Two dear friends married each other recently, and when weddings happen and many kababs are consumed then philosophy seems to follow in the naan-induced haze. One of them was on the nature of the marriages we contract in this part of the world: the arranged one. When you marry someone you barely know, the hypothesis suggested, it creates a kind of stress that then colours the foundation of the marriage itself. So the arranged marriage is basically born out of a benign trauma. It’s an interesting idea to consider. In a society where female and male interaction is so stringently monitored if not outright disallowed, marriage is a real twist in the tale. Going from completely sheltered, repressed and fairly clueless you are thrust at a spouse and ta-dah! You’re married! If it’s your cousin you might benefit from at least knowing a little bit of what they are like, but if it’s a stranger you met in a drawing room, then chances are you are marrying a near-stranger, if not a complete one.
Here enters what I like to call the O Level Dilemma. The O level is the most important exam of your life, because all your college acceptances will be offered—or not—on the basis of your performance. It’s also the first huge exam you ever sit, so you are nervous, don’t know what to expect and only learn how to manage when you’re halfway through it. Marriage is a lot like that, and when you marry a stranger it’s fraught with many more complexities. One is told blithely that marrying someone you don’t know is an adventure, because there’s so much to discover about them. Which is true, but also a huge gamble. What if you don’t like what you discover? What if your partner doesn’t like what they find out? Stress! Heartache! Trauma!
When it’s done right, marriage is a life-enriching experience. But we don’t see marriage as anything but a means to an end. It’s born of deeply misogynist and sometimes also poor societies, where you want to be rid of your burdensome daughters as soon as humanly possible and/or use them as pawns to further your own interests (never mind what they want). This is why, even if we are from families that are not afflicted by our presence, women have an “expiry date”. It’s why young girls are seen as targets for anyone with a son, because the assumption is even if she is 20 and he is 35, it’s still fair game. The entire rishta scene is based on a mysterious sense of urgency and scarcity—good matches are hard to find, so say yes now lest you miss this chance. Which adds another layer of friction to the entire situation.
The sense of urgency we have about the idea of marriage will never dissipate as long as we continue to place an unnatural amount of value upon it. The marriage premium is so huge, women are willing to accept less-than-stellar men just because they are available and aren’t serial killers. Because it’s also seen as a competition to grab said scare goods, women are bending over backwards to be the ideal catch and men are complacently still just sitting around, being mediocre, because they have no reason whatsoever to improve. Why should you, when you can swan around town drinking cups of tea and making small talk with an endless array of girls younger than you, yours for the asking? Why would you cultivate an interesting hobby or learn to fly a plane or bake cake if nobody expected your future to hinge on it?
Reverse the situation, and let’s talk free markets here. In a world where the fallback of arranged marriages don’t exist, if you’re a man who wants a wife, you have to first like someone who likes you back. Then you work on that relationship, being a considerate and romantic and fun person until your girlfriend is convinced your laundry is worth doing forever. Then you propose marriage and if she says yes, you marry. To stay married you should continue being someone worthy of staying with. In Pakistan, you marry for life based on scant few virtues and it’s dumb luck if it works out. If it doesn’t, then oh well, join the (huge, ever-expanding) club of bored wives. Notice how I don’t mention the opposite situation here. That’s because the percentage of plain girls married to gorgeous men is astoundingly lower than ordinary men married to total babes. And I don’t think it’s because they’re making up in the looks department by being outstanding in the personality one. It’s how the cookie crumbles here.
It’s not much better for men either, who have to be something sensible and make money to support their imaginary future family and parents and sisters and the neighbourhood cat. Arranged marriage scenes don’t suit men that aren’t a certain look, for instance, or want to be theatre set designers for a living. But men can marry on a flexible schedule, and men can opt out of their marriages with more ease than women can, or do. Therein lies the real rub. If we like to arrange our marriages, not trusting the people involved to be able to freely choose their partners, then we should make the dissolution of these marriages easy too. When we refuse to acknowledge that marriage is at best a calculated risk, then we also limit our perception of the whole institution. Why should marriage be forever if you are basing your decision on meeting someone a handful of times, and that their mother seems nice? And if you are, then why can’t there be a safe way to say this isn’t working for me, and opt out? Why must you begin a huge chapter of your life with strain and nervous terror instead of a relaxed happiness? There’s a reason some brides cry copiously and some grooms look like their ties are choking them, and it’s not joy.
Women are bending over backwards to be the ideal catch and men are complacently still just sitting around, being mediocre, because they have no reason whatsoever to improve.