“We want to secure everything beforehand but marriages do not come with a fool-proof guarantee”

January 23, 2022

To get a better understanding of how the society views the institution of marriage and the processes through which individuals arrive at their decisions, The News on Sunday spoke to Dr Aftab Nasir, an assistant professor at the Department of Governance and Global Studies, Information Technology University, Lahore.

“We want to secure everything beforehand but marriages do not come with a fool-proof guarantee”

The News on Sunday (TNS): Marriage has long been seen to have a functional purpose in conservative societies. Are those notions being challenged by the modern concepts of companionship?

Dr Aftab Nasir (AN): Yes, indeed, the institution of marriage, like any other institution, has a functional purpose. It came into being to fulfill certain needs, both psychological and sociological. As we evolved, so did concepts around marriage. Over the last century or so, there have been major shifts in how individuals answer the question of who we are. The search for a better, equitable, just and stable relationship has meant renegotiation of identities. This has resulted in concepts like companionship based on newly found social realities. So yes, the traditional view of marriage having a singular functional purpose has been challenged. New ways of being and living have produced various models that are at times at odds with traditional views on marriage.

TNS: Why are "arranged" marriages perceived more favourably in our society?

AN: Arranged marriage and love marriage are not as mutually exclusive as some people might think. In earlier societies, where marriages were always arranged, those were never arranged to a total stranger. If we take an anthropological view, we see many social actors playing their roles in arranging marriages. For example, one may arrange a marriage with members of a clan, caste, biraderi etc, one has known for years. This is how the political economy of rural life worked. It worked well because it had the added advantage of social security. In social practices, people tend to perform what prevalent ideologies are in currency in the most immediate surroundings. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls it habitus. The habitus (the guiding principle) of our community life was such that it favoured social familiarity as opposed to individual autonomy as a guarantee for a successful marriage. The logic went that if I knew a family, and their immediate social indicators (land holdings, social status etc) matched my family’s, the match was perfect. If a mediator knew both the families well enough to give assurances, the deal could still be sealed. Coming to contemporary social realities where intergenerational gap in terms of exposure, class, and most importantly ideologies is huge between grandparents, parents and their children, even among older and younger siblings, certain clashes are inevitable.

TNS: Finding a rishta is now quite a commercial activity. How did the commercialism creep in?

AN: In traditional societies the working of the institution of marriage was based on a constant, i.e., familiarity. Over time, the exponential population growth and mass movement from rural to urban centres, translated in class difference with communities back home. The familiarity bond was weakened. Since the old ways of marrying eroded in the wake of urbanism, a new pattern to hold the social fabric together was needed. The vacuum was filled by social actors that have their own interests in making matches. Traditional mohallah-based networks that brokered rishta negotiations voluntarily, based on the ties of familiarity, had always existed. Once people started falling out of traditional webs of identities, the process of matchmaking turned into a market where potential partners were objectified. A woman was of a certain height, weight, complexion, looks and had a certain degree; a man was reduced to an economic capital, his looks, character, even age did not play a significant role in deciding his chances. This has turned the already-skewed gender equation into a horrendous spectacle that resulted from a strong sense of materialism so that men and women are portrayed as objects, not as potential partners to form equal relations with.

TNS: Are the society's concepts surrounding marriage evolving with how the new(er) generation(s) view the institution?

To get a better understanding of how the society views the institution of marriage and the processes through which individuals arrive at their decisions, The News on Sunday spoke to Dr Aftab Nasir, an assistant professor at the Department of Governance and Global Studies, Information Technology University, Lahore.

AN: No. And this has to do with how both men and women see themselves in the current age. But we have to ask which segment of the society we are talking about. If this is about the minority of readers of, say, this article, then absolutely not because this small segment has been bestowed with a plethora of ideologies and philosophies of identity. These individuals have seen through movies, dramas, and even songs what other ways of being human are possible, so much so that they are adamant that those standards are the only ways of being. But away from this small social bubble, when you talk to other lower, middle or lower-middle classes, one finds an astonishingly different picture. At no point in a conversation with any of these social groups (which are not absolute but porous, arbitrary constructs), one hardly finds any pattern of negotiation that can be safely called a befitting mix of evolution of society’s concept of marriage and an individual’s personal aspirations. One may say there is a “changed” concept of marriage, but not one that is organically evolved or comes out of social processes of contestation and assimilation.

TNS: There is a high degree of scepticism in the society when it comes to individuals taking decisions for themselves, particularly relating to their marriage. Is that a fair generalisation?

AN: Yes, it is a fair generalisation but one that needs some decoupling. Why does this scepticism exist in the first place? The answer may take us to many underlying (even unconscious) notions and irrational fears. In a patriarchal society, where the privilege of being a man outweighs that of being a woman, the decision-making framework is such that if a marriage does not work, it is always easier for a man to re-marry whereas a divorce becomes a liability for a woman. The general idea for parents is that if “we” decide, we will take care of teething out the uncertainty. Therefore, there is less confidence in the children’s choices. In our society, a marriage is not a union between two consenting individuals but between two families, hence the seat of autonomy is somewhere between the elders and the consenting adults. The class line also comes into play here. The higher you move on the hierarchy of social class, the larger is the autonomy of consenting adults and less the scepticism. However, this cannot be safely generalised. It’s only a conjecture. There is a generally held belief that two consenting adults being in-charge of their marriage is Western in its makeup. Hence, it is generally frowned upon.

TNS: How is globalisation impacting conversations and deep-rooted traditions surrounding marriage in our society?

AN: Globalisation is a highly contested term in my view. That aside, technological innovations have indeed affected the ways of being and living more rapidly and deeply than most people can imagine or experts in fields like psychology and sociology can map out. What we have in our immediate surroundings are ripples of various notions that are making the youth more confused and restless about some of the most basic questions like who we are, let alone who we want to marry. In such a complex, the easiest escape is bashing what is traditional and how it does not work. So yes, globalisation has resulted in more criticism of whatever is called traditional.

TNS: Is it true that people are now getting married at a later age? If so, what factors are influencing the decision to delay marriages?

AN: Yes, it is true. But this applies mostly to certain classes. We should ask why people marry in the first place? The traditional answer is that we marry because it is customary for a girl to go to her husband’s house where she is provided for (financially), takes care of her husband’s household and bears his children etc. In the emerging political economy of urbanised classes, the question of economy has been widely addressed by women becoming part of the labour force in greater numbers. These economic conditions give birth to a sense of autonomy where a woman does not have to worry about who is providing for her but how she will be treated if she agrees to share her sense of identity with someone, a question that was not part of the traditional repertoire. On the man’s side, the picture has not changed much. It is hardly a woman’s education or sense of autonomy that is a deciding factor. The changing socio-cultural milieu (the habitus) and the taste of a certain sub-group of any social class become the deciding factor because here, finding the right partner takes time. Moreover, in line with this argument, both men and women in urbanised settings prioritise securing economic grounds before entering into a marital relation. The process inevitably takes time.

TNS: The process of finding a partner appears to have become more taxing, even more calculated and engineered. How does this impact the people at the heart of these processes?

AN: Indeed, the whole process has become taxing, more calculated and engineered because we do not simply want someone’s character, qualities, diversity of opinions etc, to be part of the equation. We want to secure everything beforehand. Marriage, like any other social transaction, does not come with a fool-proof guarantee. It needs nourishment and constant negotiation, which is why we have to concede randomness. However, we are obsessed with micromanaging every single detail, hence the delay. Our decisions, be it marriage or otherwise, are mostly made out of fear, not a well-grounded sense of autonomy. We do business with the thought of not losing what we already have, even when we know that there are risks involved. We receive education so that we can get jobs that guarantee riches, not because getting education itself is a transformative process that helps us become better and more informed citizens. The bedrock of our decision-making lies somewhere between being afraid and being hopeful. I think we have to learn as prospective candidates that, whether we like it or not, there remains a certain degree of randomness and unpredictability in life. That will be a part of our marriages as well, no matter what route we take.

The interviewer is a staff member

“We want to secure everything beforehand but marriages do not come with a fool-proof guarantee”