Almost-arranged marriage

October 19, 2011

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THEY’VE been waiting to fall in love with the right person. They’ve seen so many do it, crushes on neighbours, co-workers and fellow students transformed by marital magic into lifelong partnerships.

With every passing year after high school, friends and acquaintances are paired off and sentenced to coupledom amid armies of relatives and new in-laws. After introductions are made on Facebook or email and an awkward, orchestrated meeting or two at a café, it happens: love and engagement united in one glorious moment, families cheering on the sidelines.

The tableau of the old arranged marriage followed a well-worn script. If matches were not found within the family, a few lanes up, a few streets down, or at the most one village over, then matchmakers were employed.

Their skill focused on drawing together the unmatched; doing the arithmetic of class, caste and sect, mannerisms and expectations. Negotiations and disclosures took place with those that would insure the relationship — potential fathers- and mothers-in-law, diplomatic aunts and uncles — softening the demands of dowry, smoothing over the ill-considered remark.

When matches were made, a completed jigsaw of family fit, old debts and new possibilities, a tapestry of relations existed to hold the fragile threads of the new relationship in place. Until the wedding, efforts were made to keep the couple apart; the less they knew about each other, the better. They would have a lifetime left for discovery.

The passage of time has not eaten away all the nuts and bolts that kept the arranged-marriage machine reliably churning out new matches with every generation. Indeed, most Pakistanis, adherents of tradition and avowed sceptics of the untried, have tried their best to preserve the institution of the arranged marriage, holding up old dictates of selection and stratification to the best of their abilities.

Marriages continue to follow limiting dictates of caste and creed, with even the most rebellious avoiding the dislocation of class. In the land of the pure, the beggar woman will never marry the prince, or the industrialist or the financier.

The challenge to arranged marriages — a relationship for the community, created by the community — has arrived unexpectedly and from unforeseen quarters. While the visible impact of modernity on marriage has been held at bay by devotion to the form and familiarity of tradition, this very resistance has left behind a society where structures of relationships contradict realities.

The ensuing confusion can be seen most clearly in the evolution of the family from a vast network that provided regularity and constancy, insurance against bad times and the impetus to share good ones, to one that retains symbolic significance without paying up actual advantages.

A possible cause of this transformation of the family, and by definition of marriage, has been the evolution of Pakistan into a labour-exporting country. With the arrangement of so many marriages requiring the transcending of borders, spouses must either leave the family structure that matched them up or be left behind with it.

If husband and wife have to make their marriage work far from home, couples-to-be wonder, is it really suitable for them to be strangers? The very query marks a shift in thinking about marriage: a re-conceptualisation of the relationship that was earlier understood to be one of many in a large network to a single bond between individuals rather than families.

The proliferation of virtual socialisation has inflicted its own set of blows on the practice of arranged marriage. With social interaction on the Internet being by definition an individualised process that democratises both communication and the availability of information, the restrictions of the immediate communal environment have become, in a sense, inconsequential.

So while societies, communities and families may insist on marriages within their clan, and many of their young agree, everyone involved is both aware of and exposed to alternatives. This simple consciousness of something else, the possibility of marriage as a bond between individuals, poised on free choice born of emotion and attraction, are a direct assault on the idea of marriage as a decision made by others.

The result is the emergence of a hybrid: the semi-arranged marriage, which inhabits the limbo known only to a partially modernised society with partially individualised identities, clinging desperately to the norms of a communal past.

Because the combination is haphazard, the parameters unknown, the almost-arranged marriage is by definition a confused institution. Parents worry that Internet chats and virtual flirting leaves them out of the marital equation, haunted by the possibility of an inappropriately chosen son- or daughter-in-law.

Steeped in fear, they lament also their own lack of connections, the vanished family network that once seemed to dish up spouses with such ease but now falls short, victimised by the scarcity of scattered families. The almost-arranged marriage then is the specimen of a mad mix of economic pressures, urbanisation heaped on a society that clings to the husk of community and ignores its absent core. The would-be brides and grooms that enact the rites of love and choice before marriage are wedged between just this mishmash of contradictions.

On one hand, they would like to know a future spouse before being entwined in marriage, but on the other, they fear the rejection that might accompany such knowledge. Similarly, many recognise the need for an emotional component to be tabulated along with calculations of complexion and earning ability, but remain uncomfortable with the relative risks the unpredictable realm of affection imposes.

This collection of confusions, of almost-choosing, almost-knowing and almost-loving, leave behind a dysfunctional concept of marriage that is unsure about everything, and deceptive from the outset.

With the processes of cultural evolution arrested by the fear of change, the almost-arranged marriage reflects the inability of Pakistani society to re-imagine relationships to match fast-changing social and cultural needs. In being so, the almost-arranged marriage takes its place on the long list of marginalities, another chapter in the history of Pakistan’s near misses in life and in love.

The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy. rafia.zakaria@gmail.com