What India's old and unusual marriage customs tell us about a woman's consent

Annie Zaidi
Annie ZaidiJun 30, 2015 | 17:42

What India's old and unusual marriage customs tell us about a woman's consent

A custom called "nata pratha" has been in the news again lately. A ward panch married a six-year-old in order to fulfil the requirement that would let him live with another woman. Nata pratha, practised in parts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, allows a "nata" (relationship) without a wedding ceremony. The caveat, apparently, is that both parties must already be married. In this particular case, the man was a bachelor, so he had to get married first. Unfortunately, the bride he decided upon was a six-year-old kid.


The outrage about child marriage is justified and he probably will be apprehended at some point. But since the nata pratha was being talked about, there were comments from readers asking why the people concerned didn't divorce first and marry the next person instead?

Why indeed? I don't know about the community's attitude to divorce, children and inheritance rights. But I do think that there is something to be said for easing of marriage and separation norms.

In our legal framework, we move from one pukka monogamous marriage to the next. There is no alternative sympathetic view of diversity in marriage. Polygyny outrages us. Polyandry sends us into a tizzy. Over the last century, we have been trained to think of marriage in inflexible, permanent terms even though this was not the norm for most communities.

I was reading up about nata pratha and found a couple of reports where the writers are critical of the custom, even though there are other reports quoting women who formed more than one liaison and seemed for the custom rather than against. Part of the criticism is due to the brokers' entry into the fray, but the main objection is that a man sets aside his first wife and that the other woman is "paid for". In fact, in one interview, the former National Commission for Women chief Mamta Sharma has described nata pratha as a form of "sexual harassment". She is quoted saying, "... one can have another partner outside the marriage. Women are just sold but they do not feel exploited."  


This frowning upon broken marriages and upon bride price, is a reflection of the dominant (upper caste) view of relationships outside of lifelong monogamy. Sharma's criticism is based on the assumption is that one man is "buying" a woman off another man. She doesn't acknowledge that one woman may want to leave her marriage, but must pay the bride price back. Traditionally, this would be the custom in many Indian tribes. 

Is it a "good" custom? A bad one? I cannot say. What I can say is that my own view of Indian marriage changed forever at 17. My Sociology textbook informed me that there are eight types of marriage mentioned even in that problematic text, Manusmriti. Among them was "gandharva vivah" - what we call "love marriage".  

This was a revelation. Personal choice in matters of matrimony had always been presented - by most grown-ups, friends, Hindi films, television - as something alien. Love, premarital sex and divorce were talked of as "modern" or "Western" ideas. To hear a lot of right wing religious and political leaders, it would appear not much has changed in two decades. (Witness the moment in the documentary film Morality TV Aur Loving Jehad, when a man declares that in Indian culture, there is no space for conjugal love). 


It was through Sociology textbooks (particularly MN Srinivas' India: Social Structure) that I woke up to the fact that love marriage is very much part of our culture. That book taught me the basics of marital norms in different Indian communities.  

Some encourage marrying cousins or uncles. Some encourage marrying a brother's widow. Some tribes mandate a courtship period. Others have a provision for the bride or the groom to live with the other's family, to test the waters and experience the family environment before the marriage is solemnised. Some tribes pick out a mate after just one glance during a community fair or at a dance. 

Each community's rules come from centuries of experience based on their geography, their lifestyle, and their observations of how far people can be pushed emotionally without causing widespread social trauma. Divorce is usually often a non-fussy business. If the couple is incompatible, they split up and move on. There may be a fine or a requirement to return some money or gifts.  

Marriage by elopement, for instance, is quite common, especially if negotiation between the families take too long or there is disapproval from parents. It is understood that the couple will return and seek forgiveness, and gradually will be accepted back into the family fold. Among the Garasiyas of Rajasthan, long-term relationships are common; the wedding takes place only when the couple can afford it.  

While marriage by abduction is also known, more common is a sort of mock-abduction. The bride's family puts up a show of resisting as groom's party "carry away" a girl. Many upper castes and classes have similar symbolic rituals too. For instance, the families may abuse each other, or the bride's side pretends to beat the groom when he shows up. This is common to Hindu and Muslim families in north India. 

One of my favourite customs is "marriage by intrusion", wherein a girl shows up at the house of the boy she wants to marry and refuses to leave until he accepts her as a wife. It's basically a battle of wills, a test of her own desire for a particular man.  

In tribal cultures, women not only decide who to marry (and when to leave), they also embody wealth. Their labour, their skills were held valuable. That is why their parents negotiated a bride price - the household was about to lose someone! They were not looking to get rid of her and pay for the privilege besides!  

Communities that depend mainly on farming focus on keeping the property undivided. Here is where the trouble begins. Brothers don't want to give up a share of land, so they compensate with dowry - gold or silver jewellery, clothes, cattle, cash. But a woman finds that her wealth serves the husband's household and once it has been spent, she cannot easily reclaim it. If she just leaves, she has nowhere to go. 

Property and inheritance rules are tied into marriage, and if made too inflexible, the law can send billions of people to relationship hell and keep them there. We would do well to remember that it is property that women are cheated of when they are widowed and thrown out of the house, or accused of being witches and killed.  

When cruelty and violence in the name of custom became widespread in the 18th century, Indians themselves baulked. Upper caste reformers turned to the British for support and lobbied for laws that prevented child marriage and allowed widow remarriage. Later, divorce was legalised too. However, these laws were mainly intended for the upper castes. The lower castes and tribes already had those freedoms. 

The Muslims too have different marital solutions at hand. The trouble is they don't honour the freedoms offered them in ways that would empower women. After all, a woman's consent is key - a wedding is illegal without a girl's consent. Mehr is meant to ensure that a woman has money of her own, but the amount is so paltry (and often not paid) that a woman cannot survive a month if she wants to leave. In fact, Muslim women are allowed to seek wages for all household work. That they are not encouraged to, and that Muslim men do not themselves offer to pay, is a travesty. 

Consent, finally, is the answer to questions of which relationships are good and which ones aren't. Nata pratha is okay if a woman wants it too. Child marriage is not okay because a child doesn't understand enough to give consent. Consent coerced out of a person because she/he doesn't have any money or anyone else's protection is not okay. 

Finally, it is inheritance and incomes that will restore freedom to women. To insist on spousal rights, regardless of spousal desire, is a short-sighted and self-defeating enterprise. Perhaps it was this truth that some Indians accepted when they allowed nata pratha, and I wonder if the caveat - of both parties being married already - was not intended to ensure that the singles ratio remains balanced in the community.  

As with all laws, a custom governing marriage or extra-marital relationships can be only as good as the people enforcing it. Once a corruption of spirit sets in, no matter what the intent of the law, tragedy ensues.

Last updated: February 03, 2017 | 15:04
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