Marriage is compulsory for an Indian boy

Brides for the north of India

After decades of discrimination against girls, the gender distribution in India has got into trouble: an interview with the sociologist Ravinder Kaur about marriage migration and the lack of women.

In some regions of India, many men are unmarried because, after decades of preferring boys and discriminating against girls, the gender distribution has become imbalanced. Marriage is still considered a social duty in India, so sheer desperation is increasingly leading to interregional and intercultural marriages, which are softening India's rigid marriage and caste system. The states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana are particularly hard hit by the lack of women, and informal networks have emerged in recent decades to facilitate the migration of brides from the eastern and southern states to the north.

The women, mostly from poor families, not only overcome geographical boundaries, but also those of caste, culture, language and ethnicity, sometimes even religion. Due to the shifted gender distribution, but also because of the poverty, many interregional marriages break with traditional principles of marriage in Indian society. There has been a public debate about whether interregional marriage is a form of human trafficking or simply a societal response to demographic changes.

Professor Kaur, you have dealt intensively with the phenomenon of interregional marriage, as it is called in India. What are the characteristics of interregional marriage and how does it differ from traditional marriage in India?

In most regions of India, especially in the north, the - often arranged - marriage is traditionally designed in such a way that the woman moves from her family to the family of her husband after the wedding. The possibility and the cultural acceptance of a marriage between two people and their respective families are based on the concept of exogamy, i.e. marriage outside one's own gotra or clan, but within the same caste. The latest National Sample Survey (NSS 2007-8) data shows that 91.2 percent of women in rural areas and 60.8 percent of women in urban areas have moved to marry.

In northern India, the spouses traditionally come from different villages in the same region. However, one increasingly sees marriages that are arranged over long distances and the borders of the states, but also across cultural and linguistic borders. In the states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in particular, more and more brides are being “imported” from the east and south of the country. This results in marriages that cross the boundaries of caste, culture, language, ethnicity - sometimes even religion. My research for the past ten years has focused on this type of marriage. My aim is to understand both the drivers of this trend, these demographic patterns, and the way these marriages are arranged.

In these states, patriarchal norms still prevail, and the shift in gender distribution is the result of decades of preference for boys. The discrimination against girls before and after the birth has the consequence that, for example, in Haryana, according to the last census in 2011, there are only 877 women for every 1,000 men. This demographic imbalance means that many men are unmarried - and in despair. In Haryana, a group of unmarried men took to the streets ahead of the 2014 elections and demanded brides from the candidates in return for their votes.

In India, marriage remains a social duty and an important aspect of social adulthood. Courting and premarital relationships are not socially acceptable, even if this is slowly changing in the cities. Marriage and the corresponding dowry continue to determine the social status of families, and those who are not married are excluded from society. This explains the desperation with which unmarried men look for a bride in distant regions, be it in Kerala, West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Odisha, or even across borders in Bangladesh and Nepal.

A field study of the effects of gender relations on marriage patterns in Haryana by Drishti Stree Adhyayan Prabodhan Kendra in 10,000 households showed that more than 9,000 wives in Haryana are from other states. The graphic shows the gender relations in different states (number of women and girls per 1000 men and boys (children 0–6 years)):

Who are the men and women who marry outside of their caste, language and cultural boundaries, and what causes them to marry?

The phenomenon is a very special type of marriage migration that is largely determined on the one hand by poverty and on the other hand by the shift in gender relations. The men come from all castes, are usually less well educated and have little or no real estate. Often it is farm workers or unemployed young people who, due to their low social status, cannot find a wife in a highly competitive marriage market. Many of them are older because they have been looking in vain for a woman for a number of years, and some are physically disabled. If there is neither a social safety net nor a state pension, starting a family is a natural survival strategy.

In desperation, the men's families usually do not even ask for a dowry from the bride from another region. The women who migrate for this type of marriage mostly come from very poor families for whom a dowry can mean economic ruin. They usually live in areas where the gender distribution is fairly even, but the family cannot raise the local dowry. Some were already married and the relationship failed, or their husbands left them. Then the chances of remarrying in one's own community are very slim, because separated or divorced women are still stigmatized on the marriage market. If a woman has married and moved into the husband's family, it becomes very difficult for her to return to her own family, primarily because it would bring shame on her family, but also because it would be a financial burden, because she would be another family member who would have to be fed.

For many, interregional marriage is the only or economically cheapest way of securing a livelihood. For the families of these women, the interregional marriage of the daughter often means significant economic relief. Many of the families I spoke to had multiple daughters, which is an enormous financial burden. You've heard of states like Haryana and Punjab, know that they are rich agricultural regions with higher per capita incomes. Hence, they assume that their daughters will be fine there.

How are these marriages arranged?

Ethnologists have been dealing with interregional marriages since the 1980s, but they have been around for much longer, because the gender relations in the regions mentioned have been shifted for 100 years or even longer. If you look at these marriages, you quickly see that it is the migrant women themselves who organize the marriages for other women from their homeland. This is called a chain marriage migration: a woman, for example from Assam, has migrated to Haryana. There she sees more men who are also looking for women, so she encourages women from her home community to marry afar.

It is by no means easy for women to leave their homes and integrate into a new family, especially since the language and customs may be very different. If you can induce women from your home village to marry a man from your new community without a dowry, then you will at the same time form a community for yourself, far away from your old home and the old networks. In addition, the women who work as marriage brokers have the opportunity to travel to their old homeland, which they normally would not be able to afford or their husband's family would not allow.

As brokers, they not only arrange the interregional marriage, but often organize the wedding themselves. What sets them apart from commercial brokers is the fact that they do not earn any money from it. The money they get only covers their travel expenses and the cost of the wedding ceremony. The unmarried men in states like Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh learn about the possibility of an interregional marriage mostly through word of mouth. In some places these marriages are quite widespread and open to people.

The commercial marriage migration organized by male brokers, on the other hand, is still rare. It is in no way comparable to the agencies in South Korea, Singapore or Taiwan that arrange marriages with women from less developed Southeast Asian countries. The agencies there take care of everything, from passports and visas to language and cultural training for women. In India, on the other hand, interregional marriages are largely organized informally.

Are there any cases of human trafficking or do most interregional marriages take place with mutual consent, i.e. the bride and groom?

Interregional marriages have come into increasing public focus in India in recent years. This phenomenon is spoken and written in different ways, and consequently there are very different perspectives. Some scholars and human rights activists call it bride-buying, human trafficking, even sex slavery, and condemn it as a form of commodifying women.

Granted, there are isolated cases to which all of this applies, and these women are highly vulnerable in many ways. In general, however, I see interregional marriages as a social phenomenon that is developing before our eyes. It is the result of demographic changes and in the long term can even soften the rigid ideas of the Indian marital system. There are many types of marriages, and to see interregional marriage as just buying a bride is an inadmissible oversimplification. All arranged marriages are in some way an economic transaction. The concept of dowry, for example, should be called the "groom price" because it guarantees the bride's family a good groom for her daughter, depending on the amount of money paid. So one could also say that men sell themselves on the marriage market.

I am of the opinion that buying a bride is not the central problem here, because that would mean that the bride's family, her brother or a guardian receive money. In the ten years that I have dealt with this question, I have come across very few such cases. The money that flows in the process mostly only covers the expenses of the broker, who, as already mentioned, are often migrant women who organize the marriage.

There have been cases of human trafficking: mostly male brokers are involved who have begun to act in this way in the past ten years. These male brokers seek women at the request of men who cannot find a wife themselves. If a connection doesn't work, the woman may be passed on to the next candidate - which may, or may not, work. These cases do exist, and indeed show a worrying trend towards the commodification of women. Cases have been reported of women being drugged at train stations in West Bengal or New Delhi and abducted, for example, to Haryana, far from their homeland. This commercialization of the bridal trade is the dark side of interregional marriage. But there have also been other cases in which the brides were in league with the realtors and, after a short marriage, ran away with the groom's valuables.

How do you see these marriages, especially the situation and status of women?

There are many who see women entering into interregional marriages as merely victims of human trafficking or sex slavery. I do not want to downplay the vulnerability of the women affected, but I would argue for looking at these marriages in a more differentiated manner. If we call interregional marriages sex slavery, then this should potentially apply to many marriages in India, because there is still no law in the country that makes marital rape a criminal offense.

Traditionally arranged marriages in India are often fraught with similar problems, so I suggest not looking at interregional marriages from just one angle. In traditional and interregional marriages, it is the woman who leaves her family and moves into her husband's family unit. In any case, she needs time to adapt to the new environment. She is in a new community and at the lowest level of the hierarchy, and she is often abused as a maid. Her status does not improve until she has given birth to a son. Unfortunately, this is the harsh reality of many, if not most, of the women in India, especially in the north.

A woman's marital experience in a cross-border marriage is in all likelihood more exhausting: These women have crossed geographical boundaries, but also those of caste, religion, and language; basically, they have left their entire culture behind. Your identity is at stake. In their role as wives, these women have to meet many of the expectations of the new family, which they have "imported" primarily as help in the household and in agriculture. The gender roles in North India are still very rigid, so men refuse to help in the household and if they do so-called "women's work" they are greeted with contempt. Many of these women have to work extremely hard and hard, and in my opinion interregional marriage always has to do with labor migration. The women do productive and reproductive, sexual and emotional work - not to mention housework. Unfortunately, what women bring into marriage in the form of work is not valued very highly.

Over the years as a scientist, I've seen women adapt and come to terms with their new lives over time. One thing struck me again and again: the level of education of women plays an important role in the way in which women find their way in their new life. Women with a certain level of education - this is particularly evident in the case of women from Kerala - work out a stronger position in their new families more quickly than less well-educated women, who on average stay longer on the lowest hierarchical level. Poor women are often worse off and are often reminded, for example, that they have been "bought" and are therefore "owned" by the family they married into. If a family has several unmarried sons, the mother may force the bride to sleep with all of the brothers, we call this fraternal polyandry. I am aware of such cases.

Many women find it difficult to get used to the face veil called ghunghat, which they do not know from their culture. The diet based on wheat and lentils is also very different from the fish and rice dishes in their homeland. However, if a woman manages to develop a good relationship with her husband and mother-in-law and learns the local language, she integrates quite well. And as soon as there are children, she feels obliged to her new family, no matter how difficult things are.

Due to the distance to their old families, women in interregional marriages have the major disadvantage that they are not very autonomous, as they cannot fall back on relatives or other support networks. Who do they turn to when they need help because their in-law treats them badly? Interregional marriages are now quite widespread in some regions, for example Haryana, but there are still no efforts to organize support for these women. I believe that this is a matter for the state and so I brought the problem to the government of Haryana and I spoke to the Minister for Women and Children in Delhi. But nobody really cared about it. There is still a lot of educational work to be done.

The interview was conducted by Caroline Bertram.

This article appeared in Perspectives Asia, Issue 3 / January 2015: A Continent in Motion.