New technologies and globalization of business are having their own impact on the ways young Indians are finding life partners. In the last decade, the innovative harnessing of the Internet to perform a traditional matchmaking role has spawned a multitude of marriage websites, with millions of members. At the same time, the entry of new forms of global business into the country in the form of call centers and export garment businesses have lured women into the workplace causing a deep impact on marriage expectations and alliances.
This was one of the themes that emerged from a recent conference on globalization and marriage in South Asia. In fact, at least three papers in the conference dealt with this subject: 'E-Kanyadaan: Impact of Online Marriage Portals on Indian Matrimony' by Ravinder Kaur and Priti Dhanda; 'Love in the Shadow of the Sewing Machine' by Johanna Lessinger; and 'Western Work Worlds and Altering Approaches to Marriage: An Empirical Study of Women Employees of Call Centers in India' by Shelly Tara and P. Vigneshwara Ilavarasan.
Matrimony portals, which began as fledgling enterprises a decade ago, have blossomed into a multi-million dollar industry (in 2005, the 'Economist' estimated the industry at $250 million), with the major portals - 'shaadi.com', 'bharatmatrimony.com' and 'jeevansaathi.com' - claiming 10 million registered users each. It is difficult to assess their 'success' rate, although judging merely from the website, 'shaadi.com' has successfully matched 8,00,000 couples. What began as a brisk business in the large metros has now made firm inroads into the small town matrimony market with the rapid spread of the Internet. Today, for instance, non-metro users form 60 per cent of the total membership of one of the major websites.
Looking for partners at marriage websites has instant appeal for a tech-savvy generation, which is used to turning to the Internet for a variety of social needs. The study of 2,300 members at one of the major portals revealed some interesting demographic and sociological insights. Not surprisingly, the population is mainly young (more than half were below 27 years), and most of the those posting profiles are men; still, in what could be an interesting trend, almost 30 per cent of the postings were by women for themselves. Further, unlike the print media where parents tend to initiate the matchmaking process, most of the web-based postings (65 per cent) were by the spouse-seekers themselves.
However, while wreathed in the modern trappings of cyberspace, these Internet marriage advertisements by no means represent a break with tradition. On the contrary, the proliferation of community- and caste-based sites - 'chennaimatrimony.com', 'sindhimatrimony.com', 'brahminmatrimony.com', and 'jatland.com' - allows for more exact caste and community-based matches from the entire universe of the World Wide Web. Web postings continue the print version's open bias towards fair, slim girls, and the portals provide facilities for horoscope matching thus reinforcing traditional marriage practices. And while the family may not be directly involved in introducing the main protagonists, their qualifications and achievements are significantly included in most web-based ads, as if seeking to root the individual firmly in a social setting.
While marriage based portals still remain essentially 'arranged marriages' albeit with modern trappings, a marriage revolution of sorts has been taking place in the new factories of global business. These modern workspaces - call centers, export garment businesses and so on - have effectively lured traditional women out to work and, in the process, given them greater say in their marriage prospects and futures. Studies were carried out of two such forms of global business outsourcing that have successfully attracted a number of women workers. In Tamil Nadu in the 1970s, the first significant formal jobs for working class women came from the export garment manufacturing business; more recently, a similar movement is seen among middle- and lower-middle class women in the metros with the blooming of the call-centre industry in the country.
Interestingly, the two studies arrive at a similar conclusion: The desire and ability of these working women to take charge of their marital future derives not only from their financial independence, but also from the other 'independencies' they experience while working away from home and through exposure to a modern work space. A reluctance to give up these new independencies has an impact on how they act to seek marriage alliances, and even on their post-marital expectations.
Many women who enter the BPO world from the middle- and lower-middle classes, have a modicum of education and come from fairly traditional homes, where working in a call centre seems to have gained some cache. Typically, they would have had traditional marriages, arranged by their parents, with few options of working after marriage. But as the study of call-centre women workers in Delhi and Jaipur - 'Western Work Worlds and Altering Approaches to Marriage: An Empirical Study of Women Employees of Call Centers in India' - shows, once they enter the work space, the often-nocturnal timings at work and the superficial reality created by functioning in another 'modern' culture and time zone, introduces a 'distance' from their own families. This very often precipitates relationships between colleagues, as young women search for security among the large youthful employee pool, the trademark of most call centers.
With increasing independence, one thing emerges clearly from all the respondents: they want to continue to work after they marry. Many delay marriage, and many still begin actively to look for life partners among their colleagues, knowing that if they were to go the traditional route, their work choices would be severely curtailed, even if they were allowed to work. A husband working in the same profession is often preferred as likely to be most supportive of their choice of work, even if it involves night shift work. Besides, he may also be persuaded to consider a nuclear family, which is fast emerging as the family of choice for women.
Thus, even though their educational levels and social backgrounds would typically have meant traditional marriage and post-marriage roles, the advent of call centre employment has given women greater influence over their marriage in the new global technological scenario.
Going out to work has had somewhat similar effect on the marriage decisions of women working in the export garment business in Tamil Nadu. While their earnings play an important role in their gaining independence from the family, the non-financial freedoms they experience have influenced their marital decisions. The very act of going to work, forming friendships outside the family with co-workers, being exposed to new ideas, especially concepts of modernity, have had a tremendous influence on the behavior and self-identity of these women. They begin to play a far more active role in determining their matrimonial alliances than they would have had they not been working. They tend to delay their marriages or, conversely, begin to accumulate their own dowry where previously they would have been considered ineligible for marriage for not having the requisite dowry. And some, by looking for partners among their co-workers, defy tradition and parental authority by marrying across castes and communities.