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The Politics of Marriage in India: Why Aren’t You Married Yet?

July 9, 2010

[Cross-posted/Published at Sanghmitra Magazine – with minor revisions]

The man on his knees
“Will-you-marry-me?”
Tears. A breathy yes

 We have all met this young, heterosexual, good-looking, upper-class, light-skinned couple – they are sometimes in love, sometimes simply pleased with each other. We have seen them all around — on film, television, magazines, billboards, maybe heard them on the radio. Without fail, they describe a certain kind of relationship – mainly monogamous and traditional. They tell us what we should want from life and how to acquire it  through soaps, lotions and wedding saris. In recent years, women have been allowed to ask the man’s hand in marriage, a quick nod to the women’s movement and feminism included.

 In the West, this cinematic moment has spilled over into the real world in a big way. The “will you marry me?” question has itself become a moment most couples must handle, preferably romantically, preferably in public, and of course with fat diamond rings. In India, while private moments have not yet been as blatantly commercialized, that’s not very far behind. Weddings make up a massive industry whose estimated worth is Rs.50,000 crorers and growing 25% annually. In the US, the wedding industry is an empire making 40 billion dollars a year. And that’s just two countries. In other words, there’s a lot riding on making sure we all continue to get married.

 In every society, every culture, and for as long as people have ritualized rites of passage; marriages have asserted its place in human history. Along with being a significant player in the global market, marriages have the power to validate some of our most personal and intense experiences—love, sexuality, family, childbirth. At the same time, the marriage myth plays a critical role in stigmatizing other kinds of human experiences such as break-ups, separations, children born outside of marriage, multiple partners and of course, same gender or transgender relationships. This power to legitimize or to negate and deny is the crux of the struggle against marriages for many communities, including the queer community.

 In the United States, the marriage movement was galvanized many years ago by George W. Bush’s unusual demand for a US constitutional amendment that took away rights for Americans. This truly radical exercise of power propelled the direction of the marriage movement, so that it suddenly became a question of rights. States passed laws (both for and against gay marriage) and activists and allies rallied loud and strong across the nation. And what they were fighting for was the right to be legitimate, the right to belong. The denial of marriage rights was a clear signal that homosexual relationships were simply not as “authentic” as heterosexual ones. Overnight, voices that questioned whether marriages were even needed to authenticate human relationships were given smaller mike systems—and told “not now!”

 In India, what is perhaps most striking is that unlike the US, the marriage struggle cannot be easily framed as a “gay issue”. Marriage as an institution has been used to oppress (and legitimize that oppression) for many communities and people in India. Women, children and men have been forced into marriages; violence within a marriage has been de-criminalized and relationships have been bartered for via dowries or other transactions which has too often led to unwanted and/or violent consequences. For many, the stigma that comes from not being married or divorced is a constant burden—one that gets compounded if you do not conform in terms of the right class, caste, religion, gender or sexuality. Among many in the queer community, marriage is an institution that represents the primary hetero-patriarchal force used to take away power, choices and rights. Without question, marriage is an institution that richly deserves to have its assumptions and basic tenets re-examined and re-imagined. 

 So how do we problematize the institution of marriage, without dismissing its importance in most people’s lived realities? Well, we can begin by challenging the un-checked social privileges that marriages afford. People express love, sexuality and commitment in a rich plethora of ways, but for some reason, we have chosen to recognize only a particular way of being.

 As a species, it is only humans who have institutionalized one of the most fundamental acts of life – sex and reproduction. This cannot be good news for anyone. Marriages have helped perpetuate a myth that “successful” relationships have a formula—which can be applied to everyone. Unfortunately people keep having relationships that are complicated, intense and never ever what we expected them to be. 

 The marriage myth tells us that relationships are only healthy if they are between two people who somehow belong with each other, and who have children to “seal” this love or belonging. The marriage myth firmly asserts that marriages happen only between men and women – this myth perpetuates itself in our social, cultural, political and legal systems. The marriage myth places monogamy firmly at the top when measuring a “good relationship”, denying that monogamous relationships can also be unhappy and unfulfilling. It is possible to prioritize love, trust, understanding and friendship, which contrary to what many believe, do not spring from monogamy.

 We all have the right to marry who we choose. It is equally important to understand that we also have the right not to. The exercise of our marriage rights cannot be a false choice – one that forces us to choose between family and society or freedom to be truly happy with our lives.

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