When I think about Indian weddings, I always imagined a lavish, Bollywood-esque celebration of dance, color, and joy. So when I was invited to my hostel’s security guard’s daughter’s wedding (so random, I know) on just my fourth day in India, I immediately said yes. How could I pass up on seeing the ultimate celebration of love in another country?
We drove about an hour out of Jaipur to a rural deserted piece of farmland, driving through dark fields and small dirt alleys, passing farmers, goats, and cows, and getting seemingly very lost. And then we turned the corner and saw a huge tent, with twinkling lights and lanterns hanging from it, the dull sound of Indian pop music growing louder as we approached.
When I stepped inside, I was immediately swarmed with people asking to take selfies with me. Even in just my first four days in India, I had already gotten used to people staring and asking for photos, but I felt so uncomfortable being the center of attention at someone else’s wedding– especially someone who I had never met before!! I was crossing my fingers that the bride and groom would arrive soon so the attention would be off of me and I could actually relax.
When they finally arrived, a crowd immediately formed, full of excited chatter, everyone peering over each other’s shoulders to get a glimpse of the bride. And there she was, finally: The most gorgeous bride I’d ever seen, dressed in a sparkling red sari and matching red lipstick. Everyone was chattering about how beautiful she was and then I looked at her face to see how she was feeling: Nervous? Excited? In love?
She just looked so… unhappy. She wavered between looking like she was holding back tears to just being furious.
I asked the hostel owner who had invited me what was wrong, and he matter-of-factly explained that this was the first time she had ever met her husband.
I never realized just how naive I was until this moment. I had read about arranged marriages before, and my dad’s coworkers who I have met many times are a product of an arranged marriage, and are happily in love with an adorable baby. However, they had months to get to know each other after their parents introduced them before finally tying the knot, and I had naively just assumed that that was the way it was done now.
Learning that this was the first time the bride and groom met completely floored me. There are certain values I have that are deeply engrained into who I am and everything I do, and my passion for and belief in gender equality is one of them. Just a few months ago, I drove ten hours to march for my beliefs along with hundreds of thousands of other women at the Women’s March on Washington, and last summer I interned in Uganda for a women’s microfinance organization, where one of my primary tasks was organizing community programs to address the issues of gender violence and domestic abuse in the village. I have always fought for what I believed in, and always spoken up when I know that something is wrong.
But here I was, in a different country on a different continent on a random rural farm surrounded by people I didn’t know, watching a beautiful young women be given away to a man she met an hour ago, and there was nothing I could do about it. I had to swallow everything I believed in right then, and accept that certain things are simply out of my control. I could have been upset, but what purpose would that serve? My feelings that this was unjust was not going to break down thousands of years of global gender inequity and history of arranged marriages in one night, and certainly weren’t going to stop this wedding, or the next one, or the next one after that. So I put a smile on my face, and joined in on hours of eating, drinking, selfies, and then more eating. I danced barefoot under the stars until 3am, as the bride’s eyes welled up in tears as she exchanged vows, promising to spend eternity with a stranger.
After a beautiful, fascinating, but slightly unsettling night, I reflected the next day on this wedding with the other interns at work, who are all Indian MBA students. They explained that while it is uncommon in urban areas for a couple to not meet before they marry, in rural areas, the children face so much more pressure to go along with who their parents think would be a good match for them, with some daughters being unable to refuse. The matter-of-fact way in which they explained modern arranged marriages, where typically parents introduce their children and then they can spend time together and mutually decide if they are a good fit, actually began to make more sense to me in theory, since your immediate family members and parents are usually some of the people who know you the best. But what struck me the most was how this whole concept of arranged marriages just contrasts so sharply with the Western idea of what falling in love and marriage means, this fairy tale-like romance that is perpetuated by romantic comedies and novels. My conversation with my coworkers helped me understand that in India, valuing practicality, family, commitment, and life-long partnership outweigh the emphasis on romance and soul mates that is so common in the US.
This was the first time that I actually thought seriously about the concept of marriage, reflecting on how lucky I am to have the agency to choose who to marry, when to marry, and if I even want to get married at all. This choice was something I’ve always taken for granted, jokingly saying to friends how I’ll never want to settle down and end up a crazy old woman with ten cats. I never realized how privileged I am to have the option to be independent and have my own identity, and this experience opened my eyes in ways I am truly grateful for. These reflections in no way are meant to be offensive, and while arranged marriages are not present in the US in the same way they are in India, women’s lack of agency and ability to make independent choices manifests itself in a variety of ways in India, the US, and all around the world. My challenge moving forwards is accepting these cultural differences and variety of beliefs in regards to gender, accepting what I cannot change, and fighting as hard as I can for the things I can change. I am honored to have been a part of this wedding, and I wish nothing but the best for the bride and groom.