By Seema Chowdhury
Friday, October 14, 2011
Defying the practice of arranged marriage in India can tear families apart, particularly when young people go outside their castes. The Supreme Court has sided with the young couples, calling the caste system a "curse on the nation."
MUMBAI, India (WOMENSENEWS)--"Girls are not suppose to speak their mind," Aastha says. "My parents were totally against me marrying Vivan, who belonged to another caste."
Aastha, 39, who requested her full name not be used, says her father no longer speaks to her because she married a man from a different caste six years ago.
The project manager for an information technology company here, she says she met her husband in a computer class. Two years later, they decided to get married.
"I tried very hard to bring my family to an agreement," she says. "After five months of persuasion, they accepted."
Everyone except her father.
"He was concerned that our family would be given bad names because, before this, no one had married outside our caste, and if I did so, he would have to face problems in our community," she says.
After years of marriage, Aastha still hasn't visited her parents' house.
"Even after my child's birth, my father did not speak to me or come to see my daughter," she says. "He still believes that I have broken family tradition by marrying outside our caste."
Aastha says she is happy with her decision to marry her husband, but she is unhappy with the mindset of her parents.
"Because of their false beliefs, families are broken," she says.
Reliable statistics on arranged marriage are unavailable because of the unofficial and undocumented nature of them, according to a U.N. report. But they are most common in South Asia, which includes India.
India, a country with diverse cultures and religions, has 13 laws regulating marriage and divorce, according to a government website. None of the laws prohibit marriage among different castes and religions.
In fact, the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that inter-caste marriages are in the nation's best interest because they can help destroy the caste system, which justices called a "curse on the nation."
Various customs have governed marriage in Indian society. For example, "swayamvara" was an ancient Indian practice in which families and their daughters selected husbands from a list of suitors. The choice was based more on competition than love, as suitors had to display their prowess in various contests to win the bride.
Priyanka Parwardhan, 35, a lawyer, says parents arrange their children's marriages because they think they can choose a better spouse than their children can.
"Many parents follow age-old traditions according to which the elders in the family always decide on all important matters in the house," she says. "They feel that children could make the wrong decision and also that children should listen to their elders as a matter of respect."
There are no laws against arranged marriage. The only legal curb is to underage unions, which can be linked to arranged marriages. Indian law sets a minimum marriage age of 21 for men and 18 for women.
In some families and in some regions, a daughter who defies her parents' marriage wishes can put herself at risk of a so-called honor killing, when families kill family members – mostly women – for bringing dishonor on the family.
Honor killings, which have been outlawed, are more famously linked to extramarital or premarital relationships, but they can also be triggered by young people's decisions to marry against their parents' wishes.
Some believe that if a woman in their family breaks the marriage customs, then society would declare the entire family to be outcasts, subjecting them to criticism and excluding them from receiving the benefits of belonging to the caste and community.
Various nongovernmental groups in India are working to stop honor killings and lend support to inter-caste and love marriages. Young people who evade arranged marriages are also changing the culture.
Aastha says she and her husband will make sure their daughter feels free to marry whomever she chooses.
"I hope other parents do the same," she says.
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Seema Chowdhury is a reporter for Global Press Institute's India News Desk. Originally from Mumbai, Chowdhury currently lives in Bangalore.