Mass Marriages in India – An academic paper exploring the sociological angle

 

 

Indian weddings are famous around the world for a variety of reasons: ancient traditions, dazzling attire, scrumptious food, stunning venues, and weeklong durations. Hidden behind this glitz and the glamour, however, is the disquieting truth that orthodox Indian wedding ceremonies are plagued with a multitude of social malaises. On the one hand, exclusively celebrating the formation of the nuptial bond between a cis-gendered man and a cis-gendered woman belonging to the same caste and class, promote the regressive values of casteism, classism, and heterosexism. On the other hand, the event’s feature of being entirely sponsored by the bride’s family promotes the deeply sexist and patriarchal notion that women are not only a burden but also inferior to men. Governments, as well as courts, have attempted to tackle these problematic aspects of traditional wedding ceremonies through the means of passing various laws and regulations. The public, however, has largely rejected these measures and continues to be committed to several regressive value systems promoted through the traditional Indian wedding. Nonetheless, a new kind of wedding ceremony that battles these regressive facets of traditional marriage ceremonies is fast gaining popularity in the form of mass marriages (Handique 2011).
 
Prior to exploring the phenomenon of mass marriages, it is important to note that in contemporary India, it is neither the first time nor place for mass marriages to occur. Indeed, exploring the motivations behind the occurrence of this social practice at different times and places will provide us with a solid basis to understand the contemporary Indian iteration of this practice.
 
The earliest recorded mass marriage occurred in the year 324 BC in the Persian city of Susa. Hammond (2007) suggests that this marriage involved emperor Alexander the Great and eighty of his senior ranking officers respectively getting married to the Persian princess Barsine and eighty other women of the city’s nobility. In this instance, Alexander and Barsine wed in a mass marriage alongside their closest compatriots in order to emphasize the strength of the alliance being formed through their marriage ceremony.
 
The function of forming alliances across disparate groups, which lay at the heart of Alexander marrying Barsine through a mass marriage continued to be a reason behind the occurrence of mass marriages thousands of years after their own wedding. It was this very purpose of cross-cultural alliance-building that was a central motivation behind two thousand couples participating in a mass marriage ceremony conducted by Reverend Sun Myung Moon in New York City in 1980 (Hadjimatheou 2012). Indeed, various individuals who got married in this ceremony stated that their decision to participate in a mass marriage was inspired by their common belief that cross-cultural mass marriages constituted an effective instrument to advocate for peace and harmony in our sharply divided world.
 
However, the formation of bonds between distinctive communities does not entail the sole trans historical reason behind the incidence of mass weddings. Rather, economic motivations also constitute a major cause of the occurrence of mass marriages throughout history. Across time, mass marriages have occurred during periods of scarcity, such as war, when many people do not have the financial resources required to hold individual marriage ceremonies. Given this, it is not surprising that mass marriages for soldiers became extremely popular in European countries such as Italy and Germany during World War I and II (Arbuckle 2015). Besides being efficient not only in terms of money but also time, these marriages also performed the function of serving as an exercise to build unity amongst soldiers. Surely, soldiers who together experienced the monumental event of getting married alongside each other were more likely to have each other’s backs on the battlefield.
 
Much like these historical antecedents, the contemporary phenomenon of mass marriages in India counts amongst its primary motivations, financial considerations and the aim of building community. However, these are not the sole factors behind the occurrence of mass marriages in India. Instead, various kinds of mass marriage ceremonies in India occur due to a range of different cases. In order to fully grasp the stimuli behind the occurrence of mass marriages in present-day India, let us focus on the manner in which various types of mass marriages engage with various central aspects of the traditional practice of marriage in India, namely, caste, religion, heterosexuality, and dowry.
 

According to NCAER (2016), over 95% of marriages in India still occur in adherence to caste, which is a social system that segregates people into a set of hierarchically-arranged groups on the basis of their birth. The violent and regressive nature of the caste system is evident through its function of not only categorizing some people as ‘untouchable’ but also relegating these individuals to harmful professions such as manual scavenging. This system exerts its violent chokehold on the institution of marriage, which ensures that people only get married according to caste norms, through means such as honor killings: a practice in which one or both partners involved in an inter-caste marriage is killed by the family of the upper-caste spouse.

According to The Hindu (2016), inter-caste mass marriages, which are on the rise, constitute an effective tool to battle the caste system. First and foremost, inter-caste mass weddings provide several couples with a support system. This support system is valuable given how individuals who marry across caste lines are often shunned by their families in particular and society in general. In this situation, the value of the ability to form an inter-personal support system that inter-caste couples can rely on to sustain their married lives cannot be overestimated. Additionally, huge inter-caste marriage ceremonies are able to disavow the validity of the caste system far more loudly than any individual inter-caste marriage can. Thus, by together performing this loud repudiation of the caste system and thereafter providing couples marrying across caste lines connections to actually survive after taking this socially radical step, mass marriages effectively fight the social evil of caste.

Besides the caste system, religion continues to be a major force regulating the practice of marriage in India to the extent that marrying across religious groups is ever rarer than marrying across caste lines (Das et al. 2011). A primary reason behind this rarity of inter-religion marriage is that, much like inter-caste couples, inter-religious couples face the threat of honor killing as well as the problem of social ostracization. Indeed, contemporary India is so hostile to inter-religious weddings that such marriages are often termed as ‘Love Jihad’– a label that equates marrying a girl from another religious community to an act of war against that community. In this context, inter-religious mass marriages mirror inter-caste mass marriages in that they perform two crucial functions: disavowing religious bigotry and providing a social support system to the individuals getting married. In doing so, they support inter-religious harmony– an action that is crucially especially at a time when India’s secular fabric is itself under threat.

Apart from the rigid norms perpetuated by caste and religion, heterosexism constitutes another regressive social institution that dictates the traditional functioning of the institution of marriage in India. Heterosexism, which dictates that the institution of marriage should be limited to cis-gendered heterosexual men and women, banishes homosexuals and transgender people to the margins of society. Heterosexism doubly excludes transgender individuals from society by barring them from not only conventional family arrangements but also from standard employment options (Herek 1990). Transgender individuals in India, who often face discrimination or expulsion from their birth families, most often live in poor communities solely constituting trans-folks. In these communities, the only professions traditionally available to them are those of begging and prostitution.

Mass marriages between cis-men and trans-women constitute the primary mechanism through which mass marriages combat the trans-exclusionary system of heterosexism. The significance of this confrontation can be gleaned from the manner in which, although Indian courts have recently forwarding trans-gender rights, transgender folks continue to be socially and economically excluded. In this dire situation, mass marriages between cis-men and transgender women have emerged as an effective mechanism through which transgender individuals are being brought within mainstream society. Transgender mass-weddings, such as one organized recently in the city of Raipur, include traditional Indian rituals of Haldi, Mehendi, engagement, and sangeet. These ceremonies convey to mainstream society the pivotal message that neither transgender people themselves nor their marriages are any different from themselves. Furthermore, once again, the collective occurrence of these marriages once again not only creates a support system for the folks getting married but also represents a bold rejection of traditional heterosexist norms that exclude trans-folks from the institution of marriage in particular and from mainstream family structures in general. Mass marriages involving trans-women, by ending transgender exclusion and bringing trans-folks into mainstream society, furthermore, clear the path towards transgenders’ gaining economic inclusion through the means of doing conventional jobs (Ekins and King 2006).

However, the progressive potential of mass marriages is not limited to the shattering of conventional norms of heterosexism, caste, and religion. Instead, mass marriages directly tackle patriarchy, which is the central repressive social institution around which Indian marriages are structured (Sonawat 2001). Patriarchy’s central position within the institution of Indian marriages becomes evident when we consider dowry, a practice in which the bride’s family transfers property, gifts or money to the groom’s family at the time of marriage. This exchange, by instituting the woman as a burden to her family who can only be gotten rid of through the means of payment, establishes the inferior position of the woman within a marriage. This long-outlawed tradition, rather than getting extinct, has expanded from the traditional form of giving gifts to include the idea that the bride’s family is financially responsible for holding costly ceremonies to celebrate their daughter’s wedding.

In order to truly understand the patriarchal violence inflicted by the practice of dowry and its subsidiary norm of the bride’s family paying for lavish wedding ceremonies, let us understand how these practices lead to the repression of women at different stages of their lives. The subjugation enacted by dowry starts even before the birth of the girl child through the practice of female feticide. In this social phenomenon, parents kill their female children because of a variety of reasons, including the fear that they will not be able to pay for their girls’ wedding ceremony. Female feticide, in turn, leads to an increase in other sexist
practices that oppress women, including those of child-marriage and bride trafficking.

Rather than being limited to the period before marriage, the repression inflicted by dowry continues after marriage itself. The enormous cost is borne by a woman’s family to get her married disincentives them from helping their daughter to break her marriage from a violent or abusive husband. In other words, families, after having borne enormous expenses for the wedding of their daughters, are unwilling to have all that money just go to waste due to a broken marriage.

The enormity of the financial burden marriage puts on the brides’ family becomes evident when we note that, after healthcare, wedding expenses constitute the most popular reason behind Indians taking loans. Unsurprisingly, the families most burdened by this enormous cost of weddings are those from the working class. A major reason behind marriage being a greater financial burden for poorer individuals is that while affluent families often pay for their daughter’s weddings through formal financial institutions such as banks, destitute Indians most often turn to informal moneylenders to secure the funds required for their daughters’ wedding ceremonies. This practice, of borrowing from informal moneylenders, often leads to a debt-trap that the bride’s family is either entirely unable to escape or is only able to get out of after incurring a momentous financial loss. The connection between the cost of the lavish Indian wedding and women’s oppression becomes clear when we note that the lower classes, who face more financial burden on the basis of this practice, are subsequently more likely to participate in the aforementioned harmful patriarchal practices such as the bride-trade and child marriage.

Given the wide range of sexist and economic problems promoted by the practice of dowry and that of brides’ families having to arrange costly weddings, it is not surprising that courts in South Asian nations (Reuters 2019) have tried to curb the money a woman’s family has to spend on her marriage. On the one hand, India has banned the practice of dowry itself. On the other hand, Pakistan has tried to curb wedding expenses by allowing only one dish to be served at weddings (The Nation 2018). Both these measures, however, have been unsuccessful in relieving the financial burden brides’ families face due to marriage: the one-dish rule is seldom enforced in Pakistani weddings and the practice of dowry continues to be the norm in India. Therefore, these court-mandated measures have completely failed in transforming the inter-relatedly financially oppressive and patriarchal manner in which marriage is practiced on the Indian subcontinent.

It is in the context of the failure of these legalistic measures that we must recognize the success of mass weddings in transforming the relationship between marriage, money, and gender. Mass marriages, in being organized by social and religious groups that fund the entire cost of the marriage, save the bride’s family the cost of paying for her wedding. This step, alongside the lack of dowry, allows mass marriages to promote a message of gender equality. Mass marriages, in suggesting that the bride or her family does not have to pay the groom for marrying her, promote the idea of the bride and the groom being equals within the institution of marriage.

Rather than being limited solely to the institution of marriage itself, the positive run-off The effects of mass marriages extend to various aspects of women’s lives. Mass marriages, by creating a situation where the birth of a daughter does not equal the payment of a dowry or spending money on a lavish wedding, not only dis-incentivize female feticide but also allows families to spend more on generative areas such as education. By allowing for the education of daughters, mass marriages allow families to make their daughters self-sufficient and capable of supporting themselves in case a marriage goes awry.

However, despite this plethora of positive variants that bring with them a sea of social progress, mass marriages have a negative face as well. Mass marriages of children, which often occur on the auspicious day of Akshay Tritiya are a regressive and backward iteration of this institution. Mass child marriages, which are promoted by the religious orthodoxy and often occur strictly along the lines of caste and class, forward exactly the kind of regressive culture that the various aforementioned types of mass marriage actively battle.

Notwithstanding this negative variant of the social institution, mass marriages in India remain a contemporary practice very effectively combating a plethora of social ills. Mass marriage, in battling the repressive norms of caste, religion, gender, and dowry, constitutes a social practice effectively advancing the structural transformation of a society riddled with inequality and discrimination.

 

References

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