No Honor in the Marriage Market
One of the most compelling political issues in India today is the subjection experienced by most single people, who wish to exercise their autonomy to decide when and whom to marry, if they wish to marry. Yet, except for a couple of human rights groups fighting against forced marriages and so-called 'honor' crimes, most Indians continue to pressurize, cajole, force and/or punish women and men who do not wish to marry or who do not choose 'appropriate' partners.
Very few people know that the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) holds that women have the right to choose whom, when and if, to marry. The international discourses of women's rights as human rights recognize that women must have autonomy over the decision to marry or not to marry. If they wish to marry, women still retain the right to decide when and who to marry. The routine trampling of this basic human right is not seen as a political issue in public discourse nor by political theorists.
Most people think of marriage as an issue of culture. Yet, there are many instances when the pressure to marry slips into coercion to marry. There have been numerous instances of forced marriage in India and amongst Indian families abroad. Both women and men have been forced to marry appropriate partners that follow class and caste imperatives, with soul-destroying consequences for the couples. We do not even recognize that coercing young people to marry is a violation of their basic human rights. This is a field of politics that produces domestic spaces replete with violence, harassment and disappointment, which are disguised as the most popular word in India - "security".
Forced marriage is a routine way of arranging marriage without the consent of one or both partners. Women are constantly told to adjust to matrimony. Forced marriage is the grossest form of intimate custodial violence. It is a form of trafficking of women and men in marriage markets, whereby heterosexual marriage is glorified, celebrated, sold and exalted as "our tradition".
Heterosexual marriage, stuck in marriage albums, filmed on marriage videos and sold by astrologers and video pundits, is a specific form of material culture that produces the political mythology of happiness as a force. This material culture often converts coercion into consent and anguish into cameos of poise.
The political mythology of social happiness destroys personal happiness when people marry of their own choice in opposition to caste, class and/or community dictates. So, young people should pursue happiness in the image of the social - else they can be confined illegally at home, they can be criminalized, sent to asylums or sent to state-run homes. There are numerous instances where couples have been killed by caste 'panchayats' (village councils) in rural landscapes or assaulted by their families in the upcoming malls in Delhi. The police are extremely efficient when it comes to restoring a so-called runaway adult daughter to her family. Take the case of Mathura, who was brought to a police station in the late 1970s - after her brother filed a false case of kidnapping and abduction against her lover. She was subsequently raped by the policeman, who thought she was fair game since she had exercised her sexual autonomy. The same fate befell Suman Rani, a few years later.
The murder of a daughter for marrying an inappropriate partner is often categorized as a form of 'honor' crime. But this form of political violence should be seen as a crime of custodial violence, wherein the family exercises sovereign rights of life and death over the woman. The category honor crime describes the violence from the perpetrator's point of view - the family, which looses its honor. The same family will not loose honor when their daughter is killed in a dowry crime. The term honor crime does not describe the violence from the victim's point of view - which goes unnoticed routinely.
The right-wing organizations in this country have declared war on inter-faith marriages. Babu Bajrangi is a prime example of a criminal in Gujarat who celebrates the fact that he specializes in breaking up inter-faith marriages and coerces Hindu women to remarry Hindu men. Hindu women who had married Muslim men were on the lists of the right-wing death squads during the riots in Gujarat in 2002. Few years ago, a Hindu woman in Ahmedabad was forcibly separated from her Muslim husband and killed when she refused to re-marry a Hindu man. Her death was a political, yet it was converted into a suicide. There are too many cases that have not even produced a shocked protest from a complicit (un) civil society.
Even the Tis Hazari Courts in Delhi are under surveillance by right-wing organizations that inform parents when their children wish to marry inappropriate partners.
The institution of heterosexual marriage is a commodity that is sold in the academia, marketplaces, religious spaces, and public discourse as an essential feature of a good citizen ensuring respectability, security and happiness. Young people are constantly told that marriage is the only legitimate route to a socially acceptable sexual and reproductive life. The never married or the divorced are constantly wooed to marry. If they are resistant, stories of loneliness, illness and death are vividly narrated. If scary stories do not diminish an appetite for waiting for the right partner, there are friends, colleagues, strangers and aliens telling them that they will be fair game for increased violence; be vulnerable to sexual instrumentalities of the world at large; and ultimately become an object of pity for never having experienced the familial.
There may be a set of people who are disgruntled with the everyday hassles of marriage. And they may envy those single for being able to save more money, even though single is more expensive way of life; or who may expect single people to put in longer hours of work, because you must be bored with life any way.
As an uncivil society we do not accept the viewpoint that, being single is as attractive a life option as marriage based on consent. We believe it is our birthright to pressurize people to get married, if they do not wish to; and, of course, agree that adults are not free to marry whom they want to, when they wish to. How can anyone be allowed to risk choice when the heterosexual desire to reproduce in the image of the social [caste, community, class and national identities] is at stake?
Is it not high time that we begin to think that social happiness must image itself in different forms of personal happiness that emerge from the right to choice? Else we will be left with lives lived without any soul, creativity or joy, in the image of a political mythology of happiness founded on coercion and violence.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU)
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