Allow me to introduce you to Leewin Nainan, another colleague of mine. His family is from Kerala, India and today he is turning 31 years old. Leewin is funny, intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful, easy-going, handsome and nice to his mother. He’s interesting, sporty and sociable. He’s also really good at his job (which is to provide assistance and support to the air traffic controllers at Al Maktoum International Airport). Working with him is a real pleasure as he’s very switched on – which makes my job a lot easier. Leewin (pronounced LEE-ven) is currently single and well, to be honest, he’s quite a catch!
Does what I’ve written so far sound like a single’s ad? Well, it kind of is. You see, Leewin is looking for a wife. Hang on, that’s not quite right. It’s Leewin’s family that are looking for a wife for him. Yep, Leewin is in the market for an arranged marriage.
Now, before I go on, I want to emphasise that not all marriages arranged by family are for the greater good. Often, a young bride is betrothed against her will to a man as payment or reward or some other, less than savoury, reason. I think everyone would agree that this is wrong. But it would also be wrong to condemn arranged marriages on the basis of these incidents. They are not the same thing and it’s not what I’m discussing here.
OK, so let me tell you a bit more about Leewin. He was born and raised in Dubai to Indian parents. Mum, Saramma, was a nurse. Dad, Nainan, worked for the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA). He has one brother and one sister, both older. After graduating from high school, Leewin enrolled in a Bachelor of Commerce degree at a local university. Sadly, in 1999, just six months into Leewin’s degree his father passed away and it was left to Leewin to support the family, meaning that he had to drop out of school (it was decided that it would make more sense for his older brother, who was in his final year of university, to finish his degree). Leewin was able to get a job with DCA through his Dad’s connections and over the years he has gained experience in several different areas within the department. His current role as an air traffic control assistant rounds off this experience, putting him in the unique position of having a broad overview of the entire system. Coupled with his intelligence and ambition, I have no doubt that he’ll be very successful.
The pressure to get married started when Leewin was 25 years old. But at that stage it was just gentle, nudging encouragement. After all, his older brother had just married so there was no real rush. Family members were just interested to know when he too would start looking for a wife. Leewin, however, was in the first flush of romance with a girl he’d been friends with for a few years. He was more interested in exploring that relationship than thinking about getting married. Unfortunately though, it was doomed from the beginning as Leewin is Christian and his girlfriend was Muslim. Neither of their families approved of the relationship because of their different religious beliefs.
Naturally, the topic of marriage was raised during the three years they were together, however in the end the pressure exerted by their families became too great and they broke up. He was not welcome at her house, and if she wanted to spend time with him she had to lie to her family about where she was. Leewin and his girlfriend loved each other but the strain just got too much and they decided to call it quits. He’s been single for the last two years.
Over the years, the pressure to get married has intensified. When Leewin turned 30 however, it escalated to the point where he was no longer being asked to get married, but being told. He’s not too happy about that, but he is a good son and feels obligated to fulfil the wishes of his mother and their extended family. If he refuses he risks being disowned and outcast, bringing shame on his mother. It’d be considered a selfish act and the entire clan would be disappointed and humiliated. So, he has agreed to go along with it. His brother, who also now lives in Dubai, immediately sprang into action and registered Leewin to a number of matrimonial websites (check out www.m4marry.com to get an idea), the marriage equivalent of “online dating”. The same premise applies. You advertise yourself – your age, height, build, education, religion, profession, hobbies and interests. And you can also specify what you are looking for in a prospective partner. The only difference is that the “first date” does not involve the guy and girl meeting over coffee, or a candlelit dinner. Instead, they meet accompanied by both families. And as opposed to the Western version, talking about marriage and babies on a first date is NOT considered a social faux pas. It is, in fact, encouraged.
So, whilst Leewin has acquiesced to his family’s demands that he actively search for a wife, he is steadfast in his determination that he do it his way. He was not raised in the small town of Pathanapuram, Kerala with the attendant small town mentality. He’s big-city, born and bred, and he’s been exposed to big city ideas, influenced by the modern, Western world. So the woman he weds must also have the same liberal viewpoint (otherwise it couldn’t work, right?). He’s insistent that the first meeting between him and the girl be arranged by the two of them, without any interference from her family. Also, he’d like to meet the girl without their entourages, over a coffee or perhaps lunch. This, to most people I know, seems perfectly reasonable. However, the culture that Leewin is from deems it unacceptable.
Leewin has kindly shown me the profiles of a couple of the girls that have taken his fancy on the m4marry.com website. But so far, he hasn’t had much luck. When (as is customary) his brother made the initial, introductory phone call to the parents of one of the girls, they rejected his request for Leewin to contact her directly. As far as Leewin is concerned, that’s instant disqualification. He doesn’t want to marry into a family so restrictive. His brother approached the family of another girl who’d caught Leewin’s eye but they rejected him because, even though he is Christian, he is not a “born again” Christian. Huh? It seems that the girls out there (or, more likely, their parents) are extraordinarily picky and demanding. Fair enough – but sometimes their demands are unreasonable. Almost all require that the future groom be university educated with the majority insisting on at least a Masters. That’s fine. But when they demand that the guy’s parents also be educated to this level, it’s not only silly but eliminates a lot of hopefuls (Leewin being one of them). The irony is that a great many of these “desirably educated” men will end up as bank clerks, while Leewin (who only has a high school diploma) will almost certainly be successful at whatever he puts his mind to. Ultimately though, he’s not bothered by the extreme conditional requirements as it simply buys him more time as a free man.
Leewin is not alone in his enforced quest to find a wife. All his friends around his age are also now being “persuaded” to marry. One friend recently went back home to Kerala to meet a girl that his parents had lined up. After the meeting he told his family he’d need time to think about it but they told him that the girl’s parents had given him only two days to decide. When those two days were over, his parents asked him again what he thought of her and he told them that she seemed nice. Unbeknownst to him they took this to mean that he approved and they started proceedings for the marriage to go ahead. By the time he found out, it was too late to back out. The engagement ceremony is scheduled for this month and he is getting married in January. He hopes that his quickly formed assessment of his future wife is accurate. Too bad if it’s not. (Incidentally, he found out afterwards that the reason her family had wanted an answer so quickly was that if he hadn’t been interested, they had another guy waiting in the sidelines. If you think the Western dating scene is a meat market, you ain’t seen nothing!)
At a recent gathering of people he’s known since he was a child, Leewin was told by one older gentleman that if he wanted to attract a wife he would have to cut his hair (which he’s actually growing long). His reply of “I don’t want to marry any of your daughters, so what do you care?” didn’t go down too well. But the incident demonstrates that if his own people are so willing to judge him on the way he looks, any young woman’s family are likely to do the same. If they can’t get past the long hair, they’ll never find out about his character, which is above reproach. And unfortunately, the arranged marriage process allows for only a perfunctory (and thus shallow) examination of a potential partner’s attributes. Looks, education and interests are usually considered just a starting point where I come from. It’s then normal to take the time to actually learn more about that person before committing to marrying them. But in Leewin’s world, it is these characteristics which decide whether a marriage will go ahead or not. Learning about your partner occurs after the wedding.
Is there any way of saying which is the better method for forming a union between two people? It depends on your definition of a successful marriage. If it is to join two families together, and to further develop and strengthen that coupling by having children, then arranged marriages probably make a lot of sense – you aren’t just marrying one person but their entire family. If, however, your notion of a successful marriage is to find a soul mate, someone to share the rest of your life with and (if you so choose) to make your own family with, then the very idea of someone picking your partner for you is abhorrent. In the West it is seen as a freedom and a right to choose for yourself.
And that, fundamentally, is where the two schools diverge. In Leewin’s world, marriage is not a selfish endeavor where you get to select someone because you are attracted to them (the way they look or the kind of person that they are). It is a pursuit for the greater good of the entire family (taking into consideration, of course, that if you have common interests and backgrounds you will, over time and with effort (yes, effort!), come to love each other). We all know that romantic love does not last. The honeymoon period is just that, a period. Even the most in-love couple in the world will need to compromise and work at the relationship in order to make a marriage last the distance. Euphoria and lust are pleasant but they aren’t enough.
What the arranged marriage does is remove the trippy flirtation of those initial, heady emotions. When they’re taken out of the equation, both types of marriages are left with the same amount of work to succeed. But in the West, we are raised to crave those emotions and to believe that they are in fact what constitutes love. When it fades, we sometimes believe that the love has also faded, and the union is doomed. And whilst an arranged marriage has no guarantee of success, the incidence of divorce is significantly lower than the 30-40% divorce rate in countries such as USA, UK, Europe and Australia.
I have divided Leewin and myself into the very different categories of East and West but it’s not entirely accurate to do so. Just one generation ago, in Greece, my Mum was faced with the prospect of an arranged marriage. Let me tell you her story. My mother comes from a very poor family that lived in a small village in Greece. As a young girl her family couldn’t afford to send her to school so she worked as a shepherdess, tending the family’s sheep. From the time she was about fifteen, her father would bring men home to look her over as a prospective wife. At first she didn’t realise that was what was happening, but soon her mother started asking her what she thought of the men. My Mum retorted that she thought nothing of them – they were old. And ugly to boot!
By the time she was sixteen though, her parents were desperate to marry her off as young as possible because they didn’t have the money for a dowry (which it was necessary for the bride’s family to provide to the groom’s). My Mum would pretend to forget that a man had been scheduled to visit, and stay at her cousin’s house as late as possible chatting over whatever it was sixteen year olds chatted about back then.
When my mother turned seventeen her father told her, in no uncertain terms, that she must accept the marriage proposal offered from an older business man who was involved in a deal to buy some of the family’s sheep. If she didn’t accept, they told her, they were going to have to ship her off to Australia so she could earn more money to send home. My mother was angry, sad and scared but she decided she would rather immigrate to a strange country than marry a disgusting old dude.
The day she left her home to go to Australia she sat in the taxi, crying her eyes out. Her father took her in his arms and told her she didn’t have to go. My Mum just looked at him and said, “I’ll be OK,” before being driven away. It took many years to heal the fractured relationship with her parents. She felt betrayed and abandoned by them, and they had thought she was acting selfishly. They were all wrong. My mother’s parents loved her but they didn’t have the means to marry her without a dowry and they didn’t want her to end up poor, alone and unhappy.
Whilst it must have been a horrible experience for my mother to go through at such a young age, I must admit I’m glad that she said no to the arranged marriage and went to Australia –after all, if she hadn’t I wouldn’t be here today and you wouldn’t be reading this. I think we should all be grateful, really!!!
Leewin is now in the unenviable position of having to fulfil an obligation to his family to get married which clashes with his own desire to marry someone of his own choosing in his own time. This month’s ejo serves not only to explore the topic of arranged marriages but also to put Leewin’s story out there in the hope that perhaps a young, modern, Indian girl with liberal views and realistic expectations will notice him and give him a chance. That way, both his and his family’s needs can be met, and everyone will be happy. He really is a great guy and will make some lucky girl a wonderful husband. If you think that girl might be you, please get in touch with me (via a comment) and I’d be happy to (just this once) play matchmaker.