Arranged marriages not for everyone

MATTHEW HALL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Rev. Shibu Venad Mathai, of St. Gregorios Malankara Orthodox Church: "The idea of arranged marriages will cease soon."
MATTHEW HALL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Rev. Shibu Venad Mathai, of St. Gregorios Malankara Orthodox Church: "The idea of arranged marriages will cease soon."
Posted: April 03, 2014

HER PARENTS, immigrants from India, wanted her to marry an Indian man.

Two years ago, the family traveled from Northeast Philadelphia to Kerala, India, so she could wed a man she barely knew. Afterward, he stayed in India, and they communicated via Skype.

Now they're going through a divorce.

The 29-year-old woman's experience, experts say, reflects rapidly changing attitudes. In the Philadelphia area, more and more South Asian-Americans are abandoning traditional customs to become better-assimilated into American culture.

In doing so, in many cases, they are substituting contemporary values for centuries-old imperatives to marry based exclusively on education, religion, caste or horoscope.

"With a proliferation of Indian matrimonial websites similar to the ones in the U.S., everyone's looking for their specific type," said Fariha Khan, associate director of Asian-American studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Northeast Philadelphia woman, who asked that her name not be published, said she came to believe that she was being used.

"I learned that we were two different people with two different goals in life," she said. "I felt betrayed and deceived by my ex-husband. He wanted to use me to get a green card into this country."

For first-generation South Asian-Americans, the cultural clash between American dating rituals and traditional customs can be a source of strife because parents often are more interested in compatibility between the families than between the newlyweds.

"I feel like this is my fault," the woman said. "I never should have said yes to my dad when he asked me if I wanted to go through with this marriage. The day before the wedding, I felt like my instincts were really kicking in, telling me not to go through with it. I just continued to cry even on my wedding day and hoped someone would stand and object to the wedding like you see in the movies."

Her father was more supportive of her desire to divorce than her mother, she said.

"She's very old-fashioned," she said of her mother. "She believes once you're married, you're married for life, regardless of the situation.

"I have a tendency to try and please everyone else and just listen to what they tell me to do, but this is the decision I've made and I'm happy that I chose to go through with it regardless of what anybody else thinks. It's my life."

A young accountant

South Asian-Americans are a rapidly growing population nationwide. In Philadelphia, 18,500 Indian-American residents in the 2010 census represented a 30 percent increase from a decade earlier, and the Pakistani-American population also has risen dramatically, although the Census doesn't track that ethnicity separately.

Jithu Thazhathel, 24, of Northeast Philadelphia, said he disagrees with "the institution of arranged marriages" even though he has many relatives whose marriages were arranged.

"I know plenty of people who have experienced it: my parents, aunts and uncles, and even some of my cousins who recently got married, " said Thazhathel, an accountant with DuPont Co. in Wilmington, Del., who came to the U.S. with his parents in 1995. "But I would be against it."

Kishwer Vikaas Barrica, 28, a Temple Law School alumna who grew up in Olney, did not encounter resistance from her Pakistani-immigrant parents when she decided to marry Gino Barrica, a Filipino-American. The couple live in Folsom, Calif.

"We found that we had a lot of cultural commonalities and we are actually a great team. My mom loves him," said Barrica, co-founder of The Aerogram, an online magazine featuring South Asian-American pop culture and news.

"I am more interested in a person's character than anything else," Barrica said. "My family and I would always joke about arranged marriages, like, 'Hey, Mom, if I don't find someone by the time I graduate law school, help me out.' My mom is not for it and my dad is neutral."

Barrica and her siblings always had the option of an arranged marriage, but were never pressured by her parents, she said. "My parents had a love marriage, so they were always open about the topic of marriage with us," she said.

Barrica's mother, who prefers to be called simply Ms. Elahi, said she has become Americanized.

"My kids were brought up in a different environment than the kids back home, and the expectations of parents from both sides are different, too," Ms. Elahi said.

A Protestant, she told her children that their spouses' race was not her concern, but that she hoped they'd marry Christians.

A low divorce rate

Although India is rapidly becoming westernized, almost all marriages there are still arranged.

Conservative young adults, mainly women who seek family approval, prefer that traditional route of marriage. But a growing percentage would rather receive a suitor's proposal, according to a survey last year by the market-research company Ipsos of 1,000 people between ages 18 and 35 in 10 cities in India.

Yet Indian divorce rates in arranged marriages are considerably lower than in nonarranged marriages. In India, where divorce is strongly frowned upon, the divorce rate for arranged couples is 1.1 percent, according to the Human Rights Council of UNICEF.

According to a Christian Orthodox priest at an Indian-American church in Bensalem, technology has forced a change in thinking about betrothals.

"The concept of arranged marriages has considerably changed nowadays because of the development of technology and communication," said the Rev. Shibu Venad Mathai of St. Gregorios Malankara Orthodox Church.

"In villages, the influence and authority of parents and elders over the children [is] comparatively higher, but in cities with job-oriented people, the self-choose system is prevalent."

Mathai, who has a background in psychology, said that four out of five college students he surveyed in 2008 in the Indian town of Sultan Bathery already were dating.

"This shows that the future of the Indian culture is diminishing as time goes on," he said. "Among this new Indian-American generation, the idea of arranged marriages will cease soon."

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