he actual relationship between desire, commodification and the gendered globalized ' Third World '/Indian subject is obviously far more complicated and usually more sordid than what the discursive circuits of Indo-chic can ever hope to capture , within which movies like Bride and Prejudice traffic. The reality of this relationship is best represented by the global traffic in women whose peculiarly South Asian variants include temporary marriages with Arab Sheikhs in return for work visas for male kin, international prostitution rings where women from lower-middle or lower-class families are brought abroad under cover of 'marriage' and sold into sexual slavery. The booming global sex-trade is only one aspect of the commodification of third world bodies which includes migrant labor as a whole.
The explicit nexus between marriage and commodification in South Asia is, of course, captured by that great social institution and symbol of Tradition - dowry. Nothing should undermine the romantic ideology of marriage more than the extremely high incident of dowry-related crimes in the sub-continent, especially given the fact that their most extreme form - murder - has become such an established social practice as to earn its own sobriquet unique to the subcontinent - 'dowry death'. And in the cases where the violence does not result in death, the 'bride's' exploitation (virtually indentured labor) at the hands of her husband's family and even abandonment and divorce, while unconscionable, are hardly news. Yet, despite its ugly underbelly which is forever on display, this venerable social institution refuses to lose its charm. Which, after all, only goes to prove its centrality to the existing structures of power.
The marriage/dowry scam takes many shapes and forms, one bizarre variation of which is exposed in the documentary Runaway Grooms , made for CBC television by producer-director Ali Kazimi. The eponymous runaway grooms are NRI men from Canada 2 who return to India with their families to find a 'suitable' bride. Their NRI status makes them highly eligible, and they usually have their pick of the many young women on the marriage market. At this level, the scenario is no different from the classic arranged marriage. The various aspects of the drama play out as per the established rules of the game with the demand for more dowry than has already been offered being made at the most critically strategic moment, one which will maximize the possibility of humiliation for the bride's family - either during the wedding itself or immediately afterwards. The twist in the tale comes from the fact that the groom and his family soon abscond abroad with the dowry. The woman is left behind with the threat that unless more money is paid, she will not be allowed to join her husband abroad; in some cases she may actually be pregnant.
The film, while documenting an unfamiliar variation on the all-too-familiar theme of dowry-exploitation, is also interesting in that it captures a sinister aspect of the nexus between marriage and globalization, revealing how enterprising NRI families have come to realize the many advantages that a foreign domicile gives them. Chief among these is the cultural capital which an NRI status confers on men in the marriage market, and the cover (legal and otherwise) that they are guaranteed by Canadian immigration, privacy and divorce laws.
The film tells the story of two such women, Namita and Sonia. Namita is the daughter of a middle class Hindu family in Delhi , while Sonia comes from a working class Sikh family in Ludhiana . Both women suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands and in-laws who decamp after a brief "honeymoon" with the jewelry and dowry from the marriage. Once in Canada , the men apply for divorce on the grounds that their wives have deserted them. 3 The women are sent a legal notice and when they fail to appear in the Canadian court in the prescribed time (30 days in Ontario ;60 days in the case of British Columbia ), the divorce becomes legal. The result is an easy break with no liability of any kind - legal, financial or social. In the film, Sonia never receives the notice, and Namita who does, is not given a visa by the Canadian embassy for failure to show "sufficient reason to return to India ". The men are now free to run the scam all over again, and some do.
The sending back of the bride to her familial home (or, in the case of Sonia, leaving her there), the refusal to take her back until some additional sum is paid, and even the subsequent divorce, are common scenarios as well. What, again, makes this story unique is the way in which the global enters the picture to ensure the clean getaway of the culprits. In fact, as the film also touches on, albeit indirectly, they are protected not just by Canadian law, but by social conventions and the threat of social stigma faced by the bride's family. The middle class Sharmas (parents of Namita) do fight back and eventually win a settlement from the Delhi High Court in which their former son-in-law is declared a proclaimed offender and ordered to pay back the $15,000 dowry amount. Sonia's family, lacking the cultural capital needed to negotiate the system run into dead-ends where the most they receive is empty counseling at the hands of a 'special cell' of the Indian police.
Over and again, we hear the word 'scam' used for this phenomenon by lawyers, social workers and activists in Canada and India alike. Of course, what is left unsaid is that for the most part, once you take out the ingenious use of Canadian divorce laws, this scenario is not all that different from that of standard arranged marriages in the subcontinent. The problem, ultimately, is not Canadian laws but the institution of marriage - particularly its arranged marriage version which is premised on the provision of dowry by the bride's family. Given the horror stories of domestic abuse and virtual indentured servitude one hears of in the Diaspora, the fact that the brides had been left behind with their families and not taken abroad comes as almost a relief.
Namita and Sonia are but two examples of women whose vulnerabilities are exploited by these global marauders. According to B. S. Ramoowalia (a former cabinet minister turned social activist who is interviewed in the film), there are 10,000 such cases in the Punjab alone (the majority of Indian immigrants to Canada , as the film also reminds us, are from the Punjab ). The extraordinarily high incidence of this fraud in Punjab has resulted in the emergence of a social movement led by Ramoowalia which appears to be geared towards de-stigmatising the deserted brides and mobilizing popular opinion against their exploiters. One cannot help thinking that the most effective strategy would be a very public campaign aimed at exposing the known perpetrators - their names and photographs should be prominently displayed in public spaces and circulated through popular newspapers and magazines. This would serve the dual purpose of humiliating those who have engaged in this fraud and potentially working as a deterrent for those who are considering it. Since the entire scheme relies heavily on the social stigma and shame (experienced by the bride and her family), this strategy seems to me to have the additional benefit of a (re)payment in kind. Prominently displaying their names and photographs might also reduce the possibility of the same man getting away with this fraud more than once. Of course, this strategy is contingent on the women and their families agreeing it and this is where prevailing social norms come into play to ensure the woman's silence - for her there can be nothing but shame and embarrassment in going public. In the case of 'good women' after all, there is no such thing as 'good' publicity - and publicly exposing a fraud committed against one and one's family as a woman only compounds the problem by making oneself vulnerable to humiliation. This is the familiar blame-the-victim strategy used to maintain patriarchal power relations, and is by no means confined to India or even 'the non-West'. The high probability of facing this reaction is what makes Namita's family move from their family home, take alternative routes to work and generally avoid friends and family for as long as possible, and is also what forces Sonia to hide away within the confines of her family home long after her husband absconded with the dowry money leaving her high and dry. 4
Runaway Grooms is a compelling story powerfully told. However, as I mentioned before, it essentially uncovers a variation on a theme - and although many of the talking heads featured in the film, as well as the narrative/voice-over itself circle around it, the theme itself remains largely unacknowledged, leave alone challenged. The elephant in the sitting room, is, of course, arranged marriage , and in fact ultimately the institution of marriage itself. For example, the film opens with Namita talking about the lehnga she had chosen for her wedding, and how she now wants to burn it; her feelings for her marriage - both before and after the fiasco - can be read through her feelings for this article of clothing. And not just any article of clothing, one which Namita herself describes as something traditionally and quintessentially associated with brides . The real tragedy of her situation - as she understands it - is not Tradition itself, or its many elements such as the idea of arranged marriage, the exchange of dowry, the conspicuous consumption and display of wealth at weddings, or the ideologies which underpin these institutions - particularly those of romance and legitimate desire/sexuality. Marriage is after all, one of the fundamental agents of socialization and social control, both in terms of producing, maintaining and reproducing gender, heterosexuality, the boundaries between the licit and the illicit, as well as its function as the rite of passage for entry into adulthood for women, its role in the production and reproduction of caste, ethnicity and class (and in other parts of the world, race), as well as in enabling social mobility. This is why it is the norm in all patriarchal cultures for women to 'marry up', and why there are such strict rules governing marriage between these social groups. And let's not even get into the threat embodied by all types of non-normative unions, especially but not only homosexual ones.
It is thus not surprising to hear the young women featured in the documentary repeat these well-learnt lessons of Indian patriarchy - the seamless internalization of norms even (or especially) when they work against one's interests as a gendered subject shows us that ideology is doing its job. Thus, hearing Namita describe how all the dreams and hopes that she had spun around her marriage to Pankaj, her understanding of the wedding as the beginning of a 'new life', her family's insistence that they did their duty as prescribed by 'Hindu'/Indian tradition and that like all parents they wanted the best for their daughter, is sad and a bit frustrating - given what it tells us about the tenacious power of the ideology of marriage - but hardly surprising. What is shocking, however, is to hear such naturalization of the most egregious patriarchal elements from Brinda Karat - the General Secretary of AIDWA and a member of the politburo of the CPI (M)! To me this can only mean one of two things: either the idea of arranged marriage is so naturalized in India that even doesn't see it as a problem, or this is part of some strategy of cultural sensitivity. Or else, Ms Karat has forgotten her Engels.And so we have her earnestly telling us that 'of course' all parents want their daughters to be happily married (note, not just happy), there is 'nothing wrong in that'. But, she rhetorically asks in a tone bordering on gentile shock, 'to do that without even checking? '. Thus the pre-eminent woman in the organized Left thinks that the real problem with the runaway groom issue is not the underlying institution of marriage, arranged or otherwise, but the fact that the bride's parents simply do not perform 'due diligence' when it comes to choosing a husband for their daughter. Oh, the horror of it all.! 5
This is not the place to do much more than outline the distinguished history of critiques of marriage as an institution on the Left - from Engels 6 to the Victorian Anti-marriage League and its counterparts on the subcontinent, to the dissidence of second-wave feminists - but it is perhaps pertinent to recall that these critiques used to be the sine qua non of the Left, whether Marxist or feminist in inspiration, and usually both. Which is why the decidedly pedestrian analysis offered by a pre-eminent communist comes as such a shock.
It is not as if Indian feminism is a stranger to a critique of marriage as an institution, especially in its arranged marriage avatar, nor indeed to the impact which neoliberal globalization has had on all aspects of social, cultural and economic life in India (to say nothing of the political), including the relationship between desire, sexuality and the culture of consumption and commodification. Uma Chakravarty's fabulous analysis in Gender and Caste , for example, addresses the ways in which these two structures of power are constructed and how they work to reinforce once another through, in particular, the institution of marriage. The various contributors to the cutting-edge volume A Question of Silence edited by Mary John and Tejaswini Niranjana back in 2000 also shows that there has been no dearth of critical engagement with issues of sexuality, desire, commodification, etc. Hence my disappointment at its absence here.
In her canonical essay "The traffic in women: Notes on the 'political economy' of sex", for example, Gayle Rubin pointed out how women are the commodities, the 'gifts' that cement kinship ties between men , that establish, maintain and affirm patriarchal systems of status and prestige and marriage is, of course, the crucial node in this system of commodity-exchange. The institution of arranged marriage as it exists in South Asia (with all its newest variants) is one of the most explicit examples of the way in which this political economy works. In highlighting its newest avatar, Ali Kazimi has shown us that as an institution which bridges the public and private realms of social life - the Home and the World, as it were, and (attempts to) suture the contradictions of modern 'globalised' life and the desires it creates through ideologies of romance, and the nostalgia of 'Tradition' - it is intimately (and I use that word deliberately) connected to larger shifts in international political economy. I mean, of course, 'Globalization' - specifically, the transition to neoliberalism which began in India with the economic reforms of the early 90s, bringing with it a whole new consumer culture, fueling a rise in levels of consumption, as well as desires and aspirations - which in turn fed into the existing commodification of women. It is simply not possible to understand the cultural capital which NRI men or women, but generally men have without understanding this relationship between the changing global and local forms of capitalism and patriarchy, and the evolving relationships between them enabled by globalization, commodification and the fantastic desires they generate.