We have all heard or overheard this conversation. ‘We are looking for a bride for our son,’ a woman exclaims to another woman at a wedding/ birthday party/ funeral. The rest, too, is familiar: the bride being hunted should be highly educated (but uninterested in using such an education towards anything as worldly as a career), fair-skinned and slim (yet not inclined to want to exercise), tall (but not taller than my son), from a well-to-do family (rich enough to fulfil our dowry demands but not so wealthy as to boss us around).
The routine is so worn-out, not to mention rife with contradictions, slackened with the gluttony of those who want something but wish to give nothing, that one wonders how it endures. Decade after decade, with minor variations — the addition of various web-based tools, an expansion of the geographic areas of the search — the bride hunt remains essentially the same.
It should not be this way. Nearly everything about life in the subcontinent has changed. Nearly everyone, even those in the smallest, most desperate villages, has access to mobile phones and to televisions. Television dramas and news programmes blast into hills and dales and bring visions and events of the larger world into the most remote surroundings.
Then, the internet, while not available to everyone, is available to many millions, bringing with it the possibility of connecting with people of the opposite sex far from the limits of one’s own village or city or community. In simple terms, the sort of limited vision that necessitated the adherence to community, and which required a demonstrable loyalty that was supposed to pay itself back in hard times, is no longer so compulsory. Many, if not most, people from rural areas work in cities or farther away in Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and even Europe, which means that their livelihood is no longer dependent on sticking to family and tribe.
Finally, the demographics of Pakistan have also changed, recently transforming the country into a majority urban and minority rural one. The consequences of this mean that the old norms of marrying in the biradari are largely vestiges of census past; the city dweller not only lives amongst strangers but likely also marries amongst them.
Marrying amongst them, however, has not meant an end to the arranged marriage. This is because while women have increased their economic power in Pakistan, they have not amassed enough power to actually overthrow the patriarchal system that was at the core of arranged marriages past.
In maintaining that old system, the premise that marriage is a means for the groom to acquire social and material capital is also maintained. This maintenance in turn operates on the assumption that the car, the fridge and TV, the large sums of money, the slim and tall and fair-skinned, submissive genius bride is supposed to bring, somehow guarantee the future solidity of the union. Ensconced in a home that has all these, the husband will be kind and the in-laws accepting.
Everyone knows that this scheme does not work anymore. One may blame higher expectations of compatibility and harmony on any number of things, from mobile phones to foreign television to the internet, but one cannot imagine them away. Emotional connections, often those created via internet- or text-based relationships with the opposite sex, have taught both genders about emotional support, loyalty and attention. These expectations are inevitably attached to husbands or wives as soon as a marriage takes place.
Then, if they are not met — and if a marriage is based on a bride hunt of the usual sort, they will not be — the marriage crumbles fast. Allegations fly from one side to another, relatives take sides, the girl confronts a choice: khula or life with a spouse to whom she is united only in mutual detestation. It is no surprise that divorce has become far more prevalent, though not less stigmatised, than it used to be.
It may be time to ditch the practice of the arranged marriage. The continued existence of the institution ensures only that marriage is understood as a standin for something else — the acquisition of social status, money, a trophy bride — and never something in itself. This hits women particularly hard, because it is only what they can bring materially or physically, rather than as whole persons, that determines their prospects.
It also ensures that men, the ‘final word’ on the ‘yes’ and the ‘no,’ become overlords, watching women squabble and squirm as the hunt takes place and many are clawed, shredded to bits, or carried off as trophies. Like overlords over indentured slaves, they can laugh and look away, provide long lists of demands to dutiful underlings, mothers and sisters who scurry off to do their bidding.
In a world where the segregation of gender is increasingly an anathema, and a world where husbands and wives must be truly compatible, not only able to endure each other but also support each other in the dark moments that inevitably are the material of life, love may be necessary. To permit love, the calcified institution of the arranged marriage, where men watch as women fight it out, must be dismantled.
A subcontinent without arranged marriages may have social norms that are somewhat different, but markedly happier. Once the main hunting venues in which women fight and choose and reject are eradicated, relations between women, wives and mothers-in-law will likely be better.
The bride will no longer be the caregiver for elderly in-laws and actually and only be a partner to her husband; the husband will no longer be a benevolent overlord whose word is the ultimate, and actually be a partner to his wife. It would not be such a terrible world, this one where marriages are built on love; it could even be a much better one.