When I was younger, my dad briefly discussed arranging a marriage for me.
Like a lot of people raised in the West, I was terrified by this idea. I’d been inundated with Western media from a young age (despite my dad’s best efforts to restrict my reading and viewing material).
I grew up internalising Western ideas about love and marriage. You know the drill: boy meets girl, girl is aloof, boy performs series of escalatingly terrifying “romantic” gestures, girl finally realises that she actually loves boy, boy and girl are married, story conveniently fades to black before we can see whether or not boy and girl live happily ever after. Pass tissues, roll credits.
In an apparent effort to challenge the idea that this is the only way of finding love, developer and comedian Jeff Greenspan developed Hindur. You make an account, and you’re shown a single person. You can’t swipe left to see other options; it’s just the one person forever. Once you swipe right, you’re married! Forever! No divorces allowed! Get it? Because Hindus arrange oppressive marriages for their children, and we in the West would never do that, because we’re too enlightened!
Hindur’s developers claim the idea behind the app wasn’t to denigrate the way Hindu people or South Asians generally arrange their marriages. They claim they wanted to challenge Western ideas of what love and romance look like, and force people to reconsider their perceptions of what love should look like.
And look: we Western-raised people have some pretty fucked up ideas about love and romance. But South Asian people don’t exist as a yardstick against which we can measure our fucked up-ness, nor are their cultural traditions something that can be reduced to the punchline of a shitty joke about how bad white millennials are at dating.
I’m not Hindu, so I can’t speak from personal experience about how Hindu people arrange marriages. But I am part South Asian, so I can speak about my own experiences.
When my dad first brought up the idea of an arranged marriage, I was very, very much not on board. For starters, I was seventeen years old and still thought boys were icky–what can I say? I was a late bloomer–and the thought of having to touch one made me want to gag. I had grown up around Western boys, and I knew my father wouldn’t want a Western husband for me. He’d want someone traditional–good family, good job, good values–and as a first generation Australian, the idea of marrying someone from such a different world terrified me.
Yeah, I was Muslim and had been raised Muslim, but I’d also been raised in the West; I’d long since internalised a blend of cultures that made me feel like an outsider no matter where I was. Too foreign for white people, too Western for brown people. I didn’t want to marry someone who’d expect me to give up my Western upbringing to become an Eastern wife.
I wanted the kind of romance I’d seen in Western media. I like to think of myself as a pretty enlightened femme– still, the Western idea of love and romance still appeals to me. This is some serious cognitive dissonance I struggle with daily. As someone who’s recently come to terms with being poly, I don’t really believe on an intellectual or philosophical level that there’s just one person for me. As a divorcee, I know for sure that a person who can seem perfect for you at first might end up being toxic for you later. And as a feminist, I know that a lot of the gestures I’ve been trained to read as “love” are actually frighteningly abusive.
‘Tis the east, and Aaminah is the sun. That kind of thing.
And if we’re being real here, I just didn’t know that much about arranged marriage. I’d heard the bad stories – people who didn’t meet until their wedding nights, women sold to men they didn’t want to get their families out of bad situations. My dad assured me that our family didn’t do anything like that, but I’d been indoctrinated enough by my Western upbringing to be suspicious. So when he brought it up, I said no. When he brought it up again, I said no. When he brought it up again, I said no.
And here’s the thing: he eventually stopped asking, because I wasn’t interested, and he wasn’t going to force me.
Here’s my experience of what arranged marriages are actually like in South Asian societies today. When a person becomes of an age when they’d like to get married, they start spreading the news amongst their friends and family. Depending on their culture, they might fill out pages of bio data–pretty much like an OK Cupid profile–and send that information to a match maker. They might go to parties thrown by family friends and be introduced to people of the compatible gender who would make good matches for them. They ask their loved ones to find people who share their interests and ambitions. There is a lot of conferencing between aunties over who’d suit whom and a whole lot of politics involving family alliances, but for the most part, everyone involved just wants to find their loved one a partner with whom they’ll be compatible.
Once some suitable candidates are found, meetings are arranged where the potential suitors can talk to each other, get to know each other and decide if a relationship is worth pursuing. Maybe it’s not the most romantic date in the world–after all, their mothers are probably in the next room–but it’s really not that different from a first date with a guy from Match.com. The potential partners discuss their lives and see if they click. If they do, great! If not, no hard feelings–there are other fish in the sea.
At no point are potential suitors forced to marry someone not of their choosing. At no point are women forced into relationships with men they haven’t met. Arranged marriages are basically like online dating, except the algorithm is your aunties. Maybe that’s not your idea of love and romance, but is it really such a bad way of finding someone with whom you could spend the rest of your life? Mutual interests and goals are a pretty solid foundation for a loving relationship.
In the West, plenty of people fall in love over the course of friendships formed through mutual passions. In fact, in the West, plenty of people enlist the aid of friends, family, and even matchmaking services to find suitable partners for themselves. What’s the difference between that and a modern arranged marriage?
I’m not saying that forced arranged marriages don’t happen. I’m not discounting the horrendous trauma experienced by child brides around the world who are trafficked and sold on as property, often to older men. Those are real issues, and they’re incredibly serious ones. But to conflate coerced marriages and consensual arranged marriages isn’t just ignorant–it’s harmfully disingenuous.
My late uncle was married for many years to a woman to whom his marriage was arranged. I still remember the way his face lit up when he talked to me about her. “She is my best friend and my partner in everything,” he once told me. They had four children together, and he remained deeply in love with her until the day he died. Maybe he didn’t take her on Western-style dates to win her over, and maybe he didn’t perform any of the big romantic gestures we’ve been conditioned to expect by rom-coms and women’s magazines, but my uncle loved his wife with a depth and passion that truly humbled me to see.
Not every culture expresses or experiences love the way Western culture does, but that doesn’t make those kinds of love less valid or meaningful. To have the thoughtful, considered approach to love that is common in South Asian communities reduced to a joke in an app isn’t just inappropriate–it’s incredibly demeaning. Hindur’s founders might have had the best of intentions, but the underlying message of their app makes light not just of South Asian culture and Hindu culture in particular, but of the ways in which we experience and express love for ourselves, our families and our romantic partners.
I’m probably never going to ask my family to arrange a marriage for me. Hell, I’m not sure I’ll ever get married again–once was enough, and if I learned nothing else from the experience, at least I now know that what I want in a romantic partner and what I want in a marriage aren’t always the same thing. But what I have learned–from my own marriage, from my aunties and uncles and cousins, from my friends all over the world–is that there are so many, many ways of finding, expressing and celebrating love, and that to measure all love by the yardstick of the Western wedding-industrial complex is to dismiss and demean so many loving, fulfilling partnerships and relationships.
Love doesn’t have to look like chocolates and flowers on St Valentine’s Day. Love doesn’t have to look like that scene in Love, Actually where Colin Firth speaks terrible Portuguese. (In fact, love probably shouldn’t look like that, because talk about peer pressuring a girl into marrying you! Yikes.) Love doesn’t have to sound the way it does in Western love songs or poetry. Any relationship that is built on trust, affection, respect, equality and care is a loving relationship, whether it starts when your eyes meet across a crowded room, when you swipe right on Tinder, or when your parents nudge you in the direction of a nice guy they think you might like.
Rather than turning different kinds of love into a punchline, let’s celebrate the fact that in a society with so much that divides us, there will always be love to bring us back together.
Someone ought to make an app about that.