Marriage series – Part 1

We cannot pretend that your marriage is not an issue – especially after our visits to the village where your grandma and uncles are concerned about your (and my) indecisiveness in this regard. I cannot suggest you take any decision or follow a path for its moral value. For me, there should be some rationality behind it.

We may recognise our specific context while thinking about your marriage. I have seen mothers in North-East Karnataka who marry off their daughters at the age of 11 or 12, and they have genuine concerns about the safety and financial security of their daughters. I cannot suggest an alternative to them without demonstrating the possibility of a better life for their girls. Similarly, most of what I write here may not be relevant if you were growing up elsewhere – Europe or in developing countries like Indonesia or Brazil. Hence our deliberation on your marriage is (to be) shaped by our social context.

Can we think about marriage with a rational approach? One may say that marriage is based on romantic love and hence there is no role for rationality here. However, a romantic love may evolve and mature even without or outside the marriage. Marriage is an institution designed by communities, and there could be a role for rational thinking in approaching this institution. There is nothing new in this approach. Nearly 90 percent of Indian marriages are arranged by parents, and here match-making and negotiations on the transfer of resources are driven more by financial and social interests. The emotional connection, if any, between the spouses, does not matter much in this bargaining. Though all relationships are of long-term in nature, marriage is a long-term investment, and it can be very costly (emotionally, financially and socially) if one wants to get out of it later on. Caution is needed before making all such longer-term investments.

Consider any Indian girl of your age (mid-twenties) and type – educated and employed at the entry level in an organisation with certain reputation. If we follow the normal pattern among the middle class in India, you may have an affair or your parents may arrange a marriage with a boy who is a couple of years elder to you. He is more likely to have similar or higher level of education and/or more years of employment experience and most probably with a higher income. If there is a need for one of you to take a break from employment to live together (say, when one gets a transfer in the job to another location) or for child-care, this burden may fall on you, as being the girl and as the one who earns a lower income. If both the spouses are software engineers, it is more likely for the boy to get an H1 B visa earlier (due to his higher level of experience), and the girl may have to leave the job and migrate with a dependent visa and then she cannot work. This break in employment may dampen her career prospects even if she wants to take up employment after a few years. This may put her in a perennially dependent position within the household – as someone depending on the income of the husband. Moreover, she could be deprived of the experience of being employed well

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Hence even when the girl is educated and employed, the normal marriage may put her at a `secondary’ or `subsidiary’ or `subservient’ position. I am not implying that these dependent spouses are powerless completely. They may gain and exercise certain control over the husband through an emotion-laden bargaining. In fact, such a subservient or secondary position for girls has been reckoned as the appropriate one in Indian marriages. Girl’s parents look for an (educated) employed boy with regular incomes so that the girl may become a housewife backed by the financial and other assets transferred by her parents as dowry. This is the situation even if the girl is educated, and it is evident from the lower work participation of females in India. Only 1 out of 4 women take up employment outside the home in India or the female work participation rate (FWPR) is around 25%. In many countries in Western Europe or south-East Asia, this figure could be higher than 60%. Though sections of Indian middle-class encourage girls to acquire education and employment, marriage may take them to the position of the housewife or dependent spouse.

Is this position a desirable one? This depends on the girl. Due to the nature of upbringing, endowments in education, or due to purely random factors, there could be girls who may consider the position of housewife a desirable one. The choice of marriage mentioned here could be appropriate for her, provided she has thought about its longer term implications reasonably well. On the other hand, there could be other girls who may want to avoid such a situation. Moreover, a break from employment to keep the marriage intact may put a girl in a highly vulnerable situation if there is a (need for) divorce later on.

What if the girl wants to avoid a situation wherein she becomes dependent on husband’s income? She should have a career or profession or acquire skills by which she gets decent employment and reasonable income. Such an income should be at par with (if not more than) the one earned by her spouse. For this to happen, marriage should not work against her plans to acquire higher levels of education or skills or proficiency/experience in employment. She should feel comfortable in marrying someone with incomes similar (or lower than) that of her. This may require a certain increase in one’s earning capacity and otherwise the temptation to marry a spouse with a much higher income may persist. If the girl’s employment and income are attractive (in comparison with that of her spouse), it may not become so `natural’ for the girl to leave the job when one of them gets a transfer to another location or when they have a child.

This is a choice that you or each girl of your type has to take based on informed notions of independence and freedom on the one hand and comfort and happiness to be derived from the marriage on the other hand. This is one example where a little bit of rational thinking may help your decision on marriage. There are other issues as well and we discuss some of these in the following essays.