Arranged Marriage in the Spotlight of “Indian Matchmaking”
In Netflix’s docuseries, “Indian Matchmaking,” singles search for life partners with the help of a professional matchmaker. Some of these singles are Indians living in Delhi and Mumbai, while others are Indian Americans living in Texas and New Jersey. With its binge-worthy content and much of the country on pandemic lockdown, the show was watched by many and sparked a rousing conversation on arranged marriage.
Some commentators were fans, praising the show and circulating “Indian Matchmaking” memes. Others denounced the show for hidden casteism, as well as open colorism and sexism. Yet, fans and critics alike sometimes assumed facts about arranged marriage that no longer are, or never were, true.
As a demographer, I investigate how and why family behaviors vary and change over time. Much of my research is on marriage in India. So, I want to inject a richer understanding of arranged marriage into this conversation.
What is Arranged Marriage?
Arranged marriage is a shifting constellation of practices. At its core, it means a spouse was not chosen by the person getting married. In an arranged marriage, it is parents, often with help from other family members, who choose a spouse for their child.
Arranged marriage is not forced marriage. Young people usually agree to marry their parents’ choice or might choose from a handful of options selected by parents. It is also common for parents and children to work together to find a spouse. For instance, a young person might find a suitable match at school and approach their parents about arranging a marriage.
Arranged marriages do not always include consent though. Sometimes parents arrange marriages without consulting their children or pressure children into marrying against their own wishes. Daughters are more often the ones who experience such duress and even force. Sons have greater leeway to marry a bride they prefer with their parents’ consent or marry without approval.
Another misconception is that arranged marriages are loveless marriages. The alternative to an arranged marriage is known as ‘love marriage,’ which implies it is the absence of love that defines arranged marriage. In reality, the difference is in the timing of love. In an arranged marriage, a couple is expected to grow to love each other after marrying, not before. And, later in life, many in arranged marriages experience high levels of love and satisfaction.
The criteria for choosing a spouse form another part of the arranged marriage constellation. Historically, the caste, religion, and social and economic status of the prospective spouse’s family were crucial. Over time, characteristics of the prospective spouse were added to the list, including education, employment, and appearance. There is also growing emphasis on potential interpersonal compatibility.
The relative weight of these criteria differs between grooms and brides. For grooms, their job and future employment prospects are more important, while domestic skills and good looks are of greater weight for brides. The ideal bride of matrimonial ads is a slim, fair-skinned homemaker, while the ideal groom is financially stable.
Education is highly desirable for both, but for different reasons. For grooms, education is a prerequisite for obtaining competitive, salaried jobs. For brides, education is believed to make them better mothers and companions to educated husbands.
One reason for this difference is that a wife staying home is a marker of a family’s wealth. In India, women’s labor force participation has declined as the country grew richer. However, some men and their families do prefer brides with jobs. Further, poor families often seek brides who will earn money outside the home or work in home-based enterprises.
Another feature of arranged marriage is a swift timeline. A prospective couple typically meets once or twice, and sometimes not at all, before marrying. Parents and other family members are also present at these meetings. If both sides agree to the match, a wedding follows within weeks or even days.
Why Arranged Marriages?
In India, it is primarily families, not individuals, that form the building blocks of society. These families are intergenerational and defined by the male line. A conventional family consists of an older couple, their married sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. Daughters are members of their natal families only temporarily; when a daughter marries, she joins her husband’s family.
Arranged marriage is an exchange between families. When searching for a bride, a man and his family are looking for the daughter-in-law that will join their family. She will be expected to adapt to the customs and needs of her new family and give birth to the children that carry the family into the future.
The choice of a husband is no less significant. When searching for a groom, parents are looking for the family that will determine their daughter’s future. If they (and she) choose well, she may be assured a life of material privilege and contentment. If they choose poorly, she may experience deprivation, abuse, or return home in disgrace.
The End of Arranged Marriage?
In India today, marriage is a mix of indigenous customs and Westernized practices that increasingly blur the boundaries of arranged and ‘love’ marriage. Marriage practices also vary by region, religion, caste, and class. Marriages of many urban elites, for instance, are often not really arranged.
The extent to which Indian custom is disappearing should not be overestimated though. In the 2000s, less than 10% of brides chose their husband on their own, a majority met their husband on their wedding day, and only 6% of marriages were inter-caste.
These blurred dynamics are on dramatic display in “Indian Matchmaking.” The singles are elites whose experiences are unusual, but they still face dueling pressures of Indian and Western customs. The matchmaker searched valiantly for spouses and families were closely involved, yet the singles were independent decision makers who hoped the next ‘biodata’ would bring them the perfect soulmate. Men chafed at parents’ pressure to marry, women critiqued expectations of adjusting, and awkward first meetings unfolded. Love it or hate it, Indians navigate such pressures on the way to marriage.
Keera Allendorf is an Associate Professor of Sociology and International Studies at Indiana University.