This month – no, this year – has been a lot.
Let me start by saying not a single person has talked to me in the last several weeks without our conversation leading into the territory of, “hey have you seen the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking?”
As a first-generation American Born Proud Desi, it’s practically my duty to consume/research any and all content relevant to my community, especially when it’s made by and for Americans. It’s always exciting when a show is made for my community, or depicts people from my community making it in on the silver screen. Indian Matchmaking however, is not something I want our culture to be proud of.
Wait, let me rephrase that, Indian Matchmaking is a show that I don’t want anyone to be proud of.
Yes, the Netflix dating show updates the arranged marriage narrative, but leaves the customs major problems untouched. Take for example the most extreme case in the show, a 25-year-old prospective groom named Akshay Jakhete. He is practically bullied by his mother, Preeti into choosing a bride/woman and into getting married. Somehow, she claims, Akshay’s failure to choose a bride by the ripe old age of 25 is a disappointment to his parents, an obstacle to the conception of his older brother’s as yet nonexistent firstborn baby, even a drag on Preeti’s own physical health. She breaks out her home blood pressure monitor, telling him that her high numbers are a direct result of the stress he’s causing her.
Indian Matchmaking updates the arranged marriage myth for the 21st century, demystifying the once traditional process and revealing how much romance and heartache is baked in even when older adults are meddling every step of the way. But for me, at least, the show’s value is as a vibrant validation of how brutal the gauntlet of Indian matchmaking can be—a practice that begins with your parents’ friends and relatives gossiping about you as a teenager and only intensifies as you get older. Though these families use a matchmaker, the matching process is one the entire community and culture is invested in. In this context, romance is not a private matter; your love life is everyone’s business.
Now to jump on to talking about a case a little closer to home…
Merin Joy, a 26-year-old (she would have been 27), who was brutally murdered by her husband just days ago. She is just a few years younger than I, but what happened to her should never happen. Ever.
I will not discuss the details of her murder; however, I will discuss the abuse and character assassination she is facing even after her passing, on social media. She has a two year daughter to now be raised without her mother, her father. She will only know her family though the stories her relatives and friends and other family will tell.
But I hope she will grow up and be educated. Educated on what it means to be an independent and bold female of society. She will grow up and know the meaning of community – a community that may care for her or push her away.
There is so many problems I wish to discuss, to talk about. One thing that stood out to me was some people in my own friends circle saying these crude sayings within our own culture. Such as “If a man says or does XYZ, he is not once questioned. So let’s see what happens if a woman like myself says or does this in return.”
My reaction to seeing people I was once associated with, calling themselves “empowered” and saying this is, to say the least – disappointed.
This is not empowerment. Why stoop to that man/person’s level? Why further encourage this abusive, hurtful behavior? One in three women in our culture are subject to domestic abuse, and the privileges of men in our culture are extremely disturbing yes – but other than speaking/writing posts, what else can be done?
Well, I for one will not stand for it. There’s a reason why I am adamantly single. I am a proud Indian/Malayalee, yes, but our society still lives in this inherently patriarchal world. So, here’s something to think about: Women from poor and rural backgrounds are particularly vulnerable as they are typically confined to their husband’s family home and have nowhere to flee or anyone to report a crime to. Only one third of India’s 1.4 billion people have internet access and out of this already reduced figure, only 30 percent of users are female.
Women whose partners were unemployed, poorly educated, drank alcohol or grew up in a household where they witnessed their father hitting their mother were twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence. Those who were employed were just as likely to have been subjected to violence as those without, suggesting a backlash against changing societal roles.
What am I trying to get at – with the Indian Matchmaking show and Merin’s tragic loss is this:
In India, marriages are meant to work. Apparently, there is no other option. We are slowly piercing through with the thinking that there is an option of divorce, but it’s still socially unacceptable to divorce as a woman. Men however can move on and remarry without much stigma behind it. And yet the proponents of arranged marriage/marriage in India are quick to point to India’s low divorce rate and various success stories—and undoubtedly, in the past and today, there are countless happy couples who were set up through some version of traditional matchmaking. But that doesn’t change the fact that arranged marriage is a family-sanctioned form of social control—a way for a community’s elders to enforce certain norms onto their children.
And yet, this combination of tradition and unhappiness can be extremely dangerous: In 2005, India’s large-scale National Family Health Survey found that over 37% of women in India had experienced some kind of physical or sexual spousal abuse. Beyond violence, women in India are often cut off from access to household funds, and are not permitted to make decisions up to and including family planning – especially should they speak out of turn.
It is the great irony of a country that churns out love songs in its melodramatic Bollywood musicals, that turns weddings into three-, five-, or seven-day affairs: Indian marriage is frequently unhappy and unequal—less romantic, more another building block to be checked off in a patriarchal society. Yet the passion for traditional arranged marriage is so intense that when couples marry outside the strictures of their familial norms, they may be disowned or ostracized.
In the meantime, I end with my own thoughts. My parents had an arranged marriage, and I will leave it at that… I decided at a young age I wouldn’t go through the same process, with all the confidence and American privilege only an child growing up in somewhat a progressive society can have. Neither my refusal nor their own unhappiness stopped my parents (and all the aunties and uncles across North America and India) from trying to set me up—more and more feverishly as I close in on my 30th year of life, I still hear the phrase “isn’t it time to settle down?”
It wasn’t just them—it was everyone. I attend various community function alone because I can. I am an independent woman. I am considered bold and somewhat accomplished to some extent and by the end of most events, I would receive some sort of marriage nag. One thing that annoyed me the most was when an aunty came up to me and asked me if I was on the DilMil dating app. When I said no, she wasn’t hysterical, but confused. Oh, and another instance was where another aunty asked me how I spend my day (working, working out, research – you know the usual to occupy my freetime), and mentioned to fill up the rest of the free time, wouldn’t a husband be a better option? Indian culture makes marriage so central to society—and so vital to an individual’s path—that it tends to ignore the potential downsides. The people who don’t fit into tradition’s methodology get sifted out, left not just without a picture-perfect marriage but without the acceptance and cultural identity that accompany it.
The tradition in India and the Indian diaspora seems to be less about marriage and more about this intense, all-consuming pressure to mold your children. Nothing seems to fuel the marriage complex more than the fear of social stigma, of being somehow outside.
I implore you to think before you start pressuring young women and men in the community – is this what YOU want or is this what THEY want? Why is it that you’re so quick to judge women and not men? Why do we have to stoop to their level to get something accomplished? Why can’t we be better?
Marriage isn’t the answer to everything. Being there to support your friends, those you care about – that is.
After all this, I end with this, under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, India has committed to eradicating all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030. Let’s also find a way to provide access to needed resources in rural areas (Internet connectivity and working computers). Rather than point fingers and spread judgement and rumours, let’s try to make this goal happen.