In Defense of Arranged Marriages

In the 2009 film “Arranged” two women from distinctly different backgrounds become close friends as they navigate their work and personal lives. A defining similarity? They are both going through the process of having arranged marriages.

Nasira is a young Muslim teacher from a Syrian family. As a conservative Muslim woman she lives with her family and wears the hijab. A colleague of hers, Rochel, is from an orthodox Jewish family. As an orthodox Jew, she too lives with her family and keeps both faith and cultural traditions.  They are in their first year as teachers at a  public school in Brooklyn.

The film challenges the viewer to consider their bias to conservative expression of faith as well as to arranged marriages.  The two women are smart, beautiful, and passionate about their work. In the eyes of the principal, a seasoned educator, they have just one flaw: they are conservative. “Look at you!” She says in one interaction. ‘You’re beautiful. You’re my best teachers…. but…this” and she waves her arms toward their clothing and the hijab; “What’s going to happen? In a year or two I’ll lose you (Nasira) to the mosque and you (Rochel) to Yeshiva school!….There was a woman’s movement! I was in it” Her meaning is clear and one can see the two victims become increasingly uncomfortable with her blatant disdain and disregard for their life choices. It leaves the viewer uncomfortable as well. The principal is a professional at a diverse inner city school in Brooklyn – surely she has confronted differing belief systems. One realizes as they are drawn further into the film that she is extremely open-minded and tolerant – except in matters of conservative expressions of faith. The tolerance becomes intolerance.

I have known about arranged marriages since I knew the meaning of the word ‘marriage’. Most Pakistanis that I knew had arranged marriages. As I got older it was my friends who had arranged, and wonderful marriages. There were Samuel and Mariam; Reuben and Martha; Elizabeth and Cedric and far more. These marriages were healthy unions that reflected commitment and a growing love.

What I think the west doesn’t comprehend is the difference between the words “arranged” and “forced”. An arranged marriage is a marriage where the union of two people is agreed upon by other members of the family. In arranged marriages both parties consent to the marriage. This tradition has been in play since Biblical times. It’s a recent western phenomenon that has bought into “love” marriages. The arranged marriage recognizes that a successful marriage demands family support on both sides.

By contrast a “forced” marriage is a marriage in which one of the parties does not consent to the marriage for what could be a variety of reasons, but is married anyway against their will. It is crucial to recognize these differences – consent in a forced marriage is absent (and often the situations are extreme) while in an arranged marriage consent is considered a vital part of the process.

Consider this story of two of our friends.To protect their identities I’ll call them Sadia and Mahmud. They are both educated, he with a master’s degree and she as a medical doctor. He is Pakistani but was raised outside of Pakistan in boarding school. She was raised in a large city in Pakistan and went to medical school, becoming a successful psychiatrist. On a trip to Pakistan, one of Mahmud’s sisters had told him about Sadia.  She mentioned that she was lovely and that she though Mahmud should think about her as a future wife. Mahmud pursued this, through his parents and her parents. He began speaking on the phone to her, long calls where they talked about everything. The formalities began and a short time later the couple had an engagement party. They did not date, they did not kiss, they did not hold hands before getting married. This couple has now been married for over sixteen years. They are happy, they are successful, and they love each other deeply.

Contrast this with today’s traditional love marriage. As young men and women get to college age they are encouraged to explore their sexuality. That may mean one encounter, or it may mean fifty. It is the choice of the individual. Often after college they may find someone that they feel they really love. Wanting to be careful, after all many have seen the death of the marriage of their parents, they decide to live together to make sure they are compatible. For many in the west, it may be safe to say the majority, the idea that you could get married without first testing out sexual compatibility is, in a word, unthinkable. But let’s be clear – In the words of my friend Cathy “it’s a social experiment”. This cultural pattern is less than thirty years old and the the data is not promising. Here are a couple of statistics about living together:

  • Research indicates that people who live together prior to getting married are more likely to have marriages that end in divorce. The Boston Herald
  •  A recent study on cohabitation concluded that after five to seven years, only 21 percent of unmarried couples were still living together. ” The Boston Herald
  • 55 percent of cohabitating couples get married within five years of moving in together. Forty percent of couples who live together break up within that same time period. Annual Review of Sociology

A key difference between arranged marriages and love marriages is that in an arranged marriage love takes second place. The marriage is a contractual agreement made for economic and societal reasons. Intrinsic in the arranged marriage is the idea that love can grow. It may not be present on the wedding day but at heart, marriage is an act of commitment and as such will produce love.

So before we point a finger of judgment on arranged marriages, it seems like it may be wise to look at the three fingers pointing in.  Both arranged and love marriages take two imperfect, flawed humans and ask them to do something that demands a courage and commitment beyond human understanding until death parts them. That is one thing both can agree on.

But there’s another thing at play here, and it is glaringly obvious in the movie “Arranged”. It may be important to ask why it irritates people so much when a person decides to live out conservative values? It’s beyond believe-ability.  The intolerance from the tolerant is clearly something to be researched and dissected because it defies logic.

31 thoughts on “In Defense of Arranged Marriages

  1. I think you are romanticising this.

    As a European woman married to a Pakistani man (not an arranged marriage) I have seen a lot of arranged marriages – the very happy facade they carefully maintain and the blackmail, disdain and psychological abuse that happens behind closed doors, when only family is watching.

    Divorced women are stigmatised in such ways that their parents might refuse to take them back, making them homeless and often driving them to begging in the streets. Children are also often kept in the husband’s family, so not only lose a lot of women a place to stay and food to eat but also their children. Would you want to push for a divorce under such circumstances?

    I have seen women suffer in silence while their husbands go off to a different region or a different country and have another wife and children there, treating the wife he only married to be respectful to his parents with disregard at best. I see both parties as victims – neither the groom nor the bride can easily deny the wishes of their family without losing face, which would be a social disaster.

    @Cathy – Be careful what you wish for. I have two daughters and in a few years I might have to start fighting such plans coming from my family-in-law.

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    1. Hi Nicky – first off, thanks so much for reading and for commenting. You bring up some good points, some of them similar to what Averil says below. I think I come from the perspective of watching people that don’t have a clue about arranged marriages criticize without thought of what their own societal problems are despite love marriages. But just as I perhaps paint the picture as too rosy, do you paint the picture as too grim? I will stand by the number of marriages that are successful as arranged and also stick to the fact that the west doesn’t have a market on success when it comes to relationships.

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  2. I think the distinction that you made between arranged and forced marriages is such an important one. Many families who arrange marriages keep in mind their children’s feelings and give them a say in it… I think its very hard for some people in the west to find people who they would like to spend the rest of their lives with. Is there really any difference between an arranged marriage and friends and family playing matchmaker and introducing their children or siblings to prospective spouses at bbqs? It has always bothered me this ‘western’ habit of pouring scorn on anyone who has strong religious believes. The most self-proclaimed tolerant people are more often than not, highly intolerant of anyone who has any kind of belief system that opposes their own!

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  3. I agree with your mom Marilyn. The best marriages are indeed those arranged by God :-).

    Living in India, my maternal grandparents fell in love and got married. All their children, save one did the same. But here, in India, arranged marriages are the norm, and unfortunately you often get to see the ugly side of the tradition rearing its head. Marriages here are arranged based on religion, caste, sub-caste, and class, apart from the other social and conventional norms that come into play… including the demanding and giving of huge dowries. An offence according to the law, but then many families would much rather fall into penury and pay rather than have their daughters stay unmarried.

    Defiance by young couples (falling in love with a person of one’s own choice) in many circumstances, especially among certain communities doesn’t just lead to ostracism from the community, but death, dictated by families eager to preserve their honour or by village elders with scant regard for the laws of the land. With local politicians and the police often colluding with the families to cover up the deaths.

    And having worked as a divorce lawyer for a while, I can say with certainty that arranged marriages no longer boast the success rate they once claimed. Perhaps it’s due to women finally coming into their own and having a say in their own lives, at least in urban areas. In many situations though women are compelled to stay in loveless and often abusive marriages with no recourse, as leaving their marital home is often viewed as shameful.

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    1. This is a really good perspective Averil and it’s clear you have seen this in action. Do you classify some of this as forced marriages or do you feel like it’s the dark side to what can be a good practice or bad, depending on the circumstances both within the family and outside in society. I would love to hear more from you. A guest post??

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  4. In the States where there is no mainstream social context for parental involvement in dating choices, some people are beginning to arrange their own marriages through dating sites like eHarmony. People for whom the “love at first sight” plan did not work are seeing their friends in happy marriages that they have entered into deliberately with the goal of marriage, and they are saying to themselves, “Why not be proactive about this? How can I find someone who has marriage in mind, who is compatible with me, and who I like enough to pursue a relationship with?” My pastor husband is impressed with the engaged eHarmony couples who he meets. I work with college students, and I would recommend it to graduating seniors who want to marry but have not met the right person yet. (No, I do not work for eHarmony; I simply know several couples who met through the site!:) One thing that is helpful for religiously conservative people is that they can make their convictions clear from the beginning of the process of meeting someone; they don’t run the risk of meeting someone, getting a huge crush on them, and then realizing they have conflicting views on sex before marriage, the role of faith in their lives, or whether they want to have children.

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    1. Someone just made the same observation about online sites. The amount of information they glean (I’ve heard – don’t know from experience) is significant and so you really know a lot before you finally meet. We’ve known a few people who have met online and are in very happy marriages. Glad you brought this piece up.

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  5. thank you for putting this topic into context.
    Some weeks back I became aware of where Maldives stood with divorce rate… Maldives been a fast paced society embracing development and western trends in a fast pace … has all sorts of social phenomenas occuring around us.
    I was trying to write my mind around that topic to really understand what how and why we top the world list on divorce and how this figure is not really reflective of maldivian relationships per se compared to developed countries with low divorce rates … as there is no marriage in the first place … there is a lot of “living in together” … but of course I do understand I cannot generalise this concept to all countries and all parts… but nonetheless it disturbed me a bit :)
    https://mindblur.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/divorce-or-breakup/

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  6. I just watched this movie last week, Marilyn, and enjoyed it so much. It reminded me of how similar the “conservative” and “liberal” ends of each religion are–there’s often more sympathy among those circles than between adherents of the same faith with different interpretations. Watching Nasira support Rochel and go the extra mile to see her happy made me want to cheer.
    It’s interesting to read all the mother-comments posted here ;) ; lots of wisdom to glean. I have to say that one of the humorous undertones in “Arranged” seems to be that, no matter how you go about looking for a compatible mate, sorting through the “options” can be a discouraging and hilarious process!
    “A husband is not to look at! A husband is to get!” -Fiddler

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    1. I love that quote that you ended with! Wow – it’s nice to be answering comments on arranged marriage instead of Komen!! I loved the movie as well. The part that I quoted from is one of the best clips on ethnocentrism that I’ve seen on film. I agree with the humorous side – do you remember My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the dad finds out she’s dating and immediately starts bringing all kinds of men to the house? It’s a bit like that. Thanks for commenting and glad for another fan of the film.

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  7. I loved the movie, one of my all time favourites, so did the girls. Gosh we come from such a family of mixed love marriages. I know my husband swept me off my feet and we were married a few days later and with all our ups and downs have been married 26 years.
    What i would like for my girls is a balance of both. A mate from a similar background, well educated, cultured, but most of all caring, respectful and spiritual.I have tried to give them the best of the East and West and I would love them to marry men who too had that balance. I would also love them to experience the love and romance and the feeling of being swept off as their parents, aunts, uncles and both sets of grandparents have experienced.
    For both my father and father in law, it was love at first sight when they saw the girls their families had chosen for them and a deep abiding love it was.
    Yes Mom I once more bow to your wisdom “The best marriages are those arranged by God” The marriage in which two families unite as well as two individuals meet and complement as well as complete each other. A union of love and harmony and peace. Like the Quran says when mentioning the signs of God
    And among His Signs Is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquillity with them,and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts)
    As God is the best arranger of marriages so i pray to Him a lot to send the right person.. for the elder one first of course. :)

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    1. Me too Pari (I mean favorites!) I love hearing your story and would love to hear more about that “sweeping off your feet” piece. I totally agree with what you want for your girls – that’s exactly what I long for. Well said. and always in prayer to God, that great arranger.

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  8. I loved that movie, Marilyn. I think I especially liked it because it paired a Muslim woman and a Jewish woman, and the inner workings of their families. And the school principal, who thought herself so tolerant and broadminded, but couldn’t stand their conservative dress. Doesn’t it end with the two of them walking their babies in strollers together?
    Yes, there is a lot to be said in favor of arranged marriages, but as i used to say in conversations about marriage with my Pakistani friends, “Only God can arrange a really good marriage!”

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    1. I love that about the film as well. Dan and Carol first told me about the film and I bought it after seeing it to use in workshops. The scene I partially quote from in the post is a perfect clip to use as an example of ethnocentrism. But what I really love is the wisdom from your last sentence! So true – thanks.

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  9. Just yesterday in my ESL class I had to explain the term “going out”. The question was “How long have Bob and Susan been going out?” I explained that in America a young man and a young woman “go out” together to movies or the mall or wherever. Usually in groups at first. Then if they like each other they continue to go out and eventually it could lead to marriage. I added that as a mother I was not often comfortable when my daughters would “go out” with someone new. It convicted me as I vocalized this while looking at the two precious ladies from Iraq sitting across the table from me that their arranged marriages were perhaps the better way of doing things. In fact, I think I would love to arrange my daughters marriages!

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    1. Cathy – thanks for sharing this. I know exactly what you mean by being convicted as you’re explaining something! That’s exactly how I have felt and I really felt that way during this writing process. I’m a public health nurse as well and thinking about the way the west goes about this from a public health point of view is disturbing. I hear what you’re saying about arranging your daughters marriages! Thanks so much for adding to the conversation.

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  10. Love this post Marilyn!! I have had many conversations on this topic with folks and I so wish we looked at marriage this way in the US. I watched friends of mine walk through this process as well and I learned so much from them about commitment, community and covenants. It doesn’t sound very romantic but in fact it was a very beautiful journey, and it was an honor to be a part of their process.

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    1. I’m so glad to hear this Lisa. I think taking a step back and really thinking about what these two significantly different approaches to marriage mean is eye-opening. A challenge to the lens through which we see the world. I would love to hear more from you!

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