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was born in an upper-caste family in Tamil Nadu, and have had the misfortune of attending several upper-caste marriages. In upper-caste families, matchmaking is usually deemed the prerogative of elders (typically patriarchs) in the family, and involves matching of horoscopes (by Brahmin astrologers) and castes, and so on. At the completion of this often times elaborate process, marriage follows as an ostentatious spectacle conducted by Brahmin priests at auspicious times [ 1]. Once I became old enough to think beyond the delicious food served at these marriages, I realized how casteism permeates the whole process.

I grew up witnessing several such shameful spectacles and decided early on that I'll never be part of one. For it's business as usual, not necessarily malicious intent, that keeps most of the nasty "isms" alive. And by consciously adhering to a casteist tradition, the participants in such spectacles are keeping the scourge of casteism alive. I am not sure precisely when and how I figured this out, but I must have been influenced by some anti-caste writings. Intuition alone could hardly have helped me get out of my upper-caste moorings.

However, there existed an alternative to the casteist marriages. Thanks to Periyar, Tamil Nadu has had a long tradition (albeit low acceptance levels) of "self-respect" marriages [2]. While I considered marriage an unnecessary ritual, a "self-respect" marriage seemed to me to be an act of rebellion worth participating in. It was as if the anti-caste nature of such a marriage had rendered the whole institution of marriage harmless. Having resolved the issue thus, I thought little further about it until I came to the US .

While in India, I had never thought much about alternative sexualities, though I had been disgusted with the Hindutva violence against Deepa Mehta's film, Fire. It was only after I came to the US, where discussions on alternative sexualities are possible without fear of violent reprisal, that I got sensitized to the issue. And after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized same-sex marriages last summer and Bush called for "protecting marriage as a union of a man and a woman as husband and wife," he had laid bare the heterosexist underpinnings of the institution of marriage. A hitherto unproblematic institution had just revealed its nasty side, and with my marriage only a couple of months away, I was beset with serious doubts. However, given the left's silence on the institution of marriage, I often wondered whether I'm picking the wrong fight. In fact, several months earlier, when my partner had suggested that we could live together without ever marrying, we felt this would be unacceptable to our families, so promptly dropped this issue. However, I now felt that marrying is tantamount to supporting the heterosexist agenda of the US state, so was willing to actively consider the unthinkable.

As I struggled to think through this issue, it dawned on me that the use of marriage to legitimize and delegitimize relationships (on the basis of sexual preferences) is analogous to the (ab)use of skin color to determine who could be free and who couldn't [3]. And then the floodgates opened. I decided that I can't partake of the benefits afforded to married heterosexual couples when they are denied to queer folks. As I thought and read more about it, I also realized how marriage is hurting women [4]. In the US, where the "secular" state has for long been engaged in a symbiotic relationship with the Christian Right, spinsterhood and single motherhood have been deployed as false red herrings to shift focus from the rampant racism, lack of a livable wage, affordable healthcare and childcare. The welfare "reform" legislation of 1996, with "[ending] dependence by promoting marriage" as one of its stated objectives, best exemplifies this strategy. By punishing alternative lifestyles and restricting essential amenities (that any civilized state would provide) to married heterosexual families, the US state has sought to advance the repressive social agenda of the Right.

Like any good desi "fresh off the boat", my thoughts continually wandered between the US and India. I remembered how as a kid I was treated differently from women of my age. While the latter were expected to become proficient homemakers and get trained in household activities from a very early age, none of this was expected of me. In fact, I often got much undeserved praise for the little housework I did, and it was only because my mother thought different from most of her peers that I became sensitized to all this. In short, in the upper-caste milieu that I grew up in, women are groomed to become good wives (and the few that resist such gender socialization before marriage capitulate stunningly quickly after marriage). While this by itself sets limits on their ambitions and curtails their freedom, societal demands often cause them to be married off at the cost of their education [5]. Men, on the other hand, are relatively free to pursue their interests. While I was aware of such inequities, I had personalized the problem and blamed it all on the stupidity of the patriarchal elders rather than tracing it to its source -- the institution of marriage [ 6]. Indeed, as Marx said: "[Humans] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living."

A People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) report on Human Rights Violations against Sexual Minorities in India tied everything together neatly: "[The norms of heterosexuality, monogamous marriage and the control/denial of women's sexuality] stigmatize lesbian and bisexual women just as they perpetrate violence against heterosexual women and keep them in a subordinate position in the family. Thus gender discrimination and discrimination against lesbians and bisexual women go together. Patriarchy forces all women, lesbian or heterosexual, into marriage, and pushes them into obligatory roles of mother and wife" [7].

Once this dawned upon me, I started making fervent efforts to convince my folks that I ought not to marry (my partner was to do the same with her family). My mom was already taking a lot of shit for "derelicting" her duty and, worse still, "letting" (after some initial hesitation) me cohabitate (how very scandalous!) with my partner before marriage. Despite this, she was fine with the no-marriage proposal, but to cut a long and bitter story short, bourgeois morality ultimately forced a marriage (though without any rituals). Suffice it to say that I could very well empathize with Chetan Sharma at how he must have felt after being clobbered for a last ball six by Javed Miandad on that fateful day in Sharjah.

Of all the rationales used to justify the registering of marriages, perhaps the most deceptive is that it protects women. Says Mohini Giri, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women: "If only there was compulsory registration of marriages these girls would not have been married before 18 years and also would have had a legal marriage certificate and thereby cannot be sold." Ok, registering marriages might protect women from being treated like cattle in that they can't be bought and sold, but that's about it. As Giri acknowledges, and is well known even otherwise, "much of the violence women suffer is within marriage." Besides their socialization into specific gender roles, women suffer physical, psychological and sexual abuse by their husbands, and several other forms of marriage-induced violence -- female infanticide due to dowry demands, honor killings for choosing the wrong partner etc. For those constrained to think within the framework of marriage, placing marriage on a legally sound footing so as to enable legal redress might sound appealing. However, in most cases, economic dependence of women and societal pressures on them ensure that legal safeguards remain only on paper. Besides, such half-measures hardly challenge patriarchy, but instead sustain and reproduce patriarchy (with all its gender inequalities and sexual division of labor) while making it less unpalatable. In so much as marriage has no redeeming features, the best way to fight the oppression it engenders/sustains is to fight the institution itself (rather than reform it) [8].

Over the course of a couple of months, I had realized how strong a hold the institution of marriage has over us. During discussions on marriage, a common riposte is that one could fight the institution of marriage from within, but the hypocrisy embedded in this should be obvious -- first embracing this oppressive institution and then fighting it serves the dual purpose of gaining respectability and then expunging oneself of the guilt so accrued. "Marrying has consequences for the unmarried ... [M]arrying consolidates and sustains the normativity of marriage ... despite what may be the best intentions of those who marry" [9]. In a society that worships conformity and abhors deviance, a strong anti-normative stance is essential to advance acceptance of a plurality of family forms [10].


Acknowledgement: This article owes its existence to Saadia Toor's persistence.


1. I mention the priests' caste not out of an antipathy toward individual Brahmins, but to illustrate how notions of purity and superiority are deeply embedded in our society. As the topmost in a four-tier social hierarchy, Brahmins are considered the purest and the most supreme of humans and have a direct line to god, so to say. Auspicious occasions, therefore, are presided over by Brahmin priests mouthing sacred hymns in a language (allegedly Sanskrit, the language of choice of Hindu gods) unintelligible to the laity.

2. In short, a self-respect marriage does away with shameful rituals, superstitions, and casteist/sexist practices ("mangalsutra" was expressly prohibited). For more on Periyar and the self-respect movement, see Periyar's attempts at reforming the institution of marriage are relatively well-known, but not so his opposition to this institution. In a speech delivered in 1973, he said: "There's no difference between the Brahmin/Sudra institution and the husband/wife institution. Through enslavement of women, we're laying waste to (their) intellect that could have benefited humanity. The way out of this would be to illegalize the institution of marriage! It's the institution of marriage that engenders the husband-wife relationship and the (consequent) enslavement of women. Once a woman becomes a wife, that's about it -- she has become a proper slave! Besides, it's the institution of marriage that causes humans to procreate, and accumulate wealth for their progeny by all means possible."

3. This analogy is not to be taken literally, for it doesn't take into account the intersection of multiple oppressions -- racism/casteism and heterosexism in this case. While being aware of such limitations, since I had a better understanding of racism/casteism, I continued to analogize them with heterosexism so as to understand the latter issue better.

4. Marriage, clearly, was conceived of as an unequal institution. One can cite any number of instances to support this claim, and I will stop with one. Opposing his state's Married Women's Property Law, which allowed married women to own property, a Maryland judge said: "What incentive would there be for such a wife ever to reconcile differences with her husband, to act in submission to his wishes, and perform the many onerous duties pertaining to her sphere? Would not every wife ... abandon her husband and her home?" [p. 64 of "Why Marriage Matters : America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry", Evan Wolfson] Such comments may not be so commonplace these days, but the underlying sentiment -- desirability of the submission of the wife to the dictates of the husband -- is still widely shared.

5. According to the 2001 census, the literacy rates for men and women in India are 75.85% and 54.16% respectively. While this is a significant measure of gender-inequity, this is hardly the full story. Even in households where unmarried women don't face gender-based discrimination, social congruity entails married women to occupy a distinctly inferior position (to their husbands).

6. It's the institution of marriage that sustains (and is largely responsible for) a gender-based stratification that celebrates male accomplishments and condemns women to the status of an underclass. Having been reduced to an underclass, women's labor (at home or outside) is mercilessly devalued. Their perceived under-accomplishment then becomes a justification for their inferior status.

7. As this report shows, queer folks oppressed by class, caste, and elitism often suppress their sexuality so as to escape one more ism (heterosexism). This has helped dismissal of homosexuality as a "Western, upper-class phenomenon" (ironically, often by people bewitched by "Western, upper-class" accouterments). [ ]

8. While this is largely an upper-caste bourgeois perspective on the institution of marriage, the patriarchal order that it sustains is not insignificant in other environs. A recent incident in Tamil Nadu clearly demonstrates how this malaise has even taken root in (supposedly) liberational movements. When a famous Tamil actress commented that it's Ok for women to have pre-marital sex, the Dalit Panthers reacted with a hysterical insistence on the virginity of unwed women. Why would a Dalit party insist on the use of marriage as a tool for controlling women's sexuality? Indeed, even as all Dalits share the daily reality of upper-caste tyranny, Dalit women are also confronted with an additional layer of violence engendered by patriarchy (and sustained by marriage). See, for instance, Swathy Margaret's Dalit Feminism [ ]

9. Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal : Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (2000)

10. Quite obviously, heterosexism is not the only oppressive "ism" -- as a "legal" immigrant pursuing formal education, I see how my submission to classist/elitist notions of legality and knowledge/intelligence make me culpable in the oppression of "illegal" immigrants and the discrimination against those without formal education (who are typically from marginalized groups). I can't explain off this hypocrisy, all I can say is that there are some struggles that clearly extend beyond the individual realm, and those of us complicit with the status quo in myriad little ways have more of a responsibility to do whatever little possible individually (while also participating in the collective struggles). Thus, for instance, upper-caste, bourgeois, heterosexual males have a greater responsibility to confront the normativity of marriage, since lower caste/class queers are more vulnerable to societal whims.

First published in Ghadar []