Arranged marriages still compromise over 90% of marriages in India, while this is often ascribed to women trusting their parents or just Indian culture, the truth is likely less rosy. Aggressive and sometimes violent socio-political conservatism and the online dating meat-market often create an environment that is so hostile to and unsafe for dating, that arranged marriage still remains the safest and most reliable choice.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
In early 2016 my sister had just moved to Mumbai to get a degree. Being somewhat inexperienced in matters of love, she was sceptical when she launched her foray into online dating. After a few days of complaining about how weird everyone she encountered seemed, she found a man she thought was interesting and kind. They arranged to have coffee. She called, terrified, right after the date. She said that after an uncomfortable date he had imposed upon her to walk her home and was still hanging out underneath her building. She said she felt too unsafe to sleep in her building and so I encouraged her to crash a friend’s house that night. She did not go back home for two days and she never tried online dating in India again. My sister’s experience is not an isolated incident but representative of the norms of dating in India.
As far as Indian culture goes we accept two forms of relationships: marriage, and to a much lesser but still prevalent extent, relationships that are heading to marriage. Even in families where the elders themselves have had “love” marriages, very few of them have had multiple relationships or dated around before they fell in love for the purposes of matrimony. Culturally, we do not encourage dating as much as a performa-based elimination system to deduce if the object of interest before you could be your forever-person. The goal of any relationship is marriage and the goal of marriage is to stay married (to preserve its sanctity). Additionally, we view the youth as a torrid force that must be shackled before it has had a chance to explore itself, and when we do give them leave to fall in love, it must be done within a set protocol and preferably only once. The leave to do it is dispensed as privilege to encourage compliance to the norms of falling in love within the confines of Indian society. To do it outside of those norms, if you are a woman, makes you a slut. They won’t call you that, perhaps, they will use terms like “spoilt”, “poor character” or “forward” but that is what they mean.
The result of this, in any case, is that women in India (and in a different way, also men) who want to date and fall in love, are unable to do so openly and socially, and must often secretly engage in online dating which in itself is perfectly fine but due to the environment in which it exists has become a toxic cesspool of misogyny and objectification. The men in India are taught to view modern forms of dating as a space to explore themselves sexually without commitment before they get married (and sometimes after). While it also creates a space for the women to be able to engage in their sexuality, it closes off the space to develop relationships to a large extent. In our country, men outnumber women three-to-one on dating apps. Women are also more likely to be inactive users and less likely to be actually willing to meet in person presumably because they don’t want to be murdered. All of this leads to the meat-market mentality of online dating which encourages playing the numbers to maximize the opportunity to touch boob. What could have otherwise been a wonderful alternative for free socialization for the youth is now turned into yet another space where objectification and victimization can prosper.
Of course, it’s not as bad as all that, it sounds worse because that is part of the strategy. There is an active and ongoing campaign to malign free-relations between the youth by making these relationships sound like a much dirtier, much more shallow and unsafe thing than they actually are. I have a professor, in a master’s classroom, who while teaching Francis Bacon tells the women in the classroom that “love” marriage is a dangerous thing for girls and they should stay away. Literature serves as caution to many things but I would have thought it was the greatest monument to love, instead we have professors of art telling women love is bad. I am sure we have all heard terrible things like that about love and how the youth conducts the business of love. I often wonder, have they actually consulted the youth? Until just a few days ago, I used to be youth, (and now I am buying orthopedic pillows on Amazon) and from what I remember and know, the number of people who were using online dating as the sex-in-a-button is much smaller than what society would have you believe.
Even if we ignore the fact that those that do use it to have casual sexual relations have the right to do so, we cannot ignore that the youth of India is discouraged from engaging freely in love. If it is not by direct social shaming, it is done politically. Whether those are the anti-romeo squads in Uttar Pradesh that allegedly keep men from eve-teasing but in reality have been caught harassing and beating couples or the Bajrang Dal and Rama Sena activists that who beat couples on Valentine’s day, we have created an environment where it can be dangerous to date. It’s even socially dangerous for women in the sense that if you get the reputation for having several “failed” relationships or if you have been divorced, your chance at socially-sanctioned love is effectively null. In this environment, putting yourself out there as a woman who just wants to find a partner is rife with potential disappointment.
I have a friend who has been dating, or trying to, for a few years now. She is a gorgeous, intelligent, funny and independent woman who has been rejected or ghosted by dozens of unemployed, immature and often not-very-bright men because she wants a long-term committed relationship (as well as sexual compatibility) and most men who date online can only guarantee their own orgasms and nothing else. When we were younger we had this idea that what we actually needed was the freedom to fall in love and the people to do it with would just be all around us. Now that we are older we know that the freedom has to be stolen or earned through Herculean labours, and even it is, these people we were going to fall in love with are just a sea of mannequins. If we give the women in our society on Earth the leave to fall in love on Mars, we aren’t really doing them any favours.
I have dated in India, I have watched my friends and sisters date, and each one of us could write a saga that would end in an ocean of disappointment and so when my friends tell me they are considering letting their parents find them partners, I am not surprised. The free-dating market has failed us all on delivering love or relationships and while some of us might prefer to remain single because that is how we are happy, there are a lot of us who feel the desire to be in a couple. In an ideal situation we could just be in a couple and there would be no need to be married, but when your options are so limited in terms of structure of relationships, you take the best choice. In many ways arranged marriage remains the best choice for women who want to have reliable partners with whom they may or may not want children.
Mainstream coverage on this subject tries to boil down this phenomenon to women trusting and loving their parents but that is just feel-good eyewash. The truth is that dating and falling in love in india is almost a nightmarish proposition. You are likely to encounter unsafe situations, be unable to find a man who is willing to commit and likely to viewed by the ones you do find as someone who has too “loose” a character to consider marrying. If you do find a partner you actually like and want to spend the rest of your life with, tawdry differences over culture, religion and caste make convincing your parents a nightmarish proposition as well.
So what is left, then?
You spend the rest of your life alone or you settle for what society chooses for you. Sometimes that works out well, and others, well, others adjust and compromise.