Desi Dating: Read Between the Lines
The opportunities for higher education and career in the recent years have expanded manifold for women in the urban India. This has brought about rise in age at marriage for women. At the same time changes in rules of commensality and connubiality between castes and genders is being observed. Marriage in India is considered a social and economic exchange between two families rather than two individuals tied in the matrimony. Arranged marriages are a tradition in most communities. Construction of a new approach towards marriage is being observed, where parents and children negotiate on finding a mate (Wei, 2007; Medora, 2003). Medora draws attention to semi-arranged marriages where parents screen potential partners for the children and allow them a courtship period to date and determine compatibility. At the same time many young people accept arranged marriage and family involvement in their romantic relationships but also desire to find their own partner and experiment with dating.
Dating in India is a complex phenomenon; it carries differential implications for men and women. Often women who pursue premarital relationships not only risk bringing this honor to the family, but also to reduce their (also those of their siblings’) chances of a good marriage. Often, a hint of a premarital relationship can more over hasten marriage for young women to and not of their choice. Hence, most intriguing relationships are clandestine. Wei (2007) studied young urban middle class professionals in Bangalore supporting their personal and romantic relationships with mobile phones. She explored the interactions of dating couples and their families. According to her marriage is the cornerstone of romantic relationships in India. I use few excerpts from her study to demonstrate how young couples are circumventing cultural traditions and yet reinforcing them; a potential ground for abuse where the line between expectation, demand and coercion is indistinct.
Rohit came to work at GTSC, leaving his home town of Delhi, over 1,000 mile away from Bangalore in the north. His parents keep in close touch with him, and fact, his mother had recently stayed with him for a long visit. He works an overnight shift. A friend from home is staying with him while he looks for a job in Bangalore. When Rohit comes home early in the morning, his friend is getting up to start his day.
Rohit has two mobile phones that he regularly uses: his main Bangalore phone as well as one with Delhi number. The Delhi number is paid for by his parents becaus they have a plan that allows them to call him for free and without roaming costs. He normally carries only The Bangalore phone with him. He reserves the Delhi phon for family calls and a few friends at home to save on the expense for his parents.
Besides these two phones, he also keeps two other mobile handsets on his kitchen counter. He has a handset that he keeps in a basket, a broken Nokia that he has smashed in a fit of rage after a fight on the phone with his on-again, off-again girlfriend who lives in Delhi. The basket also holds a collection of chargers. These four phones were all purchased in the last five months. Rohit said that if I had met him earlier, he could have shown me even more handsets from when he switched from a GSM system to his current CDMA one.
Rohit has been in his on-again, off-again relationship for five years. They are no “off”- she is engaged to another man. This outcome, according to Rohit, suited his parents and his friends who disliked how the two of them fought. After the breakup, Rohit chatted over the computer with a friend about the latest quarrel he had with the girl, and the friend urged him to cancel her mobile subscription (which he was paying for). His friend told him to cancel it right now, “in front of him.” With the support of his friend, Rohit immediately called the mobile company to cancel but was not able to reach anyone. (Wei, 2007 p. 202-3)
This field note excerpt from Wei’s work is an exemplary case of tracing signs of an abuser in the subject Rohit. He has anger issues, in rage he had smashed a mobile phone. In his five years of relationship he has broken up with his girl friend number of times. He is influenced by his friends about how to behave in his relationship. If his girl friend broke up with him in cognizance of his abusive behavior or under pressure from her parents to marry another person is not known. Had this relationship culminated into marriage its future would have been predictable. In the absence of Rohit’s complete life history it is difficult to guess if he was exposed to parent to parent aggression or parent to child aggression but he fits into two of Riggs and O’Leary’s situational models of dating violence. He has friends who support his behavior and he has repeated aggressive behavior in the past. The distinction between expectation (subtle) and demand (explicit) governs the terms of coercion.
In India arranged marriages have been normative in all communities in India, there are rare occurrences of marriages for love. Marriage is social and economic exchange between two families rather than two individuals tied in the matrimony. With changing socio-economic conditions more and more young people are exploring this less traveled path. As more and more women are entering higher education and professions more changes are being observed in the nature of commensality and connubiality. People are dating and marriage is often the unstated goal of romantic relationships.
Some other excerpts from Wei’s work:
“The main barrier though is that his parents are against her, though Kiran is unclear what their reservations are besides that they come from differen communities. Maya frankly realizes she is not a prospective bride because she is not of the same caste. Kiran wants to win his parents over because he will not marry Maya unless his parents approve. This is as much for practical reasons as it is for filial piety. “If parents are against the girl I am married to then I would have to be the ‘point man’ between my wife and family,” which would be uncomfortable. The process of persuading them is challenging partly because he is of marriage-able age, so his parents are “under pressure from their own relatives. Every single day there is a new girl.” (Wei, p. 212)
Kiran, wanted to marry Maya despite his parent’s objections, yet wanted to win over his parents before making any further commitment to her (p. 232). His parents are visiting him so his relationship with Maya has go clandestine at this time. This romantic relationship desirous of matrimony is marred by parental disapproval. The situation can change if the woman in question and her family pay a price for their daughter’s outlandish demand to marry a man of her choice. The nature of expectation and requests would be something as follows:
Kiran: My parents are giving up their right to find me a match so at least they can expect a wedding of their choice.
Maya: My parents are giving up their right too. Even they would like to have a wedding of their own choice.
Kiran: But you should understand I am their only son. You know how many expectations and dreams they have for
their only son’s marriage. Your parents can fulfill their dreams at your brother’s wedding.
Maya: But this is not right.
Kiran: Look, I love you. I am not asking you for any thing all I want is my parent to be happy. They are not asking for a dowry. All they want is a decent wedding and good welcome for their guests.
Maya: Decent wedding means 500 guests. That is too much burden on my parents.
Kiran: Maya, even if your parents would have arranged your wedding they would have spent good amount. So what is the problem here? I want us to be happy. it is just a ritual my parents want to do and it is just a one time thing.
This relationship is exposed to friends and society, woman’s reputation is tied to the man. Breaking this relationship will have social and emotional costs for her. The request is becoming a demand and choices to resist the overbearing pressure are limited. Later in the chapter Maya reveals, “Marriage is an integral part of life. If you have a good partner, your life will be smooth. Divorce is not possible for a girl. I will have to get married.” Wei describes this statement as the belief that females in particular must be married. It suggests that marriage is on the participants’ minds as a necessary and important life stage, something that will occur regardless of exactly when or how it does. This attitude frames their interactions with romantic partners (p. 230). The stage has been set for Maya’s vulnerability. Her choice of spouse can be used against her by her future spouse in either love or arranged marriage as she has transgressed the gender norms. Her prolonged courtship makes her vulnerable to demands for wedding arrangements not conducive to her liking.
Yet another excerpt:
“Ambar met her husband Nikhil in a C++ programming course in Nagpur. They were the only two students left in the course after their classmate dropped out, so the instructor told them to exchanged phone numbers. If one of them could not come to class, they were to call each other and the instructor so that he would know not to come. Nikhil took the opportunity to call Amber every day and talk to her for an hour at a time, even when she was too tired to carry on a phone conversation. At the end of the course, they didn’t have any reason to talk to each other any more. But Nikhil called one more time and proposed to her (making an offer of romantic partnership). Ambar, a beautiful and charming girl, had received so many proposals already, that she thought he was joking and didn’t pay attention. The next time he called, he asked her what she thought of the question he had asked. She didn’t remember what he was talking about.
Eventually they decided to spend time with each other as friends and became romantically involved. During their relationship, Nikhil purchased his first mobile phone and got a pair of SIM cards, one for him and one for her. She already had a handset from her brother as well as a free connection from her employer. He told his family that the paired card was for his chum, Shankar.
She told her family that the card was a free gift from Nikhil (although it cost him Rs. 1,000 INR). They talked to each other 4-5 hours a night for free with these paired SIM cards. Because the calls were free, they would just keep the lines open between them even while going for a drink of water.
His parents were initially suspicious of her because during their C++ course, Nikhil had asked Ambar to call him on the family line at 7 a.m. every day to make sure he made it to class on time. The parents did not understand who this girl was to call so often and so early. Ambar also said his family was traditional, and their girls wore salwar suits [loose-fitting tunic and trousures] while she preferred jeans. She said she won over his parents by dressing up in a sari and jewelry to his brother’s wedding, garnering admiring comments from relatives. After that, they asked Nikhil if he wanted to marry her.” (p-226-227)
The patriarchal expectation from the female partner to assuage the prospective in-laws by adorning traditional garb and behaving demurely is efficiently fulfilled. This was requested or done by Amber on her own either way depicts woman’s attempt to balance tradition and modernity. Over time when this expectation transforms into demand the equation of relationship will change. Some of Wei’s male respondents expressed the desire about the kind of partner they would like to be with. “Ankit described an ideal partner as someone who was not concerned entirely with “cosmopolitan matters. I want a good girl, who is balanced. I want someone who can go to a party and the temple.” Likewise, Abhishek sought a girl who occupied a liminal space, “someone who is open, not too conservative and not way too modern with a ‘model attitude’…A ‘model attitude’ is someone who is working hard but not on the ground or in touch with reality. A conservative attitude is someone who asks for everyone for their opinion.” These desires for partners who can fit in multiple worlds or combine two polar characteristics reflect the realization that they themselves are caught between spaces, says Wei (p. 231). These findings are similar to those of Abraham (2001, p. 142), college going men wanted men to be “simple,” ‘home-loving,” with “compromising nature” being able to “respect elders.” I am left wondering as if these men are signing a package deal, best of both the worlds. What do women expect and get in return? A label- married.
Upadhya (2005) reports unmarried women information technology (IT) professions are less likely to be able to stay in the office till late night, unless there is a pressing need, because they may face objections from parents or in-laws, or social disapproval. Most women IT professionals, said that they would prefer husbands working in IT, because they would be better able to understand the demands of the job. Where as male IT professionals said that they would not prefer to marry women in the same profession. This mismatch between IT women’s and men’s expectations in terms of marriage is symptomatic of the ways in which gender relations are being altered by the entry of women into this new kind of workforce. The eight domains of coercion mentioned by Dutton and Goodman (2005) in which a batterer makes demands, imposes coercion, and strips the victim’s autonomy start emerging here; her personal activities/appearance (e.g. demand to wear certain clothing or hair styles) are subtly controlled. What a woman can wear and do is being dictated by patriarchal expectations that are manifested through intimate actors.
In Wei’s sample working and living away from home are often the personal “firsts’ in the lives of young women. College education and work life has afforded these women new experiences that have implications for their future and families. The transitions in to new adulthood, opportunities to meet non related men and relative emancipation from direct parental supervision are definitely signs of change in society but there is a significant part of social psyche that is struck in patriarchal practices. Violence is linked to the changing power dynamics in the spousal relationship. How men treat women in the newly acquired space and freedom is evident from the new spat of crimes against women, acid attacks, blackmailing and date rapes. The subtlety of coercion is difficult to discern by women and it works in favor of men both individually and collectively.
Wei also exposes how young urban youth maintain their relationships with their families irrespective of long distance via mobile phones. Family ties and obligations are part of their identities. In some case participants call home daily to espouse family members of their availability and assure closeness.
“In some cases, participants used the phone to check in with siblings that they were “responsible” for. For example, Manoj has his sister routinely give him a missed call to let him know when she has arrived to her office elsewhere in Bangalore. They do not live together, but he shows his concern for her well-being and personal safety by asking her to update him on her whereabouts.
Praskash similarly checks in with his brother in Delhi. Even though he is only one-and-half years younger than him, he feels responsible for him and worries because he lives on his own. He talks with his brother three to four times a day to chat or to ask if he has eaten. Ultra-close relationships with their family indicate care about their well-being beyond catching up on news (p-215).
The above excerpt shows defused boundaries between family members. In collectivist communities concept of boundaries is limited to outsiders as families impose restrictions pertaining to commensality between caste, class and religious groups on both male and female members. These restrictions are manifold for women as gender dimension is added to the attributes of their identity and character. This essentially belongs to social/support/family domain of coercion. The incumbent is restricted from seeking support or contact with certain individuals but it is acceptable as it is caste, class, religion or gender appropriate behavior. In future if a spouse makes number of phone calls to check on the female partner about here whereabouts, she’ll find it hard to believe she is being monitored as it will be confused with an expression of love and care also the spouse is ideally supposed to be her the only emotional support she needs. Any attempt to look for emotional or other support outside the spousal relationship is considered scandalous. Women are rarely able to support and sustain female friendships due to vericlocal (at marriage the woman moves to man’s residence) nature of households. Where as, when in-laws prevent a woman from meeting or talking to neighbors she’ll be able to sense the isolation. At the same time men who are over involved in the lives of their siblings and parents demonstrate subtle codependent tendencies. With so much of long distance intermeshing of lives will these men be able to create time and be emotionally available to their spouse in future is questionable. What about the family their members, will they accept their new responsibilities as married men and curtail their demands? A disturbed relation with parents and siblings is one of the signs of abusers frequently mentioned in the research. The nature of IPV in Indian context is familial rather than individualistic. Over involvement with the family of origin is a potential sign of abuser too. Inability to distance themselves from the daily lives of other family members and create a balance with conjugal life often frustrates men and they use this frustration as an excuse to abuse their spouses. Despite appearing to be independent adults living on their own, participants are entwined with their families who still play central roles in their romantic decisions. Love is considered as a potentially dangerous emotion that could disrupt family obligations (Derne, 2000b), even when the marriages are arranged. So if you are dating with an intention to marry this person start reading between the lines. Starting now how much are you willing to give up?
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Derne, Steve. “The (Limited) Effect of Cultural Globalization in India: Implications for Culture Theory.” Poetics 33 (2005): 33-47.
Dutton, Mary Ann, Lisa Goodman and James R. Schmidt. “Development and Validation of a Coercive Control Measure for Intimate Partner Violence in Boston, Massachusetts and Washington, DC.” National Institute of Justice. 2004 < http://dx.doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR04570>
Medora, N. (2003), “Mate Selection in Contemporary India: Love Marriages Versus Arranged Marriages” in Mate Selection across Cultures edited by R.R. Hamon and B. B. Ingoldsby, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Riggs, David S. and K. Daniel O’Leary. “Aggression Between Hetrosexual Dating Partners: An Examination of a Causal Model of Courtship Aggression.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 11 (1996) 519-40.
Wei, Carolyn Y. “Mobile Hybridity: Supporting Personal and Romantic Relationships with Mobile Phones in Digitally Emergent Spaces.” Diss U of Washington, 2007. URL: http://scarlethamster.com/research/dissertation.html (March 28, 2007).