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prawling over 170, 000 square feet, the first ever Mega Marriage Mall is all set to open in Gurgaon, the Foreign Direct Investment zone of the new-and-trendy, global India. For, in an age of crass commercialism, how can the business of marriage be behind? "Marriage business in this country is pegged at Rs.50, 000 crore per annum and is growing at 25 per cent for the last couple of years", says Kunal Banerji, the real estate initiator of the marriage mall. [1]. Be it the indispensable astrologer who knows how to fix non-matching horoscopes, or beauty parlours that specialize in "marriage-makeup and mehendi", the marriage industry has us by the neck. The idea that marriage is inevitable, starts very early-- it germinates in our homes, our schools, and our very own bollywood films.  

Growing up in a brahmin, middle-class household in Maharashtra, heterosexual marriage was a given for me. One of my aunts who remained unwed was perceived as a "failure" and my mother's friend Sujata was the talk of her town ever since she set up home with her boyfriend without marrying him. Sujata became the object of the middle-class pity when her boyfriend-for-10-years began seeing younger women. Not a word against the man, and neither about Sujata's awesome career! This gossip always produced one and the only conclusion: this is what happens to a woman if she doesn't enter the secure zone of marriage.  From early on, the narrative of safety and security in marriage is impressed upon young women.  And this narrative serves a purpose--it takes away the spirit of defiance from young women. Despite the visible inequity, hypocrisy and violence that go into this institution, marriage continues to be celebrated as "safe" for women. Of course, the protective walls of marriage present an altogether different reality if you happen to labor in factories, farms or others' kitchens. And, unless you have the right kind of social capital in terms of sexuality, caste, class, able body etc., you are not welcome to this paradise.  

I grew up seeing a lot of marriages around. Extravagance and rituals in those marriages completely pissed me off. As my childhood friends got sucked into marriage "at an appropriate age", our conversations became abrupt. "Honestly, I didn't want to answer all those weird questions from everyone", said my cousin when she got married at 22 after graduating from a top engineering college. What were those questions? And how was marriage going to shield her? Upset over her decision, I resorted to books for answers and incidentally stumbled upon Kamal Desai's feminist Marathi novels.[2] Blown away by her sarcasm and wicked humor, I excitedly announced to my parents "Perhaps I am a feminist!" Later, I did get involved in a feminist group at my university where I got to hang with some incredible women. Over chai and beedies, we made plans of making films, doing art and growing together. We thought we've got to redefine family, intimacy and community. In search of jobs and careers, we all have gone separate ways, but I keep thinking about my friends who have refused to take refuge in the institution of marriage. Thanks to them, I understood the importance of boycotting marriage.    

While the presence of women's movements and Phule-Periyar-Ambedkarite Dalit movement has reformed current marriage practices, we have yet to start off conversations about the ways in which dissident sexualities are marginalized by the very heterosexual nature of these marriages. Our public culture schools us into believing that heterosexuality and marriage are both natural and desirable, and our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dismisses a query about same-sex marriages as " these kinds of marriages are not appreciated here (in India)". [3] How could they be appreciated, one wonders, when a hundred and fifty-year-old, colonial, anti-sodomy law is still in operation, making non-normative sexualities punishable by law? Criminalization of non-normative sexualities has silenced dissident voices, with section 377 of the Indian Penal Code legitimating state-sanctioned violence against queer people. [4] While queer men are able to find queer public spaces, such spaces are not readily available to queer women. Domestic spheres continue to push women, heterosexual and queer alike, into marriage and family is hardly a place where a queer woman's sexuality would find an expression and receive support. Rejection, violence and subsequent pressures to enter heterosexual marriage are some of the common experiences of young queer women after they disclose their sexual orientation to the family. [5] Recent cases of over thirty queer women in Kerala committing suicide, largely for "not living up to the expectations" of their homophobic families, are alarming enough to understand the enormity and extent of pressures that are at work in forcing women into heterosexuality and marriage. [6]

Amidst long and tiring discussions with my family, faced with every possible rationalization for marriage, I couldn't escape the fact that if I marry, I would be legitimating myriad forms of oppressions. However, heteropatriarchy triumphed and we ended up having a ritual-free wedding. Being married has made me aware of the busload of privileges that we married people simply walk away with. I am now readily accepted by my close community in ways that I wasn't earlier. I was a single woman, old enough to be married, but not married. Unsettling as it was to some of my relatives, it made our conversations somewhat uncomfortable. Marriage did the trick and all that anxiety disappeared. Now they know where to place me. I am no longer a weirdo, a puzzle or a threat -- I am them.

Why does marriage have such a hypnotic effect on us that we choose to forget about dowry deaths or female infanticides? Or that widows and unmarried women still face exclusion from our festivities? While there are some individuals who have taken upon themselves the task of making this institution egalitarian, or those who have resisted the ugly caste/class-based public spectacle of marriage, these voices are miniscule when compared to the onslaught of the reactionary Hindutva forces that push for marriage with its core vedic patriarchy. It is no accident that the Hindu Right upholds the very Manusmriti that was publicly burned by Dr. Ambedkar since it enslaved Sudras and women. Known for their vitriolic sexism, leaders of the various Hindutva outfits have often made outrageous statements, but Mridula Sinha, the former president of the Mahila Morcha (Women's front) of BJP (the political wing of Hindu right) easily topped the list when justified domestic violence: "It is often the woman's fault. She can provoke the man to such an extent that he beats her. And, sometimes, the woman can be so ziddi. We tell the woman to try and adjust. After all, it is her family." [7] Yes, we have heard such statements every so often that we have gotten tired of unplugging the twisted, sick logic behind these lies. But seriously, why and how has marriage slipped from the progressive agenda? And how do we bring it back into the debate? As patriarchal oppression is wrapped up with fancy tags of culture, tradition, duty, norm etc., that ends up casting most women out. Women have a simple reason to reject marriage -- it is of no use to us. And to a small extent that it does benefit some of us, it does so at the cost of other women.

We need to fundamentally change the culture that looks at a woman and classifies her with reference to her marital status. Should the unmarried /queer /divorced /separated /widowed /abused in marriage all just wait until the state decides what forms of relationships are legitimate and what would be an appropriate family? We need to be able to get past the big, unnecessary clog of marriage and start living.

Acknowledgement: This piece has benefited from discussions with Sharmila Sreekumar and Sher Khan Bahadur.  



1 [] 50,000 crore rupees amount to 10, 921, 799, 912 USD

2 Kamal Desai has published feminist novels and short stories in Marathi. Her work "Dark Sun and the woman wearing a hat" is translated in English.


4 Drafted in 1860, the section 377 of the Indian Penal Code reads: Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall be liable to fine.
(From: Ranchoddas, Ratanlal. The Indian Penal Code , 27 th ed. Nagpur : Wadhwa, 1992).





First published in Ghadar []