in-laws - industrialist Ashok Todi and his family.|
I was doing BA at that time and during vacations, I heard my parents and uncles too discussing how the Todis were wrong in forcing the girl to leave her husband, whom she loved dearly. I could not stop myself and intervened saying, "But why blame the Todis? What would you do if your son or daughter had married without informing you?" The discussion had abruptly ended then, followed by some uncomfortable exchange of smiles.
In a rapidly changing society like ours, sadly, parents/families are not always willing to be as open and accommodative. The very thought that only they can be right while the son or daughter or sisters can never be mature enough to decide for themselves reek of arrogance and is a typical manifestation of patriarchy.
Of course, there are many happy stories as well, particularly among the educated, upwardly mobile families. Many of them do accept a marriage in the end, sometimes after initial hiccups and throwing tantrums. But this is still an exception rather than rule and in extreme cases you may even hear of "honour killing", though there is nothing honourable in it.
For girls who are not financially independent to take a decision, it is more difficult. They are coerced by their kin in the name of family honour. My friend and young filmmaker Aman Kaleem's documentary, Shaadi, Sex Aur Parivaar (2015) that has been screened in several film festivals, explores the theme of marriage from the perspective of three young, to-be-married brides and what the institution of marriage means to them in 21st century India. A very bold but at the same time complex film, the movie gives a unique insight through the eyes of three girls with different social backgrounds on how they see marriage.
The institution of marriage is changing even for boys, although the subject is not explored as much. But when parents force them to marry, especially those men who come from villages or small towns, the marriage is on an unequal footing. A common joke among our friends is how a young journalist from the group, originally from rural Bihar, would be married to a girl from his village and how they would cope with different situations.
Of course, the problem is largely social and cuts across religious spectrum. But among orthodox Muslim families, parents would invariably want to add the religious dimension, besides family honour and traditions.
To be clear, Islam does not sanction coercion and gives matured adults full right to choose their spouse. It is entirely a patriarchal practice that has crept into our societies which allows families to impose their choices on their children. It is a different matter that when they spend extravagantly, or when they seek/give dowry, they forget religion, and give justifications on the basis of customs.
Most middle class families are still not comfortable to debate the issue, although "arranged" marriages may not turn out to be happy ones all the time. What is more intriguing is that when such marriages fail - not that love marriages don't, and the rate, in fact, is higher in the latter case - families would not take the blame on themselves but curse the fate, while in case of love marriages, the entire blame is of course the couple's.
Faced with tremendous peer pressure, families need to show to their clan and friends, "see our son/daughter may have become a doctor, a lawyer or a journalist, but (s)he still listens and respects us". Many of them go into debt because of reckless spending incurred on throwing big fat wedding parties. Parents and families appear to be the villains, but in many ways, they are the victims of the same customs they inadvertently want to impose on their offsprings.