The Outlook of South Asian Marriage from a Gen Z Point of View

Indian marriage has a notorious reputation for its practice of arranged marriages and slew of other cultural perceptions. Is this changing with Gen Z?

Wedding rings and flowers. Photo by Beatriz Pérez Moya on Unsplash

What I’ve noticed about marriage as I get older is the wide variety of perspectives coupled with a growing acceptance for ‘unorthodox’ or previously unaccepted lifestyles. Generationally, the willingness to let others choose how to live their life and be free to love who they want is quite apparent amongst Generation Z. Increasingly, this is also appearing in older generations as more people of all ages are experiencing a change of heart about the concept of marriage and all its facets. In analyzing and understanding my own life as an Indian, US-born teenage girl with West Indian parents, I find myself quite enthralled in the idea of partnership and marriage dynamics among myself and my peers.

To understand where and how my views are shaped and what they mean to me, let’s first analyze its history. While the history of marriage is far too extensive to cover in this short blog, I will focus on several key aspects that tie into my own modern life and culture; this being, domestic economy, subsistence farming, women’s roles, technology, and Indian traditions and culture.

Historically, many cultures engaged in the practice of a domestic economy. A domestic economy is the organization of “work on the basis of family relations and does not necessarily involve formal social domination, or the control of and power over other people” (Lyon 121). One of the primary practices in this economy is subsistence farming. Here, individuals worked solely to support their kin and familial unit (Shearn, 98). The gender roles were rather fair in this practice, as both men and women worked to collect goods and food to serve and support their families. For example, men used to “generally clear the fields” and “weed the crops and harvest the corn cobs” (Lyon 121). The kids “spend their days in the fields protecting the newly planted crops,” and women “typically grind the corn by hand using a metate, or grinding stone” (Lyon 121). The whole family “works together to plant the seeds,” (Lyon 121). This system represents the earliest family units that resemble the modern version we see all over the world today. Families abandoned nomadic and hunter-gatherer lifestyles for a more stable and consistent one.

Cropland. Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

With this stability resulted a need for adaption, specifically in the form of technology and tools such as the plow. With greater technology for agriculture, more people were needed to sustain, cultivate, and support the land and its people. As Deborah Spar, author of Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny, described, families needed “labor force that will work this land and inherit it for the future” (Gerdeman). Slowly but surely, women’s ability to reproduce became a central characteristic of their existence as more children were needed to maintain and work the land for their current and future sustenance (Gerdeman). In contingency with this increasing working economy based on farming, family dynamics began to shift and technological advancements started shaping the family structures we are familiar with today.

With the advent of greater technology, however, gender inequality sky rocketed. During the Industrial Revolution, women were the lead group of people working factories. Slowly, over time, this became known as a man’s job while a woman’s job was to stay home and raise children. This created “what our generations inherited as the traditional division of labor” (Gerdeman). With this is the subsequent periods and ideas revolving around the ‘cult of domesticity’ that championed women’s domestic life and gender-specific, stereotypical roles for women. Unsurprisingly, these beliefs, attitudes, and practices created a stir towards women’s movements for more equal treatment in the home, workplace, and society alike.

Birth control pills. Photo by Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition on Unsplash

One key characteristic of these women’s rights and equality movements was an attempt for women to regain body autonomy they once had regarding childbearing, before the domestic economy. It’s quite ironic to think that the technology back then that steered women away from body autonomy, hundreds of years later, has the effect and gives reason to revert back to attitudes that were, arguably, more progressive in the past. Relative to the length of human history, recent attempts of women empowerment and body autonomy remain steadfast and strong. For example, birth control and contraceptives have given women the liberty to advance their lives in other ways than having children. Education, awareness, and accessibility have allowed women to take control of their life and prosper on a more equal playing field with men.

So, how does all this information about farming and the domestic economy and women’s rights relate to me? Well, I am a woman, after all. The life I live in the present is directly influenced from the lives of the women in the past. Culturally, Indian women, especially in India, are largely still expected to follow the monogamous model of finding a husband at a young age, getting married through a grand Indian wedding, and having children. Some Indian women, from childhood, already have their livelihoods cut short. As stories such as Giribala by Mahasweta Devi shows, female children are sent into arranged and forced marriages under the guise of following tradition and ensuring familial ‘advancement.’ In addition, some were sold into sex trades for monetary value incomparable to their invaluable lives. However, I don’t live in India, I live in the United States. Things should be different for my Indian friends and me, right? Wrong.

Marriage between a groom and underaged girl (STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images) https://www.amnestyusa.org/taking-action-to-end-child-marriage-on-international-youth-day/

In Western culture like that of the United States, family relationships and marriage are largely based on how much love exists between two people, a contrast from the arranged marriages of South Asian life that have ulterior motives. That’s not to say, however, that even here in the US, things are really that much fairer. In the US, LGBTQ+ individuals still struggle to be accepted and find love. Due to heteronormativity, same sex marriage, though legalized in the US and many parts of the Western world, is still heavily stigmatized and unaccepted. Similarly, gender fluidity is a concept many struggle to understand since a two-gender social norm has been so heavily reified in society. In the US and abroad, individuals that do not subscribe to the two most common genders, woman or man, face discrimination and oppression that impacts their love life and ability to find a partner, similar to same sex individuals. Noteworthy is that these individuals might also experience unacceptance within their own family, tarnishing the family relationship and potentially creating conflict regarding roles.

The LGBTQ+ pride flag. Photo by Mercedes Mehling on Unsplash
‘Two-spirit’ Native American https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/oct/11/two-spirit-people-north-america

Perhaps, understanding the historical culture of Native Americans in the Great Plains might help to change people’s minds, or at the very least, create some degree of awareness and tolerance. From anthropologically studying their past, it is evident that gender fluid and androgynous individuals, known as ‘two-spirit’ people, have existed, been accepted, and celebrated in their culture (Gilliland 198). Knowing that these lifestyles have existed historically might provide some basis for others to understand just how common, normal, and prevalent these individuals are, as well as helping to recognize the unique struggles they face currently. From these examples of marginalized and oppressed groups in such ‘advanced’ places such as the US, it is evident that among all cultures, there are moral and inherently flawed traditions.

Let’s take this idea of marginalized treatment one step further. Specific to my life is the debate between endogamy and exogamy. Endogamy refers to marriage within a certain group (Gilliland 192). Exogamy refers to marriage outside of a particular group (Gilliland 192). Now, remember when I said I identify as an Indian? Well, within my Indian culture, the former practice of endogamy is most common. I am privileged to live in a remarkably diverse area, where I have met many Indians that have become my friends. For them, endogamy is the only option. Intra-cultural marriage is the norm, and it is either the most expected, or only desired, outcome of their life. Some of their parents experienced an arranged marriage, while others did not. Still, although a modified version exists today, the option of arranged marriage hovers above their head if they ever find themselves struggling to find a partner. In some cases, my friends are further limited by the expectation they find a partner and settle down before they reach a certain age, such as their mid-20s.

Traditional Indian Wedding Ceremony. Photo by Jayesh Jalodara on Unsplash

Although my friends might have more wiggle room to find their own partners and are not immediately subject to an arranged marriage like in the past, they still find confinement in the practice. While my friends’ parents may hold very archaic, traditional views on marriage, it’s also all they have ever known. Therefore, it makes logical sense they would stick to the practice, especially if it worked for them. My friends experience the occasional cognitive dissonance knowing that they sometimes wish they had more freedom to choose, but are restrained due to the expectations of their families. They try to find comfort in this mindset, using the benefits of endogamy to justify what is expected of them. I’ve heard all kinds of reasons that comfort the potential for an arranged marriage, some being:

“I’ll be with someone who understands my culture since they practice it, too.”

“I won’t be alone when I’m older.”

“I’ll have security and be financially stable.”

“My family will be happy with it. We can keep the culture in the family.”

“It’s just easier to be with someone with the same culture and religion.”

Arranged marriages aren’t entirely loveless and in fact, many of the times, see great success since compatibility between two people has been carefully examined before making the union official. From all of this, my friends find themselves much more pressured to find someone to marry and use different criteria than me to determine if someone is a good fit for them.

Now, notice how I have yet to include myself in the same lot as my friends. With my lifestyle and the beliefs of my parents, however, both endogamy and exogamy are acceptable, a pleasant change (for me, at least) compared to the lifestyle of my fellow Indian friends. Grappling with the desire for someone to understand and get along with my culture and what it brings, hence following an endogamic lifestyle, contrasts with my open-mindedness in being with someone who does not share the same culture or religion as me, therefore leading into an exogamic lifestyle. This confusion is only a small price of having the freedom to choose, a price I’m willing to pay.

Overhead view of a city in Trinidad © iStock/jaysunlp https://www.worldnomads.com/travel-safety/caribbean/trinidad-and-tobago/trinidad-and-tobago-high-crime

My parents did not meet through an arranged marriage, and they strongly believe against it. This could be due, in part, to their upbringing as Indians in Trinidad in the Caribbean rather than India. These geographic differences may account for the variance of family and marriage structure within a single group dispersed throughout the globe. The West Indian mindset of my parents has certainly transferred onto me, and favorably so, as it allows me greater autonomy and choice. Being West Indian, I haven’t followed a traditional ‘India’ Indian lifestyle like my friends. I cannot relate to them on many topics because my upbringing and exposure is completely different from their own. Perhaps this would make it more difficult for me to live the endogamic lifestyle because finding Indian men with a West Indian background in the US is much more challenging than it might appear. Hence, the exogamic lifestyle swoops in as my saving grace. My biggest roadblock is that people might not see ethnicity off first glance. Upon looking at me, I appear as a typical Indian and I speak proper English. The ethnic and cultural differences that separate me from other Indians are not readily apparent until later on, when conversation sparks this discussion. This dilemma creates insecurity in my unique struggle to find my in-group, across all races and ethnicities.

Despite these differences, the collective race of Indian women faces many similar struggles. For example, like many women across cultures, we are still expected to marry and bear children. While we might be encouraged to build careers and sustain ourselves to an extent, marriage is still preferred and expected in Indian culture. For many, remaining unmarried and/or without children is a shameful life path. Being independent in this respect is looked down upon, justified by many traditionalist values and mindsets in my race across the globe. Another struggle Indian women face is the potential family struggle that might accompany inter-religious or inter-cultural marriages. Having two weddings, perhaps one for each culture/religion and raising children with more than one culture or religion is entirely another issue that requires much prospecting. In addition, Indians have grown up with little representation in the media, and many immigrant parents lack the experience to help guide us. Navigating these grounds while avoiding dangers such as fetishization, racism, and sexism adds a greater level of difficulty to this concept. Lastly, one major struggle we share is the racial issue of colorism. While this is wholly another topic to discuss at much further depths, it is a unique struggle that plagues our attempts at love and marriage. The added pressure of traditionalist views of male superiority and the struggle of colorism within the Indian race creates discrimination and oppression towards Indian women.

One effect of colorism is shown through the popular skin lightening cream “Fair & Lovely” marketed to Indian women to lighten their skin in order to appear more desirable to men. (Amit Dave/Reuters) https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/07/09/860912124/black-lives-matter-gets-indians-talking-about-skin-lightening-and-colorism

My generation fills me with hope from all these regressive, outdated attitudes. As we grow, obtain an education, work towards our careers and prosper, ideas of family structure may change in time. I am hopeful that we will, at the very least, inch closer to a more universally equitable, equal, and liberating society for Indian women and men. Change is slow, and we are but one tiny fragment of the timeline of human existence.

Works Cited:

Gerdeman, Dina. “From the Plow to the Pill: How Technology Shapes Our Lives.” HBS Working Knowledge, President and Fellows of Harvard College, 20 Aug. 2020, hbswk.hbs.edu/item/from-the-plow-to-the-pill-how-technology-shapes-our-lives.

Gilliland, Mary Kay. Perspectives: An Open Introduction to Cultural Anthropology., 2nd edition., Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, American Anthropology Association, 2020, pp.182–203.

Lyon, Sarah. Perspectives: An Open Introduction to Cultural Anthropology., 2nd edition., Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, American Anthropology Association, 2020, pp. 119–147.

Shearn, Isaac. Perspectives: An Open Introduction to Cultural Anthropology., 2nd edition., Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, American Anthropology Association, 2020, pp. 96–118.

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