A village panchayat (council) in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state has officially banned “love marriages,” thus officially putting into place the promotion of arranged marriage – a practice that is widespread in India anyway.
Under the diktat, married couples who wedded for love (that is, those who refused to subject themselves to matrimony arranged by their parents or other relatives) will be forbidden from entering in or living in the predominantly Muslim village of Asara in the Baghpat district, about 50 miles north of Delhi.
The council has also imposed several other restrictions on women, including a ban on females below the age of 40 going shopping by themselves and a prohibition on any women using mobile phones in public. The village elders have also demanded that all women cover their heads in public.
Council members told Indian media that such restrictions are necessary to protect women from bad elements in society, including aggressive men.
Sattar Ahmed, a village elder, told an Indian newspaper that love marriages are a shame on society.
It is very painful for the parents, specially the girl's family, because such marriages dent their respectability, he said.
In fact, the Mail Today newspaper reported that villagers largely accepted the panchayat’s rulings.
Mobile phones are a curse, especially for girls. I would have been [happier] if the panchayat had completely banned girls from using mobile phones, a villager named Tarun Chaudhary told the paper.
Panchayats, which typically comprise a group of unelected male elders, cannot legally enforce their orders according to Indian laws; however, in the confines of small, remote villages they carry great authority.
Police are investigating the council’s orders, while government figures have expressed their outrage.
Police must act against anyone issuing such diktats. If anyone takes action against any young man or woman based on illegal village courts, then they must be arrested, said India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram at a press conference, adding that such measures have no place in a democratic society.
“If such a diktat is being issued in Bhagpat, I would expect the state government to instruct the police authorities to ensure that nobody comes to harm for violating that diktat,” he said.
“That diktat has no legal authority and if anybody takes any action against a boy or girl saying that you are violating the diktat, action should be taken against the person who is trying to enforce these illegal codes of conduct.”
Womens right groups have also condemned the Asara council.
This notion that women up to the age of 40 need protection and need to be controlled is extremely chauvinistic and undermines all basic norms, said Sudha Sunder Raman, general-secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association.
Why are the restrictions on women only? Why doesn't the panchayat stop men from visiting the weekly market instead of women? asked Shaista Amber, president of the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board, according to The Times of India.
If men are kept away, the atmosphere will be equally secure for women at the market.”
Despite this “enforcement” of arranged marriages (and other similar measures) in the village of Asara, the practice remains widespread in India, across all religions, ethnic groups and social classes.
Arranged marriages (which are distinct from “forced marriage”) remains common even among the vast Indian Diaspora community in the UK, Canada and Great Britain and elsewhere.
Indeed, British politicians, who have sought to ban the practice of forced marriages in the UK, take great pains to emphasize that they have no problems with arranged marriages.
While India has catapulted itself into one of the world’s most vibrant economies in the world (coincident with increased freedoms and opportunities for women), there does not appear to be any mass opposition towards arranged marriages.
It is true that among the educated urban elite, young Indian men and women are increasingly aping Western behavioral norms – i.e., dating, drinking alcohol, engaging in sex before marriage, but a surprising number of Indian youths actually prefer having their parents choose their life partners for them.
Indians who advocate the practice point to soaring divorce rates in the west (in the U.S. nearly one-half of all marriage end in break-up), while a minuscule number of Indian matrimonial unions end in devoice – just 1.1 percent, according to government statistics.
UNICEF’s Human Rights Council estimates that a whopping 90 percent of all marriages in India are arranged.
In a blog called ‘The Ying and Yang of Life in India,’ a woman wrote: “Just because the country has opened up to the West and just because of global mass media and communications, it doesn’t mean that centuries of tradition can or will become undone, especially when it comes to such life-altering decisions [as marriage]… even in the [urban areas], arranged marriages continue to rule the roost.”
A survey taken in 2009 by a matchmaking website called Bharatmatrimony indicated that almost 50 percent of young Indian women wanted their marriages arranged by their parents; while only 18 percent favored the “love marriage” route. The remaining respondents favored a hybrid between an”arranged” marriage and one based on love.
Arranged marriages remain the norm across Asia and the Middle East and other parts of the globe, so much so that UNOCEF estimates that more than half (55 percent) of all marriages across the world are done through arrangements – suggesting that India is actually not so unusual in this respect at all.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.