As far as attention-grabbing headlines go, forced marriage must surely be up there with the best of them. The two words alone form a neat juxtaposition that encapsulates the extremes of humanity; to force is to subjugate, to remove one's right of choice, to violate one's individuality. Marriage, meanwhile, is generally accepted as the surest path to emotional fulfilment, love and happiness. Thus the paradox that is forced marriage is an obvious one.
But every time this subject re-enters the public conscience - most recently with the government's announcement that perpetrators of such acts may face criminal charges - the distinction between forced and arranged marriages is quickly pointed out, the latter being described as a cultural norm that does not involve coercion on any level.
The reality, however, is that while arranged marriages may not involve threats, violence or intimidation, there often exists a more subversive, sustained pressure from family and culture that can have equally devastating consequences. No legally definable criminal act may be at play here, but when it comes to moral accountability, we are on shaky ground.
For South Asians, marriage is an obsession. It is the cornerstone of the culture. It is a hard-wired a mindset. Young Asians - mainly girls - are cultivated for marriage from their first breath. Wedlock is seen as the single affirmation of self-worth, so that regardless of how well-educated, self-sufficient, beautiful or accomplished a woman may be, if she is unmarried, she is, in the eyes of the community, a failure. That anyone can genuinely be happily unmarried is inconceivable.
With this in mind, the psychological pressure to marry is acute. The idea that an unhitched person's very existence is the cause of misery and disappointment to their parents is so traumatic that young Asians become obsessed with being paired off from a disturbingly young age.
So the young woman studying physics at Oxford will be keeping her eye open for an acceptable boy, the young man playing for his country cricket team will be putting the word out and the woman penning her great novel will be meeting potential suitors when her day's work is done.
Nothing wrong with this per se, but often the result is that many of these young people end up compromising many of their personal aspirations in order to be coupled up.
A depressingly high number of cases come to mind: "I really wanted to be a lawyer/painter/architect, but my parents wanted me to get married", "I would loved to have travelled but I wanted to make my parents happy," and so on and so forth.
What is especially sad is that more often than not the partner in question is a compromise: "He is from a good family and well-educated," or "she will fit in with my family," rather than, "She makes me laugh," or "I can talk to her about anything," or "I find him attractive." Many women especially, find themselves agreeing to marrying men they are not physically drawn to because they feel a sense of duty to marry, and as a result live with an unfulfilled sense of yearning for the rest of their lives. Others marry men and women with whom they are wholly incompatible; a college lecturer will marry an immigrant from Pakistan who will go on to drive a taxi in the UK, or an IT consultant from the UK will marry a village girl from Bangladesh.
The realisation that a mistake has been made comes too late - children are born and finances become intertwined, and with the social stigma attached to separation and divorce, couples find themselves stuck with one another. So, while it is sometimes pointed out that Asian marriages last longer than others, this is often due to social constraints. Again, I can think of many cases where couples who were pressured to marry are unable to break free.
The demands of culture are not defined by class. Educated, middle-class parents enforce their desires on their offspring as much as those from lower down the social strata. One friend who prides himself on coming from an extremely cosmopolitan, westernised Pakistani family felt the pressure to marry from his early twenties. Eventually he relented and married a girl he was not attracted to but ticked all his mother's boxes. More than a decade and two children later, they are now divorced and he is finally living the life he should have led many years ago.
Conversely, many older women who remain unmarried are so obsessed with finding a husband that they have actually forgotten what it means to be happy -that is, if they knew in the first place, given the expectations they have been burdened with since birth.
Arranged marriages genuinely work well in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but they have, in the main, failed in the West. This failure, the result of a clash of cultures and values between parents and children, has had a profound psychological impact on younger generations.
I anticipate counter-arguments by some who claim their own marriages were arranged but not under duress, but I maintain that this is the exception, not the norm. With most arranged marriages there is a certain degree of social and parental pressure which serves to impair the individual's own sense of judgment.
That South Asians place more importance on marriage and family than other cultures is nonsense. Every day, all over the world people are getting married for the right reasons- because they genuinely want to be together, share the same values and envisage a future together. We Asians do not have superior knowledge about what makes a successful marriage and we should stop pretending that we do.
This unhealthy obsession is a malaise within the culture and has led to serious social and psychological consequences. Arranged marriages may not be as easy to as legislate against as forced marriages, but the problems they pose need to be addressed and acknowledged nonetheless. The message must be that when individuals are allowed to make their own informed choices about how to live their lives, marriage and children will often naturally follow. The union of two people must always be a matter for the heart, but it is hard to listen to the heart through the deafening din of society's expectations.
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