• Arranged marriages have been the norm in my family for generations (with the exception of my parents who had a love match – controversial!). (Stone RF)Source: Stone RF
Watching 'Indian Matchmaking' was bittersweet for me, as it brought back floods of memories of the narrative I was told about arranged marriages growing up, especially around what qualities were important for finding a good match as a woman.
By
Zoya Patel

24 Aug 2020 - 9:39 AM  UPDATED 24 Aug 2020 - 2:28 PM

I was 16 when I first caught the eye of an Indian mother as a potential match for her son. We were in Fiji (my family is Fijian-Indian) for a cousin’s wedding, and a short, squat Indian Aunty came bustling over to where I was standing in front of the house, waiting for a lift to the wedding venue, with her reluctant son in tow.

‘Here beta,’ she said, ‘My son can take you in his car.’

Next thing I knew, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a beat-up sedan next to a nervous and silent twenty-something-year-old guy, with two of my cousins in the backseat (because to go alone would have been improper).

At the time I was nonplussed by her pushiness, but after the same Aunty cornered me at the end of the wedding celebrations to make sure her son said goodbye, I realised that it was finally happening – my stocks had hit the marriage market for our community, and the bidding was getting underway. Aunty was hoping her son would catch the eye of a good, Indian Muslim girl who happened to also live in Australia (a big factor that increased my appeal considerably).

If all had gone well, the next step may have been her connecting with my parents through a mutual acquaintance to make it known she had an eligible son, and discussions would have continued from there.

Many fellow Indian-Australians will be familiar with this process of matchmaking, that has its roots in the tradition of arranged marriages.

Many fellow Indian-Australians will be familiar with this process of matchmaking, that has its roots in the tradition of arranged marriages. Recently, this facet of Indian culture has even reached television screens nationally through the popular Netflix reality show, Indian Matchmaking, that follows a professional matchmaker as she tries to make Indian families happy across India and the diaspora.

Watching the show was bittersweet for me, as it brought back floods of memories of the narrative I was told about arranged marriages growing up, especially around what qualities were important for finding a good match as a woman.

Arranged marriages have been the norm in my family for generations (with the exception of my parents who had a love match – controversial!). For most of my adolescence, my decisions in life were judged around the impact they would have on my future suitability for a good Indian husband.

When I decided to go vegetarian, the chorus from aunts and uncles was ‘Who will marry a vegetarian Muslim? Of course you must serve meat at your wedding!’

When I declared my feminist status, I was told ‘But a good Indian wife has to take care of the home, who will marry you if you’re like this?’

When I declared my feminist status, I was told ‘But a good Indian wife has to take care of the home, who will marry you if you’re like this?’

When I considered my intentions to do postgraduate study, and maybe even a PhD one day, a chorus of aunties in my head clucked ‘What Indian husband wants a woman so educated, especially if she won’t give up her career for children?’

For many Indian women, the burden of making a good match is having to curate your lifestyle and appearance to appeal not to your potential spouse, but to their entire community. I was told I should use lightening cream on my dark skin, laser hair removal on my excess facial hair, and most importantly, to lose weight. Or to put weight on if I was looking too bony. I never managed to get that balance right.

It’s important to note that this mentality didn’t come from my parents – they supported us having arranged marriages, but never forced the issue, which is why I can confirm I am still happily unmarried now. But the broader culture in our Fijian-Indian community was one based on the communal honour to be protected across our family through the matches made in each generation.

Watching Indian Matchmaking, I was pleased to see young people asserting their preferences and choices in the process, even while being dismayed at the matchmaker’s continued reinforcement of the unequal beauty standards and expectations placed on women.

My experience was also that my female relatives were regularly told to be less picky, more compromising, and more compliant when it came to finding a husband, while my male relatives were given free reign to reject women based on looks alone.

I think this will change generationally, and I am hopeful that the positive elements on arranged marriages will survive even as the archaic elements are discarded.

I think this will change generationally, and I am hopeful that the positive elements on arranged marriages will survive even as the archaic elements are discarded. And there are some positive elements. For some young people, making a considered and strategic decision to meet people who are on the same page when it comes to what they’re looking for in a partner is just a smart thing to do – and having your family be part of the process makes sense in a culture where family is fundamental to all decisions.

As for me, the older I’ve gotten the less favourable my outlook in arranged marriage stakes has become. Now in my 30s with no children, still vegetarian, and probably still considered far too ambitious, the proposals haven’t been rolling in – and it’s probably for the best. I was never prepared to make a Good Indian Wife anyway!

Zoya Patel is the author of No Country Woman. You can follow Zoya on Twitter @zoyajpatel.

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