Becoming an Unsuitable Girl

Amrita and Keshav getting married. Image via A Suitable
Girl.

When I was 13, I believed that I should have an arranged
marriage. After overhearing me tell an incredulous friend about
how the traditional Indian system worked, my eighth grade
social studies teacher asked if we would open our debate to the
class in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. Always enthusiastic to
share my distinctly Indian-American point of view with white
people, I prepared a list of bullet points meant to refute
every misconception about the tradition and my culture held by
a room full of American teenagers.

Though I was born and raised in America, most of the adults I
knew growing up were Indian immigrants. The couples met each
other through some form of an arranged marriage, in which their
older relatives networked to find eligible bachelors and
connect them in formal family-supervised meetings. I was
captivated by the story of my own parents, who knew each other
for just a few hours before making a mutual, unwavering
commitment to each other. Back then I thought it was romantic,
like a Hollywood rom-com where Ryan Gosling fixates on a feisty
red-haired woman, deciding she is absolutely “the one.” When I
was in high school, my older cousin visited India as a single
man. By the end of winter vacation, he was engaged. I still
remember the excitement of that visit: adults brokered meetings
behind closed doors, gossiped about each potential suitor, and
felt the electric spark of new possibilities. I immediately
liked the woman I would soon affectionately call Bhabhi, or
sister-in-law. Though no one ever pushed the idea on me, I
assumed that one day my parents would help me find a husband,
too.

Yet at 30 (and unmarried), my views have radically changed.
Eager to have sex and to feel the fluttery excitement of love
and lust, I began dating when I was away at college. But due to
my upbringing, I also assumed that my first serious boyfriend
would be my last. By 24, I was engaged to my college
boyfriend—a gentle, handsome, smart man who had earned my
parents’s unsolicited blessing for marriage upon their first
time meeting him, six months into our relationship. But I was
so focused on marriage that I never asked myself: Is this what
I want? With little knowledge of what would make me happy—and
only understanding that I was deeply unhappy—I broke off the
engagement two years later and began to think about what I
wanted out of life without that being shaped by another
person’s desires, expectations, or needs. My world, and my
future, opened up wide.

As a result, arranged marriages were a part of my cultural
upbringing that I mostly put out of my mind until I saw A
Suitable Girl
, a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca
Film Festival this year. The film—directed, produced and edited
by a team of almost exclusively women of color—follows Dipti,
Ritu and Amrita, three Indian women in their mid-to-late 20s,
for four years as they begin the process of searching for a
husband. They are part of a generation forging a new identity
that straddles traditional values and modern ones, where women
are increasingly likely to pursue work beyond the home. A
Suitable Girl
successfully demystifies the process of
arranged marriages—dispelling the kind of Western “otherizing”
and exoticizing I experienced in school—while simultaneously
casting a critical eye on how it uniquely affects women. As
directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra write, “It’s not a
film about child brides, female infanticide or slum life, but
rather the deep-rooted, systemic and nuanced sexism a woman
faces from the day she is born.”

Though more Indians are dating now than ever before, so-called
“love marriages” are still uncommon—especially among the middle
and lower classes. A Suitable Girl depicts the diverse
forms arranged marriages take, breaking down stereotypes and
creating an intricate portrait of an ever-evolving practice in
one of the most populous countries in the world. The arranged
marriages depicted in the film play out more like a family
matchmaking service, where parents and aunts and uncles make
connections and the prospective bride and groom make the
ultimate decision. For example, after putting unsuccessful ads
in a local newspaper, Dipti, a teacher, creates a profile on
Shaadi.com. She and her parents scan the site together, except
instead of looking for dates as one might on OKCupid.com, their
hope is to organize a meeting between the two families and
secure her a husband. Alternately, in an
arrangement that feels more familiar to Americans, with the
blessing of their families, Amrita decides to marry a former
classmate with whom she later developed a friendship.

Arranged marriages, in its various forms, are common throughout
parts of Asia and the Middle East in traditional cultures that
value the needs of the collective over the rights of the
individual. To outsiders, one of the most off-putting aspects
of arranged marriages—aside from making a seemingly
split-second decision about your life partner—is the filtering
process families use to find eligible
bachelors. Men and women reduce each
other to caricatures, where women are to be fair-skinned and
youthful, and men are to be wealthy with secure jobs. Ritu’s
parents filter candidates by astrology sign, caste system,
income, education, for example—criteria that makes the process
seem uniquely discriminatory and superficial, but is not much
different from the traditional ways many Americans privately
assess potential partners based on factors like appearance and
job stability.

There are merits to the Indian approach: While there are no
official national statistics, the Hindustan Times
estimates the divorce rate in India hovers at 13 in 1,000—which
has skyrocketed from one in 1,000 in the past several years. By
comparison, in the United States, some 30 percent of people
married in the 1990s had divorced by the 2000s (though,
according to the New York Times,
that rate has been decreasing as people marry later). Studies
also suggest that arranged
marriages produce the same levels of satisfaction as love
marriages among Indian-American couples. The Indian culture’s
answer to the universal question on love and marriage—how do
you know who “the right one” is?—is that you don’t. Instead,
you approximate the best you can based on the information you
have and you’ll learn to love your mate. It’s not very
romantic, but there’s an appealing logic to it.

These are the facts and opinions I recited to that room of
dubious white 13-year-olds in a classroom nearly two decades
ago, not yet knowing what it felt like to hold a boy’s hand,
let alone to fall in love. But in my household, dating was
nearly as taboo as it probably was for Dipti or Ritu or Amrita.
While my parents never suggested that they would one day help
me look for a husband, it was still implied that dating was
something only the predominantly white kids in my school did.
When Indian people dated—if they dated—it was for the
purpose of finding a husband. Though I privately longed to
chase and be chased by boys who liked the girls with golden
hair, I clung to the stats on divorce with insufferable
self-righteousness throughout high school as a form of
self-preservation: Partially, I wanted to assert my
Indian-American identity in a world of whiteness. But at a
deeper level, it was easier to pretend that not dating was
my choice rather than to admit that the future I
wanted for myself might cause me to clash with my family and my
culture. Though Dipti, Amrita, and Ritu were brought up in a
different (and far more conservative) culture than I was, while
watching A Suitable Girl I wondered if they had ever
stifled the same desires I once did.

While both men and women give up a high degree of
self-determination to marry a near-stranger, the film depicts
the unique sacrifices that fall on women: As Ritu’s mother
explains in the beginning of the film, it’s “fixed” by birth
that one day the girl will leave home to live with her in-laws
and husband. For Ritu, the sacrifice comes in the form of
quitting her job, taking a new one, getting married (despite
her reluctance to do so), and moving from India to Dubai to
live with her equally reluctant husband. Amrita quits her job
in finance, agreeing to work in her husband’s family’s business
after marriage—which eventually turns into cooking and cleaning
their home and taking care of her ill father-in-law, who also
demands she give up Western clothing for traditional Indian
saris. “You lose your identity when you get married,” she says.
“And that’s one thing I never wanted to do. More than 80
percent of people who come to my home would not even know my
name. They just recognize me by Keshav ki wife. And
that’s one thing—yes, I am Keshav’s wife. And I’m proud to be.
But I do have a name. So you can call me Amrita.”

Though it’s not discussed in the film, I wondered what consequences a woman might
face if she refused the conditions being dictated by her
parents or her in-laws, if any—in the worst cases, she may face
ex-communication, domestic violence, and
verbal or emotional abuse.
In conservative families where there’s a stigma against divorce
and expectation that women should serve the men, survivors may
be trapped and unable to seek help. As one 1996 study on Indian
women who experience domestic violence in America noted that
“As immigrants, these women were under added pressure to uphold
the standards of ‘cultural family values’ in a foreign land.
They expressed a strong desire to be true to their culture,
which does not allow disintegration of marriage under any
circumstance.” As I grew older, several of my friends and I saw
this form of manipulation and abuse play out in arranged
marriages.

However, that is not to imply that domestic violence is more
common in an arranged marriage—the data on that is mixed, and
according to a survey administered to 160
South Asians in Boston in 2000, the rate of domestic violence
in arranged marriages is roughly the same as non-arranged
marriages. It is also too reductive to dismiss the entire
culture and assume that Western approaches to marriage are
superior. As Anukripa Elango, a college student in India who
created a viral parody that
lampooned the sexist double standard of arranged marriages,
said, “Sexism and patriarchy is everywhere. It is just that it
exists differently in different places, and this is one way it
exists here [in India].”

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While A Suitable Girl focuses on one of the most
difficult transitions in an Indian woman’s life, many of these
couples do go on to be form loving and stable marriages. And if
happiness is a self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps the concept
behind arranged marriages makes sense. But it’s also true that
women bear the brunt of the sacrifices involved in sustaining
these marriages. Ritu, Dipti, and Amrita live in a changing
world where women increasingly have more opportunity—both
before marriage and after—but still lack the ultimate choice:
whether they want to participate in the system of arranged
marriage at all. As someone who grew up oceans away, connected
to India only by language, skin color, and family folklore, I
let the idea of arranged marriages go as soon as I realized it
would shrink my world, not expand it. Yet for me, A
Suitable Girl
created a window into an alternate present
that easily could have been mine.


Catch A Suitable Girl next at the AIF Docs festival in Silver
Spring, Maryland, June 14-18; check their Facebook and Twitter for further dates.

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