By Erin Keating
On Feb. 5 at 8:00 p.m. in Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea, Roanoke College’s Coffee Shop Talk program held their first forum of the semester, led by Dr. Meeta Mehrotra of the Sociology department, called “Father Knows Best.” Mehrotra discussed the practice of arranged marriage in India – and why this practice remains fairly common despite the country’s progressively changing culture.
Although the number of arranged marriages in other countries is declining, India still uses three common types of arranged marriage. These types include parent-arranged marriage in which the parents do not confer with their children about who they would like to marry and select their child’s partner on their own, jointly-arranged marriages in which the two families arranging the marriage ask their children for their consent to the match and the children can agree or disagree, and self-arranged marriage in which two people choose to get married and the parents approve and organize the marriage.
Unlike in the United States where we place great value on independence, especially with young adults, Mehrotra said that India encourages strong family ties to the point where people who leave home for long periods of time are accused of breaking up the family or having low family values. In India, joint-households are very common; families remain in the same home, or close to home at least, for generations.
Grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews all live together in these joint-households, and when a woman gets married she leaves her family’s house to live with her husband’s family. Mehrotra said, “Marriage is not between two people, it is between two families,” and because of these close family bonds, it is essential that the bride-to-be gets along with her husband’s family because the family is much more invested in the marriage than they are here in the United States.
These strong family values and family investment, along with a desire for marital stability and satisfaction, and an absence of what American’s think of as “dating culture”, are the main reasons that arranged marriages continue in India.
However, having arranged marriage is not a perfect system. It ensures that the caste system is kept in place because marriages are arranged between members of the same caste. Also, the strong opposition to divorce is very problematic in cases of domestic abuse – there is particular pressure on women to make their marriage work, even if they are unhappy in it. Finally, arranged marriages have a tendency to lead to gender inequality, most frequently in the form of dowries.
Although the dowry was originally intended to be a gift to the bride from her parents as a sort of safety net if the marriage should fail, it has warped into a price that the bride’s parents pay to the groom and his family to marry their daughter. There are laws in place that make it illegal to give dowries, but it is a nearly impossible law to enforce because the line between gift and dowry is so blurry.
Mehrotra concluded the coffee shop talk by looking at the influence of Indian cinema on the concept of arranged marriage. Film is very important in Indian popular culture and is the primary form of entertainment. Although almost every Bollywood film talks about romantic love – which may seem ironic considering the emphasis the country places on arranged marriage – the films still show that lovers need parental support and approval in order to have a happy ending.
The “Father Knows Best” Coffee Shop Talk was engaging and informative for the audience and a great way to start the Coffee Shop Talks for this semester. Be sure to check out the next one on March 12 called “History Wars: Taking to the Streets over US AP History.”