Nairobi — Or is it marriage first and then love? FATIMA ALY JAFFER goes in search of some answers
Would you marry a man your parents chose for you? Or one you had never met? Could you be happy in a relationship founded on reason rather than romance? You would be excused for responding with an emphatic "No". The term "arranged marriage" usually evokes horrifying images of oppressed women forced to wed unsuitable partners.
Yet, a large number of people have for centuries found nothing wrong with being part of just such a "business transaction". In many cultures, including Indian and African ones, marriages were arranged for a variety of purposes - including keeping noble blood in the family or strengthening clan ties. A well-placed match could also raise a family's social status or bind a long-standing friendship more strongly. In some cases, marriage was used to end feuds and allow hostile parties to come to an understanding.
For the most part, marriage was viewed as a necessity and calculated to profit all parties involved. Where money and status did not matter, compatibility was the yardstick used to measure a pairing. A wife was chosen not only on the basis of how well she suited her potential partner but also on her ability to fit into his family and lifestyle. Obedience, gentleness, pliability, fertility (usually established through family history) and beauty were some of the major factors considered.
Shilpa, now in her 50s, has been married for over 30 years and first saw her husband after their wedding. "I was sitting next to him all through the ceremony," she says laughing, "but I didn't have the nerve to sneak a look at him!"
Her mother had mentioned a few months before that a husband had been chosen for her. Her traditional parents had already confirmed the suitability of the match in the astrological dimension. In Hindu culture, birth charts are used to ensure that the stars favour a couple. Mental compatibility, physical habits, prospects of healthy children and longevity of life are some of factors considered. An apparently perfect match may be rejected if the birth charts of the couple are not harmonious. If the fortunes are good, then the best dates and times for the wedding are calculated.
Only after all this had been determined was Shilpa was given a name and the date she would be married. Protesting was not something she contemplated. "The thought of saying no or asking my parents to justify their choice didn't even occur to me," she says. "Their word was law and if anyone had suggested that I rebel, I probably would have been shocked."
This parent/child relationship in part sustains the arranged marriage. The authority of elders in traditional communities is unquestioned. They are seen as a source of wisdom. Usually, middle-aged or elderly females take on the role of unofficial "matchmakers" and both boys and girls are under scrutiny from the moment they reach a suitable age. When looking to marry their children, parents know to approach these women for recommendations.
"My mother began preparing me for marriage when I was barely 13," Shilpa says. "She would constantly tell me to learn to cook, be more patient and less moody because I would 'soon be going to my in-laws'. These reminders never allowed me to develop a permanence in my own home. When my father spoke fondly of me or indulged me, he would say it was because I was a 'guest' in his house."
Once married, Shilpa understood that she was finally moving to her "real home". The fact that she was a complete stranger was of no consequence. In her opinion, this total acceptance is actually what makes an arranged marriage simpler and more successful than a "love marriage". "You and your husband enter the relationship on equal ground," she says. "Neither of you has any particular expectations of each other and so there is less of a disappointment if your partner turns out to be different from what you would like."
Does this make it easier to accept the flaws of the other person? "A little," she says. "But it's hard work all the way. You still need to come to terms with habits that irritate you and differences in opinion. The good thing about my marriage was that my in-laws had similar religious principles as my own family. The fact that my husband and I have always agreed on the big issues gave us a solid foundation for our relationship."
But what of love? What if the stranger you marry never becomes the husband you love? Shilpa laughs at this question. "In my opinion, love is an overrated emotion. What I feel for my husband is stronger than anything I have read in a book or seen in a movie. Over the years, I have learnt who he is and I place him above all men. I don't question this feeling. I just accept it and am grateful for it."
She pauses for a moment after this emotionally charged speech and then sighs. "But sometimes arranged marriages don't work out and I'm just glad mine did. When I was young, a bride was told that her pride was in entering her husband's house in a "doli" (bridal palanquin) and leaving on her funeral bier. Women today have the option to leave an abusive or unhappy marriage, but it's still disapproved of. Many stick it out for as long as they can."
Her husband, Pratib, is more explicit with his feelings. "When I married Shilpa, I was terrified," he admits. "My father had lectured me on my new responsibilities. He told me my ability to keep my wife happy would be my true test of manhood."
He adds, almost with pride: "I had never had any kind of relationship with a woman before. The only woman I knew was my mother and she looked after me. Now, suddenly, I had someone I was supposed to look after! To me, it was as if I had been given a burden that was both fragile and heavy."
His ease in admitting this in front of his wife emphasises their confidence in each other. When asked about the love aspect, he responds quickly, as if he has been waiting to answer. "I've heard people say that they always remember their first love with fondness. In an arranged marriage, your first love is your only love. You journey from ignorance to knowledge together, making mistakes and learning as you go along. You don't fall in love with your partner's qualities, you learn to love them whatever they may be. Shilpa was the first woman I knew intimately. Every experience was heightened and the fact that we were both committed to a lifelong union meant that every new feeling added to our bond."
So when did they realise they loved each other?
Pratib's answer: "I can honestly say I don't know. Until the second year of our marriage, I hadn't even thought of the word. Then Shilpa went for the first traditional visit to her parents and I missed her like crazy. That's when I knew she was a part of me and my life forever." Shilpa's answer: "The day after our marriage."
Although both Pratib and Shilpa understand that arranged marriages are largely no longer seen in a positive light, they still hold that it should be an available option. "Not everything old is bad," Shilpa says. "I'd say judge a tradition by its track record. Contrary to common belief, arranged marriages don't last longer only because they impose a commitment on the couple. They really are more happy."
To them, any venture entered into with common sense is likely to succeed, and finding wedded bliss with a stranger is nothing more than a well-calculated risk.
Stacey Ramsey, 19, is glad her mother chose her husband. "Who could I trust more than her to have my best interests at heart?" the newlywed asks. Her parent's separation does not affect her opinion. "No system is perfect," she says. "Marriage is about understanding and sacrifice. In an arranged one, the couple work harder because their families are as involved as they are."
Jessica Moindi, 24, is inclined to marry for love. "Parents and elders should advise you if you choose someone who is not good for you," she says. She also gives parents a role in the formalities of proposing and arrangements. But should they choose for you? A clear shake of the head. Definitely not.
Margaret Kavulani, 26, is single. For her, the system of arranged marriages belongs in the past. "Traditionally, the children had no say and courtship was between the two families rather than the couple involved," she explains. Parents should be a third party,she says. "You need to know and love the man you marry."
Sakina Taib, 23, met her husband at a wedding. They exchanged mobile phone numbers and, over the next few months, messaged their way into love. However, once they decided to get married, it was back to tradition."We had a mutual friend bring my husband's proposal to my parents," she says. "Traditionally, the couple get to meet once or twice to see if they like each other." It may seem like very little time for such an important decision, but Sakina says: "Parents check out the other party thoroughly. Financial stability, morals, hobbies, friends, everything is scrutinised."
Arranged marriages: what are we to make of them?
Consider this story, published in the Sunday Times magazine in the UK: "Aziza's pale green eyes flashed. Her 12-year-old body shivered. She took two steps back towards the mud wall in the hallway. It was a dead end. "I am not going! I am not going," she shouted at her mother.
Meanwhile, Haji Sufi, a 46-year-old farmer, waited for her, cross-legged on a thin mat, drinking black tea. He had travelled hundreds of kilometres from southern Afghanistan to collect Aziza, his wife of two years. She was his payment for taking on her father's £2.656 opium debt. But every time he came, Aziza cursed him and ran off. Aziza's mother, Khadija, scowled at her daughter. "It's your wretched father's fault that has put us in this hell," she said. "What's done is done."
Sounds familiar? Of course. We all know the stories of the Maasai girls who have been pulled out of school to be married off to men as old as their fathers - even grandfathers - for the bride price. Or the coastal girl sold for a Sh3,000 bride price so her father could get himself a young wife or so that he could pay bride price for her brother.
There is the young woman, barely out of her teens and already pregnant, who goes home one day to find a stranger in the house. Her uncle calmly tells her he has come to collect her, a secret agreement having been reached privately that he will marry her. Her choices limited by her circumstances, she packs her bags and accompanies the stranger with little more than her uncle's assurance that he is a good man. He will provide for her and her yet-to-be born son. And, better still, she can look forward to life in the city, where he lives in a slum and has a job as a night guard in a factory. What more should she expect from life? She should be grateful to escape rural poverty - and find a man to marry her after her transgression.
And then there is the case of former Ugandan President Geoffrey Binaisa, who was recently reported to be heading for the United States, to bring home his Japanese academician wife - who had been married to him via the mass marriages conducted by the Reverend Moon of the Universal Church all the way in Korea. Indeed, Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Zambia even temporarily left his Catholic church to marry a stranger in similar manner.
Sometimes arranged marriages work. Sometimes they don't. Same goes for love marriages.