In this essay, I will argue that, while there are both benefits and drawbacks to arranged marriages for Bengali women, the choice should ultimately be up to the individual. In this essay, I will draw upon diverse texts penned by Anirvan Chatterjee, Malavika Karlekar and Manisha Roy so as to provide support to my arguments and in order to further reiterate the fact that Bengali arranged marriages may seem much more complex than at first blush. By exploring these three texts, I will be able to establish a more developed understanding of the Bengali woman’s context and explain how traditional marriages are either being upheld across the world or undermined by more Westernized adaptations of marriage as Bengali women become more and more emancipated.
First off, I would like to delve into Anirvan Chatterjee’s personal view of arranged marriage, as explained in her account Exploring Bengali Women’s History. In January 1997, Chatterjee took a personal look at Bengali women’s history of arranged marriage. Since she grew up in the west, Chatterjee was unfamiliar with the Bengali cultural identification and understanding of this particular tradition. Hailing from a purely American background, the question is justifiable: how could Chatterjee possibly understand how Bengali women, including her mother, might be prepared to travel thousands of miles away from the safety of their homes to marry someone they had never met? In her article “Bengali Bridal Diaspora: Marriage as a Livelihood Strategy,” scholar Ravinder Kaur echoes these sentiments exactly, pointing to the far distances many young Bengali brides have to cover to tie the nuptial knot. Due to the strict and often irrevocable divide between the East and the West, the concept of arranged marriages baffles the majority of Americans and confuses Westerners in general.
I count myself as one of the people who cannot grasp the reasons upstanding arranged marriages. That being said, it is important to understand that Bengali women, even those living in the higher echelons of the Hindu caste system, always had to put marriage and family interests before their personal desires, such as higher education. In Bengali, women come from two branches of religious traditions: Hindu and Islam. As such, there are some essential differences to be noted between the customs of arranged marriages according to both religious branches. For women of the Hindu faith, the caste system is very important. Most marriages remain in the same caste rank, though some circumstances allow women to move up the societal ranks through marriage. That being said, Hindu women are essentially prohibited from marrying a man who is below them in the caste system. In the Islamic vein, many traditional families require same-faith marriages, although some steps are being taken these days to circumvent these stipulations, with some degree of difficulty.
In her book Voices from Within: Early Personal Narratives of Bengali Women, Malavika Karlekar tackles and highlights challenges that Hindu Bengali women faced during the late 19th century through to the early to mid-20th century. Karlekar addresses traditional culture stipulating that women “take a back seat” when it comes to plural marriage and child marriage, phenomena which were consistent with what was happening at the time of Karlekar’s orientation. Women lived huddled together in domestic quarters, called “the antahpur”. This was a place where women were more invested in each other’s advancement, although their situation ended up as a form of impoverished existence. Karlekar inquiries into the various sects of the Brahmans and questions the Western influence on the women’s education, gender roles, wardrobe, and the like, which took place during the English occupation. She also conducted a survey of emotional upheavals that the women might have experienced by following the cultural traditional path in comparison to the Western mindset of arranged unions. Because of the westernization of India as a whole, women were becoming more aware of opportunities and options that lay in wait for them without having to have recourse to traditional marriage. Progressive thought, though, does not always follow with any kind of ameliorative code of practice or behaviour. As such, change, if any, was slow in coming. Furthermore, women and their husbands tended similar societal ideas depending on whether their marriage was based in an ever-trending, contemporary city or in a rural area of India.
Thirdly, I would like to address Manisha Roy’s radical understanding of women as expressed in her book Bengali Women. In this work, Roy worked hard during the decades spanning the 1950s to the 1970s, studying the Bengali woman from a strictly anthropological view. By dissecting demands and expectations placed upon the traditional Bengali woman, Roy was successful in analysing the structure of Bengali families. In order to do so, Roy conducted a number of interviews with members of her family including her father, her mother, other family members, and of course her husband. By highlighting the frustrations, triumphs and difficulties that Bengali women of upper and upper-middle class families faced, Roy penned a masterpiece that penetrates deep into the fabric of Indian culture, religion and societal norms. In so doing, Roy also explores the deep fissures brought about in the last two decades. These tensions include divorce, education and increasing Westernization through the use of media like women’s magazines and television. The question we come to near the end of the book is: what do Bengali women do next? Should they transgress their norms and emancipate themselves fully, or should they alternatively stick to the common rules dictated by tradition and remain true to familial and societal regulations?
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate my thesis, stipulating that it is up to the woman to choose between a traditional arranged one and a more modern one. For the Bengali woman, her responsibilities lie in focusing her attention on the family needs’ first before thinking of herself. It is her duty to ensure that familial and cultural traditions are still alive and breathing, whether she resides in India, America, or in another part of the world. Arranged marriages still occur regularly, but Bengali women are now viewing both sides of the marriage coin and are making judicious choices best suited to their individual personalities. In the U.S., many people view arranged marriage as either backwards or anti-feminist. Though arranged marriages can certainly conclude unhappily, they have also resulted in long, happy and successful marriages for many traditional women (and men). Those who prefer to have an arranged marriage often point to the benefits: no playing “the dating game”, ensuring their family’s approval, as well as good and strong connection to tradition and heritage. While Americans may find the concept of arranged marriage disturbing or old-fashioned, it is a perfectly valid option and Bengali women must have the agency to decide how and in what manner they wish to find their partner.