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The idea we have of the ‘perfect bride’ needs to change. Why should women, and their families, kow-tow to unrealistic ideas of subservience any more?
Indian women are at the crossroads of socio–economic change. At least in urban spaces, they have acquired higher educational qualifications and subsequently gained financial independence by joining the workforce in large numbers. Yet in spite of this, even today, an arranged marriage in India expects a prospective bride to play a subservient role, making things problematic, especially for educated and independent women.
Women have chosen to adapt to progressive values but society still expects them to stick to out-dated standards and traditions. Due to this, women face frequent resistance when to their ‘progressiveness’, which causes conflicts within the domestic private space. Leading to resentment, separation, and frequently taking a toll on the mental health of those involved.
The entire phenomenon of arranged marriage in our country gives the groom’s family an upper hand in the unequal power dynamics, and the position of the bride’s family is relegated to being silenced and forever apologetic. This inequality sets up an expectation that the bride-to-be adhere to a set of meaningless codes and norms which have no basis to ensure a happy or successful married life, but on the contrary cause every woman to go through a set of experiences which are really uncalled for.
The ‘marriageable age’ which must not be crossed
How many times have women of marriageable age heard their parents tell them, ‘do what you want you to do, but after marriage’. This unwritten restriction of age imposed on marriageable women comes into direct conflict with women’s aspiration of career and higher education.
While we have nothing to say about women who willingly choose to marry at a younger age, the pressure to get married by 25 which can be stretched to maximum 28 is a frequent cause of conflict and disagreement between parents and their daughters who choose not to marry too early. Even though we find women marrying late in cities or amongst the urban population, this conception still remains that once you reach the age of 30 and you have not found a groom for yourself, you have really achieved nothing .
Motherhood (especially of sons) is everything
The restriction on the age of marriage has to do with the primary role of the women as a child bearer. Even couples who marry at a younger age continue to hear diktats of the immediacy of child bearing.
Women even in 2021 cannot exercise any choice regarding their bodies as it is completely dominated by the needs of the groom’s family. It would also not be out of place to say that the preference for a male child still exists in many families.
A dowry by any other name
While there may officially be no dowry the expectation of an expensive wedding with the ritual of giving a huge number of gifts to the members of the groom’s family and many other customary rituals relating to conspicuous spending puts strain on the prospective bride and her family.
The ‘fair, tall, slim’ bride requirement
All women even though they may be unique individuals are expected to comply with a single set of questionable beauty standards. Take for example the concept of the fair skinned girl, which is nothing but colourism, culturally ingrained in us that shows how flawed this system is.
The ‘good’ woman and ‘meek, coy’ bride
The concept of traditional behaviour is of being meek and docile, relegated to the role of the listener and not the speaker. Women who criticise or ask questions are nagging, who get angry are mad, who talk or laugh even a bit loudly are uncivilised, and each of them have not received any training from their paternal families.
Any normal expression of emotion on the part of the prospective bride is frowned upon, and even a slightest indication of independence leads to proposals being turned down.
The bride can’t be ‘too educated’
Frequently when connecting with groom’s families on the phone women and their families encounter this statement, ‘we do not want a woman who is too educated as our daughter in law.’
While governments, women themselves and their families are constantly encouraging women’s education, when these comments are heard from educated men’s families we know how little progress we have made.
Housework is only the woman’s responsibility
‘Do you know how to cook’? This is a frequent question women encounter in marriage proposals. A prospective bride who is working and has an independent cook is frowned upon. This is because after marriage she is expected to take care of all the housework herself.
Should be ‘just enough’ independent, and should come home and do all work
In general working women or those who have independent businesses are not considered ‘suitable’ by most people who go in for arranged marriages.
Among the salaried classes as far as alliance is concerned, women who work in male dominated professions are considered the most unsuitable. Only a government job with its retirement benefit and fixed timing which can result in significant contribution, is thought to compensate for the time spent away from home and housework, and is therefore considered acceptable.
Considering that marriage is a matter of personal choice, it is natural that not all marriage proposals will be considered suitable by either the groom’s or the bride’s side. However imposing a broad spectrum of unrealistic rules makes adherence to them difficult for women.
But somewhere down the line it is the women who compromise to fit in mainly because the stigma attached to being unmarried or childless is too great in our society. In the process women go through a set of experiences, which cause them to lose their confidence, individuality, dignity, seriously affecting their mental health in the process.
Like all patriarchal systems this too works to gaslight and make women feel that they are not good enough, and they are the ones who are ‘rejected’. While in reality it is only but natural that such regressive ideas would either way be a recipe for disaster.
It is true that eventually many women break the norms because of their determined struggles or support of their husbands. It would be no exaggeration to say that many men aspire to the progressive ideas of an equal marriage.
Women and their families too need to rethink the idea of a ‘good proposal’. The concept of ‘marrying up’ financially to someone who is paternalistic can guarantee domestic prosperity, but not personal happiness or freedom. But the point is why have a system which is inimical to the ideal of gender equality and dignity of person. The question remains how long can marriage remain a gamble where only your good luck can give you a supportive husband and not a life partner who values you as his equal.
Image source: a still from the film Hum Aapke Hain Kaun
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Tapti Bose is interested in writing on issues that concern women particularly women's legal
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