In a previous post of mine concerning arranged marriages, I tried to demystify the practice for an American audience. A recent comment by a blogger who was born in India and is now in the United States emphasized the downside of arranged marriages, especially the loss of freedom by the parties involved. His discussion of the matter on his blog is worth reading.
Although the example I used in my post was from India, I was actually trying to discuss the phenomenon of arranged marriages in general, not just in India, because it is so difficult for Americans to understand. However, the comment raised another issue that I’d like to discuss: the difference between disapproving of a custom in an unfamiliar culture versus disapproving of a custom in one’s own.
In his comment, the blogger wrote, “On understanding the drawbacks of arranged marriages, I am sure no one in their right mind would pick Indian arranged marriage system as an ideal to copy.” I don’t think the United States is in any danger of adopting the Indian arranged marriage system. However, I do see a difference between Americans disapproving of an Indian custom because it is different from what we do, and Indians making their own efforts to change it in ways that work for them. For example, segregation and bans on interracial marriage in the United States during much of the 20th century are in some ways parallels to the limitations of caste and arranged marriages in India. (Americans believe you are born into a race that you cannot change and discourage marriages between races; Indians believe that you are born into a caste that you cannot change, and discourage marriages between castes.) The outside world often disapproved of the American practices, but we were eventually able to change them ourselves.
Agrarian societies, like the pre-Civil War American South and much of India today, tend to produce extremes of economic inequality, accompanied by justificatory ideologies, such as race in the United States and caste in India. When society changes rapidly, as is currently the case in India, it is to be expected that many cultural practices will also change once they cease to serve a useful function or become counterproductive.
In societies where many people live in extreme poverty, life is too precarious for individuals to survive indefinitely without assistance from others. They may need help during hard times from relatives or religious institutions, and preexisting social forms offer them security in exchange for surrendering autonomy in various areas of their life: for example, choosing a spouse or occupation. Traditional practices generally have a stronger grip in rural areas and among people with less formal education, in comparison to educated cosmopolitans living in large cities.
(Readers who found this piece interesting might want to see my discussion of 2012 rape protests in India.)
Yann Forget: Indian wedding
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