Arranged Marriages — A Modern Take On Traditional Love

Sana Kothari

Generally considered a ritual of the past or reserved for the ultra-conservative or uber-religious, arranged or “matchmade” marriages have a reputation of being strict, anti-feminist and formal. Either that or they resemble the cringe-worthy Netflix show “Indian Matchmaker” filled with drama, overly-coddled men and “aunties” tauntingly calling anyone over a size two “healthy”. 

However, the majority of my friends and relatives have been through the process — with the help of their parents, relatives, or external matchmakers — most have ended in a fairytale “happily ever after.” My name is Sana, I am a 26-year-old Belgian-born Indian woman, and this is the story of my experience with matchmade love.

Disclaimer: I can only speak for my close network’s experiences, and my insights cannot be generalized to a wider public or diverse cultures. That being said, some historical context is needed to understand my specific culture and why this custom is so prevalent. 

The context

I come from a small village in Gujarat, India — my great-grandfather’s generation was the first to move from that village to bigger cities like Mumbai, and my grandfather’s generation was the first to move abroad. My great-grandfather’s generation was also one of the first to pioneer and expand the trade that most of our community works in today; diamonds (side note: it’s nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds). As it was a trust-based industry, it became a family business that grew exponentially with globalization. 

Today, the community of Gujaratis in the diamond industry has settled in some of the world’s hub cities: L.A., New York, London, Antwerp, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Tel Aviv, Dubai, Mumbai, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The majority of us have the same traditions and culture, speak the same language, and follow the same or similar religions (Jainism and Hinduism). A lot of this translates into our lifestyles: many of us don’t eat meat because of our faith and live in “joint families” — where two to four generations share a house to reduce rent burden, split responsibilities, and take care of our family as they grow older. This is why arranged marriages work for the community; through a very interrelated web of trade networks, family, and acquaintances, people can connect with others who share their priorities.

First things first, let’s dispel a few general myths

  • Women don’t have free will or choice in this process.

A woman decides if, when, and how she wants to go through the process — her parents might have opinions and suggestions, but she always has the final say. 

  • A man and woman are strangers until the day they get married.

This may have been the case 40 to 50 years ago, but nowadays, people “date” after they’re introduced and before they commit.

  • Arranged marriages are preferred to “love” marriages.

This has been a rule of thumb for the generations before us. Nowadays, parents are becoming more and more accepting of “western” dating rituals, although they aren’t yet as open-minded to casual dating as they are to serious relationships.

  • All arranged marriages focus on caste, religion, and horoscopes.

Men and women decide their own priorities during this process. If you believe that a matched caste, religion and horoscope is important to you, then that’s what you look for. If not, that’s fine too!

  • There is a limit to the number of matches you are allowed to meet.

The limit does not exist. Sometimes, the first person you meet is the one. Sometimes, it takes a few years. Again, you decide how many people you meet, when you meet them and how.

  • There is never any second-guessing your choices.

Just like in any other relationship, it takes time to be sure.

Process of modern arranged marriages

There are many ways in which arranged marriage is still quite traditional, however, there are also many ways in which it is extremely similar to regular dating. The best way to shed some light is through a few extremely varied real-life stories*.

The Introduction by Friends

Mutual friends introduced Ishita and Armaan at a wedding they both attended. Their friends knew their personalities, priorities and lifestyles, and felt they’d work well together and in each other’s families. They liked each other immediately; they shared a strong dedication to their work as entrepreneurs and were very social people. Ishita grew up relatively religious, and Armaan didn’t, but they addressed this soon into their relationship and figured out a system to deal with their differences. They discussed finances, lifestyle choices and where they would live, and began to work towards that life together as soon as they realized they both were committed to each other. They dated for about six months before Armaan proposed — all with the knowledge and blessings of their parents of course.

The Family Acquaintances

Mira and Akash had never met, but their parents have known of each other for ages — both as social acquaintances and through business networking. When matching Mira and Akash was suggested to their families, they asked their mutual friends for general intel. Would the kids’ religious beliefs and traditions work well together? Where do they work, where did they study, and how much importance was placed on their ambitions? Were they sociable people or homebodies? Akash’s parents lived in a joint family — would Mira be okay with that? Mira had just been accepted to an MBA program abroad — would Akash be okay with that? Akash and Mira’s parents' friends do the best they can to answer all of their questions, after which the parents relay the information to Mira and Akash. They then made the choice — they both wanted to meet. They went on a month of dates in the same city but ended up dating long-distance for a year before getting engaged; understanding firsthand each other’s communication styles and methods of problem solving, expectations and characters. 

The Biodata

Simran and Raj lived on opposite sides of the world — she was based in LA, and he lived in Mumbai. They both felt like they wanted to settle down, but neither had found the right person with whom to do so. They gave their “biodata” — a very basic resumé containing their immediate family tree, cities they’ve lived in, education, career path, religion, hobbies, a few likes and dislikes, and a profile picture — to a matchmaker. 

This following process is reminiscent of a filtered Tinder encounter. The intermediary found both Simran and Raj multiple matches, including each other, and sent over all the matches’ biodatas. Simran liked the sound of Raj and two other men, and Raj thought Simran’s and one other woman’s biodatas were interesting. Whoever showed mutual interest received each other’s phone numbers. In this case, Raj received just Simran’s number, and Simran received Raj’s number and that of one other man. Simran started texting both men — speaking casually about life, daily routines, and shared interests. She enjoyed speaking to both men but really felt a spark with Raj. About a month into getting to know each other through messages, she decided she wanted to meet both men to decide who she got along with best. She decided to take a weeklong trip to Mumbai, where both men lived. She went on a coffee date with both men, which confirmed her suspicions — she and Raj clicked perfectly. They went on multiple long dates throughout the week and decided to commit to an exclusive relationship before leaving Mumbai. They got serious over FaceTime and texts, discussing their future together and deciding to find new jobs and move to neutral territory together in London. They both deeply discussed finances, their families, and their relationships with their friends — all with the purpose of moving forward together — and over four months, they fell in love and decided they knew enough to get engaged.

Final thoughts

The biggest, if not only, difference between “western” dating and modern arranged marriages is the order in which partners become emotionally vulnerable and align priorities. In “western” dating, people tend to begin with shared interests, hobbies and activities; they get to know each other over time, then open up to each other emotionally, commit to exclusively dating, then begin to align priorities for a life together. In an arranged marriage, this process is flipped; people find others with aligned priorities and complementary personalities to theirs, commit to exclusivity, and then date to get to know each other’s hobbies and interests while already working towards a life together. This also is a large part of why the process seems enticing to even the younger generation; it filters out anyone who isn’t ready for commitment.

It is commonly thought that individuality is lost through the process of arranged marriage; that such a transparent and methodical structure of finding a lifelong partner is dated. However, through my own experiences with matchmaking, I’ve realized it is actually one’s individuality that dictates one’s partner. Women must learn about themselves first — establishing their own character, relationship with religion, familial expectations, sociability, ambition, etc. — to find a partner who accepts and appreciates those traits. The process doesn’t have to be anti-feminist. In many cases, arranged marriage can, in fact, be liberating.

*Names have been changed for privacy.

Illustrations by Carolina Diaz

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