Carnegie Mellon University

A bride and groom holding hands at a traditional Indian wedding

January 30, 2018

Marian Aguiar Aims to Rearrange How We See Traditional Unions in “Arranging Marriage”

By Daniel Hirsch

Some years ago in a London bookstore, Marian Aguiar made a simple observation. She noticed shelves filled with books about arranged marriage— there were paperback romances, memoirs, self-help and novels by South Asian feminist authors.

This preponderance of material led Aguiar, associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, to eventually author “Arranging Marriage: Conjugal Agency in the South Asian Diaspora,” a cultural studies book which examines the transnational discourse around arranged marriage as it appears in literature, film, pop culture, policy, and the law. Since she started her research for the book, out now by University of Minnesota Press, Aguiar says arranged marriage has only become more ubiquitous.

“It’s everywhere,” Aguiar said. “In this moment where it seems that so many of us have so much choice, due to technological and social change, I find it fascinating that there’s this tremendous interest in arranged marriage.”

Aguiar, who also teaches the course Love: A Cultural History, suspects that the uptick of interest in arranged marriage is related to the plethora of choice more and more people have when picking a spouse.

In recent years, there’s been an explosion of “Ladki Lit,” the South Asian  equivalent of so-called “chick-lit,” featuring arranged marriage stories which have topped bestseller lists in the UK. Couples forged from arranged marriage are showing up in the “Vows” section of the New York Times. Meet the Patels, a documentary about Indian American comedian Raavi Patel’s relationship to arranged marriage, has screened at film festivals. Novelists like Jhumpa Lahiri and Nadeem Aslam garnered international acclaim for work that dealt with the subject.

“My book focuses on the South Asian Diaspora in the United States, Canada and the UK, and the way this practice has survived and changed,” Aguiar said. “It’s about trying to differentiate arranged marriage in politics and society because, like any tradition, it means different things at different times.”

In “Arranging Marriage,” Aguiar hopes to unpack some of the preconceived ideas about arranged marriage. However, this is a challenging proposition given its intimate ties to so many people’s lives and families—including her own extended family in South Asia. (Aguiar’s father comes from India.)

Marian Aguiar Arranging marriage cover

“There can be a real defensiveness about arranged marriage in South Asian communities,” Aguiar said. “Either people feel like they don’t want to be defined by stereotypes of the custom or they’re defensive about the practice itself, saying ‘it’s not that bad.’”

For Westerners, particularly feminists, Aguiar believes the practice can be perceived as oppressive and denying women agency—a perception Aguiar can appreciate. In the preface to her book, she describes unhappy arranged unions she’s personally encountered, ones in which women she’s known, but also men, have felt trapped or confined.

“Certainly arranged marriages can be very violent,” Aguiar said. “I explore the relationship between violence against women and patriarchy in the name of community.”

Several chapters in the book analyze an increasingly popular genre of memoirs by women who have been in forced marriage—“Shame” by Jasvinder Sanghera and “Disgraced” by Saira Ahmed are two titles popular in the UK. Aguiar’s book details how legal measures have seen forced marriages as unions formed without consent and tried to distinguish these from arranged marriage. Against such a clear opposition, Aguiar argues that notions of consent are complex when there’s issues of family expectation, economic pressure, and gender roles at play.

Critics have picked up on the timely nature of this distinction.

“Aguiar locates arranged marriage on a spectrum between coercion and choice,” writes Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, global distinguished professor at New York University, in early praise for the book.

Aguiar says her aim is to “explore this traditional women’s practices with a feminist lens,” but in doing so, she also wants to uncover “all the nuance and agency, diversity, and choice within that tradition and the way those factors are in turn shaped by social, political, and economic forces.”

As Aguiar argues, arranged marriage is many things. It’s a vital tool for economic migration; it’s a way to cohere group identity, especially when that group is a marginalized immigrant one; it’s an explosive symbol for politicians setting immigration policy. As such, her book is not about adjudicating whether arranged marriage is good or bad, it’s about understanding the institution’s transnational complexity.

Aguiar found herself constantly surprised by the variety of arranged unions and cultural representations.

She encountered an infamous matrimonial ad in India in which a mother seeks a husband for her gay son. She was surprised that even for this non-traditional arrangement the ad read just like any other matrimonial ad with very traditional language about community and family.

In her analysis of representations, Aguiar found Western depictions and attitudes about arranged marriage often depended on the country of origin of the bride and groom in question. Western media was often more celebratory about Indian arranged marriages while marriages from Pakistan and Bangladesh faced more scrutiny and suspicion, a bias she ascribes to cultural stereotyping and Islamaphobia.

And, surprisingly often, she encountered second generation South Asian immigrants, who had choice when it came to picking a spouse, expressing desire for an arranged marriage.

For some, arranged marriage means a connection to tradition and homeland. For others, it’s an economic relationship to obtain visas or domestic labor. For others, it’s a fundamental step in forming a lifelong partnership and eventually love.

Aguiar hopes readers of her book will appreciate all those angles and nuance because, as she explained, “when you just call it tradition, you miss all these other things going on.”