Once upon a time, most (if not all) marriages were arranged. In the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, parents decided who their children should marry, very often with a view to forming political alliances or to keeping property “in the family” (so that cousins might be married to cousins). My father’s parents were put together via a matchmaker in rural southern China over a hundred years ago.
But arranged marriages aren’t only a phenomenon of the past. A few years ago, I was teaching a course on Roman law and society. The topic of Roman marriage and inheritance laws prompted a very interesting discussion: Many of my students had parents who’d been divorced or who’d never married; some had grown up with grandparents and other relatives. All of these students said they did not want to get married.
Towards the end of the class, one student smiled nervously and said she didn’t know what to make of the whole discussion. She was in her final semester of college and her family (she was Egyptian and a Coptic Christian) had set up her marriage, to someone who lived in Michigan where (she told us) she would be moving after graduating.
I recalled a conversation I had with a student who was Muslim and Pakistani. She didn’t wear a hijab, was applying to law school and was in favor of her parents setting up her marriage, emphasizing that this was a way for her to show respect as their daughter.
Arranged Marriages in the U.S.
A recent New York Times article describes the arranged marriages of a number of couples on the East Coast and Midwest. With the divorce rate among American marriages at 40 to 50 percent, some marriage experts have asked if arranged marriages might make a difference. Psychologist Robert Epstein, the author of a new study, “How Love Emerges in Arranged Marriages,” notes that “one key to a strong arranged marriage is the amount of parental involvement at its start.” Even after initially objecting to their parents getting involved in their marriage plans, some couples interviewed say that their parents’ efforts were key.
These couples are professionals (a doctor, a professor, management consultants), often born in the U.S. and from Asian (Korean, Indian) backgrounds as well as Orthodox Jewish. Might one reason for the success of arranged marriages be that the practice remains the norm in their families, despite “free-range” marriage being the norm in the U.S.?
Indeed, Michael J. Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Stanford University, even says that ”love marriage” and arranged marriage are not actually as different as tend to think they are. As he points out: “The people we end up married to or partnered up with end up being similar to us in race, religion and class background and age, which means that they might not be all that different from the person that your mother would have picked for you.”
The Darker Side of Arranged Marriage
While the recent New York Times article (and another in 2009, by a Londoner whose family is from South India) presents an upbeat picture of arranged marriage, such is not always the case. The weight of tradition can be deadly: Another New York Times article on the topic last July described a rise in suicides in Sinjar in northern Iraq, where arranged marriages are customary. Many put the blame on a Turkish soap opera, “Forbidden Love,” about the “romantic lives of the upper class” that gives young women in Sinjar an “unrealistic example of the lives that could be available outside” the community. Other point to the Internet for opening a window on a different worlds.
One 16-year-old, Jenan Merza, had tried to kill herself after being married to her first cousin. Her reason was that she wanted to live “with [her] mom and not go back to [her] husband” — at 16, she wasn’t ready to give up childhood.
For months, I listened to a young Pakistani woman (another of my former students) talk about the marriage her parents had set up for her; about her fiancé’s job as a telecommunications consultant in Atlanta and the extensive plans for the wedding, involving tents and food and dresses and fans to keep the guests cool. My student graduated and I heard she had gotten married. Then, after a year or so had passed, I noticed she no longer listed herself as “married” on Facebook and others told me that she had indeed gotten a divorce.
Conditions and opportunities are, of course, worlds apart for young women in the U.S. and in Iraq. It is important not to romanticize a traditional custom such as arranged marriage. The New York Times article about Jenan Merza refers to these as “forced marriages”: To protect the rights of girls and young women, we need to keep in mind that the line between an “arranged” and a “forced” marriage is not necessarily that great.
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