Life Cycle: Arranged Marriage

The history of marriage goes back thousands of years. Marriages typically served as a union of families, the intention being to preserve the caste system, increase the family’s financial wealth, procure a woman to help care for her husband’s family, and the like. Girls were typically married young, oftentimes in arranged or forced marriages.

There is a difference between forced marriages and arranged marriages. The U.S. State Department defines forced marriage as being between two parties, of which one or both are not consenting.

First-generation immigrants tend to preserve much of their own culture, unlike their children who become more acculturated to ours. When the daughters reach puberty, they are often pressured by the first generation parents to find a husband or to accept a husband who is found for them. 

Thousands of young people disappear from our school systems every year. Betsy cited cases of young women who are told that their grandmother is dying in Pakistan or India or Somalia or Sudan, and when the girl arrives there to say her farewell, she finds that marriage documents have been signed and she no longer has access to her papers or passport. In essence, she disappears. 

Arranged marriages are a challenge in our Central New York community. Betsy just attended a national conference in Utica, where she met with doctors, lawyers, and others who are forming a coalition to provide resources for women seeking help.


A woman from India who was unable to attend today’s meeting and wishes to remain anonymous asked someone to read her thoughts aloud. Betsy Wiggins did so.

Arranged marriages have long been part of the Indian culture. An arranged marriage is one that is fixed by the parents and family members, with or without the consent of the boy or girl. A “love marriage,” on other hand, is one in which the boy and the girl select their own life partners and marry with or without the family’s consent; this kind of marriage is not easily accepted by the family or society.

The practice of arranged marriages began as a way of uniting and maintaining upper-caste families. Eventually, the system spread to the lower caste, where it was used for the same purpose. Marriage is treated as an alliance between two families rather than a union between two individuals.

The majority of current Indian marriages are arranged. The legal age for marriage is 18 years for females and 21 years for males, with most females being married by 24 and most males being married by their late twenties. However, by the age of 15 or 16, many children are married within a cultural context.

Among the many reasons for arranged marriages in Indian culture are: (a) Marriage is an important decision, and divorce is generally not accepted. (b) The marriage choice must be carefully thought out and planned and may be beyond the capabilities of a young person acting on his or her own. (c) Pressure is exerted by the extended family and the community to get the child married by a certain age. (d) Following one’s head is often wiser than following one’s heart, since “love” is often a momentary infatuation. (e) Arranged marriages are more successful because they match persons of the same religion, caste, dietary preference, linguistic group, age group, socioeconomic background, education, professional status, physical stature, etc. (f) Each family has the chance to do “due diligence,” closely scrutinizing the other in terms of reputation, economic means, and personal qualities.

The trend is changing somewhat in India and among expatriate Indians. However, many Indians who move to other countries still cling to their roots, religion, and culture and continue the tradition of arranging their children’s marriages, generally to others from India—and from the same caste or at least the same religion—so as to pass on their culture and values to the next generation. Searches are begun through relatives, friends, and matrimonial agencies, and if their profiles match, the prospective mates are given an opportunity to meet face to face or online. Some parents in India consider marriage a good opportunity to send their child abroad, believing that everything will be fine once the boy and girl get married and start living together. Most marriages work, but a few fail.

Because U.S. work visas are becoming difficult to obtain, marriageable Indian girls and boys living in the U.S. are new targets for easy entry into the country. Getting an education loan to study abroad has become relatively easy, and most youngsters who come to the U.S. to study do not want to return to India; one way for them to stay here is to marry someone who is a U.S. citizen.

Marrying a person who is widowed or divorced is not accepted. Doing so implies that there is something wrong with the girl or boy who is marrying the widowed or divorced person or that the girl cannot find a decent match or the boy is marrying for the girl’s dowry. But if one of the spouses is settled in the U.S., the interpretation changes: people think that this marriage is taking place to get easy entry into the U.S., which in some cases is true.

The current generation of expatriate Indians living in the U.S. and other countries has fewer opportunities to meet other Indians, especially in smaller towns. Marrying someone of Indian origin is less important to these people, and many of them are in inter-caste, interreligious, and intercultural marriages.  Many families have accepted this trend. In any type of marriage, it is important to know the family’s background as well as details about the would-be bride or groom.  It is said that marriage is a gamble so it is important to play the game safely.

There is no hard-and-fast rule that arranged marriages survive and “love marriages” fail. Marriages are made in heaven, and keeping them intact is in our hands through understanding, respecting, and trusting each other. We all should remember that the couple needs the family’s support, cooperation, and blessings to make their marriage strong

Alam Macut

Alam Macut

Alam is 35 years old, was born and raised in Sudan, and has lived in Syracuse for 10 years. She speaks Arabic, Dinka, and English  and works in the hospital system as a translator. She is the single mother of 7 children.

When people get married in her culture, their families trade cows, goats, and monkeys. None of this occurred in Alam’s case; his family already had many cows.

Alam’s future husband came to her house when she was 13. Then she visited his house when she was 17. During that visit he forced himself on her, and she became pregnant with her eldest daughter, now 17. This was shameful, and her family said that because she was pregnant, she must marry him or someone else who had cows to pay for a marriage. Her mother made her return to him, but after 40 days he sent her back to her family because, according to tradition, he had to marry the wife of his brother who died.

Alam met another man from another tribe. He seemed nice, and her mother made her go to him. With him she had her second child, now 13. She continued her education, finishing 11th grade, despite her husband not wanting her to attend school.

She was in her village during the wars. Her house was burned down, and she expected to have to live in the jungle. She still has nightmares when she hears fireworks.

She, her husband, and the two children went to Cairo. From there she wanted to go to Canada, to which they were supposed to travel on July 10, but she had her third baby on July 6.

When they finally immigrated to the U.S., she and her husband were very depressed. They needed food and other help, and she didn’t know much English. She started work as a seamstress; he had no job, took all her money, and went out with other women. He was unhappy with her but financially dependent on her. She left the house, then returned; he threatened to leave and subjected her to ongoing verbal abuse. During this time, she had her fourth child, a daughter now 8 years old. In 2005, he beat her, but she did not call the police because that would have made matters worse. She tried to kill herself. Still he didn’t leave–and he continued the verbal and physical abuse. All this time, her mother thought she was in a safe, good family.

She finally left him and moved in with a boyfriend, with whom she had the rest of her children. Her husband continued harassing her, never paying child support, lying to the legal guardians and calling her an unfit mother, and taking her older children and her passport from her.

She has just returned from a trip to Africa to be with her mother. In addition to working as a translator, she has started her own business. She wants to study business, have her children attend college, and buy a house.

Mam-Yassin Sarr

Yassin Sarr

Yassin is a native of the Gambia. She was raised Muslim and converted to Bahá’í. She is married, has a young child, is a Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University, and is founder of Starfish International, a girls’ school in the Gambia.

Arranged marriages and forced marriages occur in communities across Africa. Yassin said that her life’s work is dedicated to averting these problems from the source. She has just returned from a 3-month trip to the Gambia, putting about a hundred girls at the Starfish school through a rigorous training program about maternal health, martial arts and safety, and economic empowerment (i.e., the running of small businesses). Some of the girls attended a photography class, and now 15 of them have small photography businesses and are giving money to their families.

The issue of arranged marriage and forced marriage boils down to economics. If you’re in a family of 14, for example, how do you take care of everyone? You marry the girls to men or boys whose families are better off, and then your family is better off. The best way for girls to interrupt this process and advocate for themselves is to talk to their parents. But at 14 or 15, what do they have to bargain with? Yassin wants them to be able to say: I’ve started my own business, and I’m contributing to the family, and I’ll continue to contribute, so let me stay in school.

Yassin’s school teaches martial arts so that if the girl is slapped or otherwise attacked by a man, she can defend herself and send a clear message to not try this again. Assuring the girls’ safety is important.

Some parents may not listen to their daughter’s request to stay in school, so Yassin prepares the girls to marry at a young age. The girls are taught about maternal health and nutrition, how to pick the right health clinic, what kinds of foods to eat, how to care for their body. In the average African family, most nutritional chores (i.e., farming and cooking) are done by the girls and can be a basis for economic development. Yassin found an organization that teaches the girls how to design bee hives so the bees don’t have to be smoked (as is traditionally done in Africa). Her school also teaches the girls to use the honeycomb (which is traditionally thrown away) to make wax, soap, lotions, and candles that they sell to bring money into their families.

Yassin trains girls to advocate for themselves, speak up, be leaders, have a voice in the community. She seeks to change families by convincing them that education helps them more than does marrying off the girl.

Yassin is raising her daughter between two cultures: Yassin is from the Gambia, David is American. One day her daughter asked, If there is one God, and there are so many people on the planet, how can he see all of us at one time? Yassin put some salt in her hand and asked, Can you see all the grains of salt? That’s how God can see all the people.

Another time her daughter asked, What is culture? Yassin responded: When it’s done right, it’s picking the best ideas from all cultures, and putting them together, and living our lives that way.

Yassin said she benefited from the best of arranged marriages. She met a young couple at the same conference that she met her husband. She and the couple exchanged phone numbers. When she called the number, she found that the man, Jeff, had given her the phone number of his best friend, David, having told David, I think I’ve found your wife. She and David lived in different states, so they talked on the phone for the next 2 weeks, at which point David proposed. Yassin told him she couldn’t even remember what he looked like! She also told him she’s going back to Africa because that’s where her work is, and he would have travel to the Gambia (without her) to meet her family. A month later, he bought a plane ticket. Yassin wrote to her family, describing David’s qualities and asking them to observe him and let her know. The family approved of David, although it took her father three years to approve the marriage because David is not a Muslim. Yassin did not break with her family or marry David during that period because it would have gone against her goal of bringing people together.

Yassin observed that her story and Alam’s story have many of the same components, in that people who love them set them up with prospective mates whom they hoped would be a good fit. What made the difference is where each of them was in her life at the time and at what stage/age each of them got her education.

Yassin’s definition of marriage does not preclude arranged marriages if they are done right. The solution to arranged marriages is the empowerment of girls themselves as they build new families.

For Yassin, the purpose of marriage is to move love and commitment from a conceptual level to reality. The person choosing to marry me doesn’t have to be with me, she said. My parents, my siblings, are with me; but this other person has chosen to be with me. Each of us deserves to have someone who chooses us.

Question-and-Answer Session

Sabra Reichardt observed that what Yassin is teaching in Gambia is “stealth feminism.”

Saro Kumar said that when she went to India from Malaysia, she was shocked to see how conservative the people were. There was very little socialization between boys and girls. Most marriages were arranged, and girls knew they could stay on in their parents’ home only until they moved in with their in-law’s family.

The dowry is a big thing in India. A girl’s family is supposed to give a dowry to the boy’s family. Saro’s father had 5 girls; if he had been uneducated, paying dowries would have made him a pauper! Her father always said he would give his girls an education, not a dowry.

In India, girls may be forced into marriages with older men. Arranged marriages are still the norm except in families where both parents are educated. Sometimes parents can’t make good on their dowry promises; every day you see stories of girls being dowsed with kerosene and burned because the in-laws were not satisfied with dowries and want their sons to be free to marry again..

Asked how her husband courted her, Saro said that according to Hinduism, Saro was considered an outcast; that in India, they labeled her as being from an agricultural group. Her husband, by contrast, is Brahmin. His uncle was Saro’s guardian while she was attending school, and the family was very good to her until her future husband took an interest in her, and then the family turned on her. Both she and her husband finished their educations and said they would wait a year before marrying. His parents tried to get their son fired from his job so that he would be dependent on them and follow their wishes.  They also tried to get Saro’s teacher to turn on her. And this is an educated family!

Saro mentioned a Bhutanese man in our community who was complaining to her that his three children were disrespectful and refused to listen to him. Within a few months, he told her that one of the boys was now married. Yesterday she got the sense that the wife is Burmese. She wonders how the couple communicates.

Helen Malina, of the Center for New Americans, observed that not all immigrant parents are feeling alienated. She is more hopeful: she finds that as their kids are picking up American values, some of the parents are learning to adapt.

Joan Burstyn said that first-generation immigrants have always had to cope with new customs. What makes it so difficult now is the changed concept of sexuality. Women from other countries look at marriage as being for life. Here, we recognize that marriage could well end in divorce. In Mexico, people can even have a two-year trial marriage. Joan also posed a question: Is it that we deplore exploitation through arranged marriages, or do we just deplore exploitation?

Betty Lamb said that Vera House offers help for women or men suffering from spousal abuse and rape and has counselors that work only with immigrant women. Betty also said she has tried? several religions and believes in arranged marriages if they are divinely inspired and done in a prayerful way.