The phrase “arranged marriage” is enough to make most Westerners recoil. It brings to mind girls too young to be out of school forced to bear the children of men old enough to be their fathers. It brings to mind not only arranged, but forced marriage, and of all the trauma and tragedy such an occurrence could bring.
Sadly, such associations are grounded in reality. For far too many, arranged marriage is a life sentence. But there are success stories too. Given this, arranged marriage as a concept cannot be seen as fundamentally bad – it is the attitudes and beliefs of those who arrange marriages without considering the needs and rights of the participants, which need altering.
Consent must be the key consideration. Any marriage forced upon a couple without the consent of both must be condemned – thereby condemning all marriages involving a child – or indeed any situation where coercion is employed: literal or societal. If one accepts that arranged marriage can be good, one has to be stringent in identifying anything which might harm a person entering into it.
Perhaps the most dangerous and toxic form of arranged marriages are those that involve a child, as a child cannot give informed consent. This is a problem all over the world, even in places like the U.S., where children can marry under 15 in some circumstances – leaving the door wide open for parents to exploit their children by marrying them off young. In Bangladesh, for example, things are even more dire in this respect, despite child marriage technically being illegal. The country has the highest rate of child marriage in Asia, with 52% of girls being married before their 18th birthday. Being married as a child negatively effects the child’s education, as well as increasing infant and maternal mortality rates.
In terms of consent, as well as being unable to consent to the arrangement, a child cannot consent sexually, and thus marriage at a young age could condemn a child to years of rape and sexual assault. As well as this, even today, countries like Bangladesh are loosening laws which protect children from rape. Where child marriage was always illegal – although widespread – now a child can marry in “special circumstances”, for example, to legitimise an unplanned baby. In potentially forcing children to marry their rapists, this enshrines in law a disregard for the need for consent, something which sadly already seemed set at a societal level. These are the kinds of attitudes that need to change: from Bangladesh, to the U.S., and everywhere in between.
Forced Marriage for Adults
Where children cannot give informed consent, adults can, but that does not necessarily mean that they are doing so.
The first eventuality is that an adult lives in a culture or family where arranged marriage is expected; they themselves do not wish to follow the tradition, but they do not feel able to defy their loved ones. In this vein, one Muslim commentator likens the practise of arranged marriage to sacrifice, and describes a hypothetical bride-to-be: full of anguish, lonely, and dreading the day when her family would provide her with a groom.
It is a spectrum, however, and perhaps not all adults who do not consent to arranged marriage are affected so negatively. Perhaps, even, they do consent to the idea, but feel coerced into following specific aspects of arranged marriage which they would rather avoid. In either case, the lack of consent is still unacceptable – it merely illustrates how difficult it is to identify non-consensual arrangements. It might be a lesser evil than forcing children to marry, but it is still a violation of the couple’s freedom.
Interesting examples of these greyer areas appear in the Channel 4 documentary “Extremely British Muslims“. Here, many of the young Muslims featured seem happy and willing to enter into an arranged marriage, as they felt it to be an integral part of their religion and thus their identity, but they wanted different things from the marriage than their families did. Invariably the parents’ views were more conservative. One young woman, for instance, wanted to marry, but wanted to experience life – to travel, and to focus on herself and her husband – before they settled down and had children. She found it very difficult to find any like-minded men, or indeed much support at all. When, at the episode’s end, it was stated that she had not yet found a husband, but intended to keep looking with her family’s help, one couldn’t help but worry that their help would result in her unhappiness.
For the young British Muslims, pressure came from their community to follow traditional ideals of marriage, while British ideas of romance sometimes made them feel as if they were missing out. This pressure, surely, is multiplied one hundred fold if the entire country subscribes to the idea of arranged marriage, and perhaps is the reason for the extraordinary statistic that 74% of young Indians would prefer an arranged marriage over a free-choice one. Is this preference truly freely made, or is it pressure from a society where an estimated 90% of marriages are arranged? It seems insulting to suggest that societal and cultural norms can interfere with an adult’s informed consent, but presumably they can contribute to a person feeling pressured to act a certain way, and in that way, culture contributes to coercion.
Happy Arranged Marriages
The counter argument, however, is that the huge proportion of young Indians wanting arranged marriages is testament to the fact that many are successful, and that arranged marriage is not fundamentally oppressive.
This argument is supported by various theories and research surrounding the practise in India specifically. The reason that so many arranged marriages do succeed – success being defined by an incredibly low divorce rate in the country and reported high levels of marital satisfaction – is due to three fundamental benefits. These are thus: an arranged marriage takes away difficult aspects of choice (eg. choosing your own criteria & the size of the pool of candidates), it requires participants to make a choice quickly (which some research shows produces better results that lengthy deliberation does), and it generally gives partners lower expectations of their marriage (producing greater satisfaction ultimately). While this theory was proposed with reference to Indian arranged marriages specifically, it does demonstrate that as a concept, arranged marriage could be very successful.
Indeed, one couple in an arranged marriage, interviewed by Cosmopolitan, showed that an arranged marriage can, in ideal circumstances, be very happy, and very modern and equal:
“Ankur: I think marriage is a partnership — an equal partnership. And there is no one perfect out there for you, because no one is perfect. If you think, This is not working out and I will find someone else because they will be better and more perfect, that’s not likely, especially if you are just fighting over small issues because that is everyone.”
It seems then, that arranged marriage is good in theory and, if formed with consent by all parties, potentially just as likely to succeed as any free-choice marriage.
Marriages involving a child are never acceptable. Abusive relationships are never acceptable. This much is clear.
The problem lies in being able to distinguish between arranged partnerships founded on consent, and those that were forced into being by families. Even if a marriage is relatively happy, if it was created without consent, it is a problem. It is a problem because it creates a culture where consent does not matter and it creates a culture where rational adults feel compelled to give consent where they do not want to. It is a problem because if consent has been ignored once in a relationship, why should it be taken into consideration at any other point?
Arranged marriage is not necessarily bad. A culture of arranged marriage – where real consent is hard to distinguish – must be.