Marriage Politics

Nepal, like many parts of South Asia, still has a lot of “arranged marriages,” even in the cities– although it seems to me that arranged marriages are more like a “matchmaking” service these days, rather than a situation where the bride and groom didn’t know each other much or at all prior to the wedding like in generations past.

Today parents will introduce their adult children to each other and arrange a few meetings (or perhaps the couple will start dating) and after sometime the children can decide whether or not they want to marry. Sometimes there are professional “matchmakers” involved who come to your house with a folder of headshots and resumes to start the process, and now, of course, there are actual matchmaking websites like South Asian versions of eHarmoney.com. Parents even sometimes find potential matches for their children through ads online or in newspapers, etc. If P and I hadn’t gotten together, it is entirely possible he could have gone down this path. Who knows? Maybe his brother will.

The flip side of arranged marriages are what are referred to as “love marriages,” or marriages that are more like the marriages you find in the US… people meet each other on their own, form a relationship, and eventually decide to get married. Love marriages are becoming more and more frequent throughout South Asia, although they are not a new thing entirely. There were love marriages in previous generations, but they were much more rare (“Frank Uncle”).

The danger of love marriage is that, gasp, it is possible to fall in love with someone from outside your community! In the South Asian context (Nepal specifically) your “community” could mean several things including your religion, your “caste,” your ethnic group, even your economic peers. The one that I find really fascinating is caste.

For readers unfamiliar with caste (although I am sure most of you know more that I), Wikipedia defines it as: “a combined social system of occupation, endogamy, culture, social class, and political power. Caste should not be confused with class, in that members of a caste are deemed to be alike in function or culture, whereas not all members of a defined class may be so alike.” It’s a complicated concept, so I’m going to leave the definition there.

But anyway, there are several “castes” in Nepal as well as ethnic groups that are kind of slotted into the caste system. For example there are the Brahmins and Chetris (castes that are also in India), but also Newars, Gurungs, Rais, Sherpas, etc (Nepali ethnic groups) that are (in my somewhat limited understanding) somehow slotted into the overall hierarchy of caste or are sometimes treated as a caste (someone feel free to jump in and correct me if I have this wrong). Even within a specific caste or ethnic group there are hierarchies and different cultural traditions, etc.

One place where this comes into play is marriage. In an arranged marriage, one often limits one’s choices to people specifically within your caste/ethnic group and even your specific designation within this grouping. Some ethnic groups, because of the type of relations between them, are able to intermarry without too much trouble… for instance Sunwars and Rais who traditionally inhabit the same rural hilly region of Nepal, while some groups are very strict, like different types of Brahmin groups, who have fairly limited traditional marriage options (population wise).

Anyway, it still amazes me when I hear of Nepali families… in the year 2010, who are upset when their children fall in love with other Nepalis who come from different castes, or, better yet, they are from the same caste but different designation within that caste. At this point I want to shake their parents and say, “at least your child is still with a Nepali!” especially if their child has been living abroad for many years. One friend’s father didn’t talk to her for about a year when he found out she wanted to marry a Nepali man from another caste. She is Chetri and he is Brahmin. Things are slowly getting better for them now, but for a while it was pretty dicey in terms of family cohesiveness.

So now you can see why I feel pretty lucky when I say that P’s family was relatively “cool” with the intercultural relationship thing, because not only do I not really fit into the caste system, I’m from an entirely different religion, ethnic group, culture, language, etc, but I’m still accepted by the immediate family (the extended family doesn’t really know who I am yet, but more about that another time). It is really very awesome, even if I do run into misunderstandings from time to time (Please… No More Rice!) ;)

I’ve mentioned before that P’s dad is very liberal and forward thinking… well, one reason that he was probably so easily able to adjust to the idea of an intercultural relationship was probably because he had, gasp, an intercaste love marriage himself! (cue dramatic music… dut dut daaaa!)

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12 responses to “Marriage Politics

  1. I think the details to the caste system are a little shaky, as you yourself admitted, but it’s ok because those details should not matter anyways.

    I like to point out that it’s eHarmony.com (no I am not a member) but eHarmoney.com might be a better name because they are in it for the money no matter what their commercials tell you.

    I promise I started writing to give a valuable feedback that I am only now getting to. As a handsome, driven & really awesome eligible Nepali bachelor, this topic is very close to my heart. My mom, who is an amazing human being & treats me more like a friend than a son, would love for me to find a nice bahuni keti to settle with. My dad, however is okay with any marital decision I make as long as I am happy. This is one of the subjects where even the most progressive parents struggle & part of it has to do with the social framework. Allow me to elaborate on this.

    Nepal, like most of the South Asia & Africa (at least parts from where people I have had the privilege to meet have come from), is a closely knit social entity where there are very few things that are personal & remain within family. Also, family includes the whole shebang, there is no immediate & extended (although this is changing a little bit with times). What that means is that who you marry is not just your parent’s concern but somehow affects your extended family, your neighbors & people who have never seen you (it really does not affect them but that does not stop them from acting like it does).

    Given this structure where you are basically subjected to the entire nations criticisms, its tough for a Mom to not encourage their child that they held nine months in the womb before they can take on the world, took care of them when they were sick, sacrificed their own happiness for their sake to marry someone who is agreeable to the entire society. After all, she does not really want to hear let alone respond to a barrage of criticisms that are going to follow her wherever she goes. She wants her son/daughter to be happy but she would prefer it not be at her expense.

    Sure, we know better that these comments are best ignored. However, the social structure back home really does not allow it because with the invasion of privacy & constant criticism comes a perk (yes, really, there is a perk to all this!) – these people (most of them) will be willing to help you out in the time of need.

    The trouble with that is, and this is purely for me & probably does not apply to others, I do not believe in arranged marriage. Call me crazy but I would like to get to know the person that I will be spending the rest of my life with. However, there is another view that I recently heard from someone which basically states if you marry a girl you love, you are already under their control so Moms are not going to be able to make them do all the things they want their daughter-in-law to do. How horrible is that? I am certain this is not my Mom’s concern but I am sure she will hear it from a lot of people.

    A new wave of thinking is also the financial status. Coming from two different financial background is also considered a deterrent because the presumption is marrying a girl who is wealthy means she will have high standards that will be tough to maintain. I don’t know what the assumption is for a girl coming from a weaker financial background but I am fairly convinced that I will be furious before I hear the whole answer.

    So there you have it. Someone as awesome as me is restricted to find a bahuni girl who I only know enough so that she does not have me in her control that comes from a similar financial background. I say that’s a pretty tall order. My mom would be happy with just bahuni & even that might be flexible but that does not make finding the perfect budhi any easier. So ladies who read this blog, help me out here!

    • You didn’t mention your own self-set limitations within your own potential bahuni playing field. Aren’t girls with nose piercings out of the running for you? A struggle since many girls traditionally have these in your caste? ;)

  2. Tundal45, very interesting indeed: ) – the search for a bahuni girl is on lol.

    I grew up with ppl telling me “you should marry someone from your own caste”. We were told stories of inter-caste marriage problems and I saw a few family dramas when some of my cousins married ppl from different castes. 2 of my cousins chose not to live Nepal – most likely to avoid more chaos.

    Even when S and I got married, there were whispers of how he’s not from the same community, how he’s half newar and what not. It was much easier since his dad is a newar and S had the “newari” last name so my parents didn’t need to explain anything. And I agree with Tundal45, it’s always been about what others would say and think about you, rather than how it affects the immediate family.

  3. R – I hope you know what you just signed up for. I also hope I know what can of worms I opened up here that could potentially come back to me & not in a good way. Let’s hope for the best & deny the worst will ever happen :) Ok I am making no sense here.

    • I think what tundal is trying to say here is that all the ladies… R included… have signed up to help him find a wife. So now he might be in trouble now since he “opened that can of worms”…

  4. My wishes to AD aka tundal45 in finding a girl of his dreams who won’t turn the whole world against him and his family.
    I’m pleasantly surprised to find out the love story of P’s parents. I’m sure that helps them understand your and P’s situation quite well.
    As for me I have been lucky enough to find a girl who happens to be from my caste thus avoiding all the potential family drama.
    Thanks C for all your postings. We really enjoy reading them.

  5. In Pakistan it is kind of the same. In the Northern areas you have a tribal belt and the major ethnic groups there are divided into tribes. But in the South in Sindh and Punjab the culture is very Indic and the people are very caste stratefied. The same castes are there as in India, like Rajputs and all the Rajput subgroups, all the way to untouchables, but of course there are no Brahmins. However the “warrior” and business and low castes are all there. Since partition, some new ethnic identities have emerged, in particular the caste-less “Urdu speaking” or “mohajir” group of people whose forefathers came from Urdu speaking regions in India. Some official gov’t forms require caste identification. The same marriage restrictions exist among groups, although in large cities and among the well educated caste is much less important than class. But caste is still important in daily life in rural Pakistan. There is also intercaste (upper on lower) caste oppression and violence.

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