A few months ago an Indian woman that I didn’t know asked to be my friend on Facebook. This was on my personal profile, not Amor y Sabor’s Facebook page. This happens a lot actually because of the blog and I usually accept because I consider all Facebook to be public anyway. So I accepted her friend request and she began a conversation with me. She asked if I was Indian, which I replied that I was not but had been married to one. She then asked if it was a “love marriage”. I had heard this term before but only on the periphery so I had to think a minute as to what she meant before I responded “yes”.
Love marriage is a term used in India to indicate a marriage formed because of love, versus the more traditional arranged marriage which is formed for a variety of reasons: economic, benefit, family ambitions, astrological compatibility and necessity. The term love marriage may seem strange, redundant and archaic to a Westerner because it is our assumption that all marriage is a result of love, or at least the fantasy of love. But this is not the case in India. Except for Mumbai and some of New Dehli where India has become Westernized, arranged marriages are the norm, they are the expected outcome. In fact, arranged marriages are such the norm that many Indians who migrate to the West still go back to India for an arranged marriage.
In Indian cultures, families sacrifice everything for their children, far greater than in Western culture. It is as if the parent’s purpose is only to ensure a good life for their offspring and nothing more. In traditional Indian culture there are clear definitions of good and bad, what you can and can’t do. The result is that most parents feel it is not only expected, but 100% necessary, that marriages are arranged and their offspring comply with their choice.
But times are changing and more and more couples are joining because of love, often with dangerous results. It is the dark underbelly of Indian culture which, although it celebrates love through its gods and goddesses, considers duty to be more important than life itself. It is called honor killings and it is a brutal response to a betrayal of the expected duty. This duty can be to a parent or a husband. Most common it is for choosing who you love.
In parts of India, divorce is not allowed even if the husband is abusing them. Even a woman who is widowed is not allowed to remarry. This burden of marriage falls solely on the shoulders of women because the same rules do not apply to men. Men can remarry after their wife’s death without rebuke. They can even have multiple wives. It is an unfair double standard where a woman can not even be considered worthy of marriage if another man has touched her sexually, never mind have the right to leave an abusive relationship.
This double standard for women in India was brought to international attention after several brutal rapes of women in India. Even in the case of rape, the woman is considered tainted and not worthy of marriage. No other man will have her so it is common for the rape victims to be pressured to marry their attackers as this is their only option of marriage in India’s traditional culture.
It is hard for us in the Western World to understand this aspect of Indian culture which is so obviously unfair. I do not defend or agree with it but I have come to understand it. In traditional India, marriage is the goal of all women. Not being married is not an option. But in the midst of this traditional, even ancient culture, a new mindset is starting to seep in and more and more people are demanding change — change for a culture that rewards men and punishes the victims of rape and change to stop the honor killings.
Enter a group called the Love Commandos — funny name but important work.
I first became aware of them through a news article. They have received a fair amount of press for the good work they do. When a couple comes together for love, against the wishes of their parents, they can not publicly express their love, they can not be together and they need to marry in secret. This is because their families will do everything to prevent their union, from forcing them to marry someone else to beating up them or their loved one and worse. But even when they are finally married, the danger is not over. The anger over their defiance familial duty forces them into hiding as one or both of their families can hunt them down and kill them.
The Love Commandos provides a network of safe passages and safe houses to protect the lovers, much in the same way that the Underground Railroad provided safety to the slaves fleeing servitude in America’s past. It is a wonderful organization but until there is a cultural shift, many will still die as there is not enough resources to help them all.
Before my ex came to the Dominican Republic, he had garnered some attention in Chennai. A body building champion, he was a favorite at his local gym and appeared in several local television commercials. He caught the eye of one particular girl who stepped forward one day and expressed love for him. In his culture you do not date or engage in any kind of romantic contact before marriage. Instead to watch and think until you are ready and then you express your love. So he, only 18 at the time, thought about whether he could love this girl and after a few days decided that he could.
With a decision clear in his mind, he went to the girl’s father to ask for her hand. Even doing this was outside the norm because the correct protocol would have been to ask his parents first but he had always been a bit of a rebel. When he asked the father he was flatly denied. Why you might ask? After all, he was somewhat of a minor celebrity at the time. He was denied because he is Hindu and the girl’s family was Muslim. An interfaith marriage was out of the question.
My ex, who had been considering going to the Dominican Republic to work with a shipping company as an engineer, made up his mind to leave as soon as he was denied by the father. He did feel love for the girl even though he hadn’t known her long and he didn’t care she was Muslim. To Western eyes it is hard to see it as real love, instead of a crush, but for Indians, love comes quickly and is strong and dramatic. He knew he was blocked from being with the girl which made him so angry that he left the country that he loves because he felt that it stifled him.
In this context one can see that when this Indian woman on Facebook asked me if we had a love marriage, it was not a light question. When I answered yes, I could feel her envy. I do not know if she was even married but the envy was of freedom — freedom to choose, freedom to love.