Next to toilets without toilet paper, the thing that most confounds Westerners about Asian cultures is the practice of arranged marriages. There are many things I do not understand yet about arranged marriages, but I have had some small amount of enlightenment on the subject at least as it is practiced in Sri Lanka.
My observations started when I got just a little bit lost on campus. My path from the Science Faculty to the swimming pool was blocked by a creek. The creek is beautiful. The creek runs through shady, tropical trees, runs under a picturesque stone bridge well off to my left and disappears from sight as it bends off to my right. I stand, admiring the view, listening to the birds, wondering which way to go.
But gradually I become aware that I am not the only one admiring the view, though maybe I am the only one admiring the view of the creek. I become aware that there are young couples amongst the vegetation, entwined together, staring longingly into each others eyes. Nothing unseemly, mind you. There was no “making out” that I observed and all clothes were un-rumpled and arranged as they were designed to be arranged. But, somehow I suspected that these young couples were not all betrothed and I strongly suspected that the parents of many of these couples were not aware that their son or daughter even had a significant other.
An aside here. I have said that this is a conservative country and people, even young people on campus and away from home, dress modestly. While I am sure that a large portion of this modesty is due to cultural expectations, most parents in the US have pretty high expectations for modesty in their children as well. But Sri Lankan parents have an ally in Nature, not available to parents in the US, to aid in keeping their children’s clothes on, especially in dark, leafy, romantic spots. I refer, of course, to leeches. Any exposed skin that brushes against vegetation is liable to acquire a leech. Kris has already had two “incidents” with leeches, much to her utter horror. In one incident, she had taken a tuk-tuk to a fancy resort hotel, the Amaya Hills, way uphill from our home in Dongolla. She changed into her swimsuit and approached the pool. The lifeguard asked her to wait just a moment before entering the pool. He then bent down and calmly removed a leech from her ankle! Wearing leeches on ones ankle is not considered haute couture in Sri Lanka, but maybe it will catch on in Paris, where I have seen (on TV) much stranger attire on the catwalks.
Back to arranged marriages. The couples lingering out of sight in the bushes are not the only couples I see on campus. Being old and worldly-wise, I can usually tell when a young man and young woman walking together have a romantic attachment. I see many such couples on the paths between the buildings, going to and from class, to and from lunch.
This led to this thought in my Westerner’s mind, “Are these couples doomed to a sorrowful breakup?” After all, what are the odds that these self selected partners will be the ones chosen by their parents for an arranged marriage?
So, I started a discussion of arranged marriages with my physics colleagues at that delightful institution of morning (or afternoon, I can’t remember which) tea. The institution of arranged marriages was well defended by my Sri Lankan colleagues. However, they also assured me that maybe 50% of the couples I see on campus would likely end up married. They were not explicit about how the system is gamed, but it was clear that it can be gamed. They said that the practice of arranged marriages, in the strictly traditional sense, is declining among wealthier and more educated Sri Lankans, but is still very much the practice in those not so wealthy or educated.
It seems to me that, in the West, we have this romantic notion that there is “the one,” the one person you are destined to marry. This theme permeates the entertainment industry in the West. In the movies, couples in love stay together no matter what the obstacles, because they are in love and no one else will do. They live happily ever after, unless the movie is a tragedy, of course, and then they part and live out their lives in abject misery. How many movies are their where the man (often played by Cary Grant) can’t marry the woman (played by whomever is female, popular, and under thirty at the time because even though Cary Grant could play romantic leads until the day he died, no actress (no, even Meryl Streep could not carry it off in Mama Mia!) can play a romantic lead over the age of thirty) because his rich family will disown him if he marries this unsuitable (read “poor”) young woman. They decide to marry anyway and live a penniless existence. But wait! A kindly uncle dies, leaving one or the other of them (it doesn’t matter) a fortune and they can continue to live as he has always been accustomed to.
On an intellectual level, we in the West know that the idea that there is just “the one” is not true. If it were, the human race would have become extinct ages ago since, if you calculate the odds of even meeting “the one” person meant for you at raandom, you will see that it is pretty grim, and certainly unlikely to happen while both of the partners are still of child bearing age.
In fact, we know also that even if two people fall madly in love, love may not be enough to sustain a happy marriage. So family and friends in the West engage in endless discussions of the suitability of a given person’s potential mates. Many churches in the US now require young couples to undergo counseling before they can be married in the church to make sure that the couple has at least considered the problems that go with marriage to someone of a different religion or ethnicity or social class, to someone with a different expectation about the eventual size of the new family, or to someone with a different attitude about money, among a laundry list of items famously known to cause major strains in a marriage. So we know that the other Western romantic ideal, that love conquers all, is not really true.
On the other hand, the concept of the arranged marriage seems to be based on the opposite ideal, that any two people of good will can work together to create a happy, sustainable marriage, provided they share important traits. So the idea is that they should be of the same social class and of the same religion. If they do, they are likely to share many cultural expectations about issues that can break apart many marriages.
A Westerner reading the newspaper here can not help but be surprised by the marriage want ads, though given the existence in the West of “personal ads,” we probably should not be smug. The marriage ads can be so specific. “Parents seek for daughter a doctor or engineer as suitable bridegroom.” We were joking with students in the physics department how sad it was that one never saw an ad specifying a physicist. The marriage ads often spell out not only which religion, but what sect of which religion is acceptable. The marriage ads often share with Western “personal ads” the specification of an acceptable age range. Parents might advertise that the daughter comes with a house, it apparently being traditional that the daughter is responsible for providing the new family a place to live. Keep in mind that a house here costs roughly the same as a house in the US. The one thing that continues to jolt me is that the ad requests the respondent to submit their horoscopes to see if the marriage will be auspicious, or not. Many ads are dangerously close to being over-constrained. A family might find that not only is there not “the one,” there may be no “one.”
Like when I have read the personal ads in the US, I wondered if anyone actually found a spouse from a marriage ad. It seemed too calculating for what we Westerners think of as romance. In fact they do. We have become acquainted with a young woman who was the subject of one of these ads last year. Several young men (together with their families) responded to the ad. Meetings of the couple were arranged and happened as scheduled. No mutually suitable arrangement could be made, however. The parents will try again next year. The Western cynic in me wondered if they had considered EBay, but I know the parents well enough to know that they truly want what is best for their daughter.
I suspect that, even in countries that practice arranged marriages, people know that the ideal that any two young people of good will can create a successful marriage is no more true in practice than is the Western romantic ideal of “love conquers all.” You can see evidence of this in the entertainment industry in a country, Thailand, that shares the custom of arranged marriages with Sri Lanka. Kris tells me of seeing many movies about star crossed lovers, who fight their mutual attraction, submit to their parents’ wishes, bid each other tearful goodbyes, and go to be wed to the person their parents have picked for them. Lo and behold, when the veil is removed and the marriage partner revealed, it turns out that their parents had, coincidentally, arranged a marriage between the two lovers. The two lovers live happily ever after, unless, of course, the movie is a tragedy, and then the bride finds herself wed to the leering, sixty year old, village elder with a spare rice paddy, and the two lovers live out their lives in abject misery. Back ro Sri Lanka, the evidence that the arranged marriage custom has its limits is precisely the many couples happily absorbed in each others company, strolling together down the university’s paths without their parents’ knowledge who end up getting married.
So, on one level, the difference between East and West is one of two opposite ideals, tempered by reality. In this one sense, there is not much to pick between them.
But, as a Westerner and a feminist, I can’t get past the coercive underpinnings of the arranged marriage system. While in principle, both the young man and the young woman are equally coerced, the symmetry is broken by the need for the woman’s family to provide a dowry and the couple being part of a traditionally patriarchal society. A benign view of the situation is that a marriage needs to be a business arrangement first. If poor, the new family must have the financial means to prosper or even just to survive. I have never had the experience of being that poor, but there certainly are communities in Sri Lanka that are very poor, so I hesitate to judge.
I suspect that a “middle path” is hinted at by the more prosperous and educated Sri Lankans who can both advocate for arranged marriages as the ideal, but can “arrange” for 50% of self-selected couples to “discover” that their parents have chosen “the one.” May all of Sri Lanka find such prosperity.