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Arranged-Marriages Online, Social Network-Style

Several months ago, someone told me about social networking sites that function as matchmaking tools for arranging marriages- a cultural practice that is common for nearly half the world’s population, including India, China, and Indonesia, as well as Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. In a fit of brainstorming for my next research project, this conversation came to mind and I quickly discovered Shaadi.com, an Indian version of an online dating site. Curious, I filled out a profile of my own to see what kinds of categories one could choose amongst for self-representation.

Well, first of all, it’s clear that most of the profiles on the site are filled out by parents, who are traditionally responsible for the search for and approval of potential husbands and wives. Among the more salient identity markers are Religion/Community (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist, Jewish, “No Religion,” “Spiritual- Not Religious,” and “Other), Education, Profession, and Lifestyle (diet, smoking and drinking habits). Arranged-Marriages are ideally between two members of the same caste or sect, and Shaadi.com certainly covers the gamut. Potential matches are also frequently judged by education level and profession, as well as the aforementioned “lifestyle habits,” which are heavily informed by religious beliefs.

A few other things I learned about while creating a profile on the site:

• The alignment of the stars at one’s birth determines if a person is a Manglik, and Shaadi.com inquires as to one is. In Indian astrology, Mangliks are destined for difficulties in marriage. In order to balance out these negative forces, it is often suggested that a Manglik marry another Manglik, based on the idea that two negatives make a positive. Astrology in general is quite important for many Indians, especially Hindus, when it comes to marriage, and Shaadi.com users may incorporate a variety of astrological readings in their profiles.

• Like pretty much every social networking site, one can fill in an open-ended “About Me” box. However, on this site, there is also a significant section called “About My Family.” Shaadi.com offers a few pointers for users filling out this section, the first of which suggests describing the family’s outlook and approach towards life. Early on in the registration process, one could select whether her “Family Values” are traditional, moderate, or liberal. Clearly, the degree to which one’s family embraces more traditional or more liberal attitudes and values has a significant effect on the matrimonial process.

• Admirably, the site also inquires about users’ HIV status. Though figures place the percentage of HIV-infected people in India at a seemingly minute 0.36%, with the country’s enormous population this amounts to between 2 million and 3.6 million Indians living with HIV. While there is some evidence that the rate of infection is currently declining, likely due to successful prevention and awareness campaigns, there is also plenty of evidence to the contrary. Given the rampant fear and stigmatization of HIV-positive individuals in communities everywhere, marking oneself as HIV-positive on the site likely drastically reduces one’s chances at finding a spouse. However, as with both Mangliks and “Special Cases,” another profile category wherein one can indicate mental and/or physical handicaps, the site makes finding others who share their “condition” a much easier process in many ways.

This semester, I am taking only one class as I complete my graduate thesis, the last class I will ever take at Wesleyan: Nationalism and the Politics of Gender and Sexuality with Professor Kauanui. Like most of the classes I’ve taken, I’m to conduct a semester-long research project, giving me the opportunity to conduct another mini-ethnography related to online social networking. As such, I’ll be regularly posting my most pertinent and interesting findings. Stay tuned!

The Social Impact of Online Matchmaking

To date, little to no research has been published on the growing trend of arranging marriages using online matrimonial services. However, I was able to find a small body of contemporary literature concerning online romance more generally. Online courtship, like traditional arranged marriage, is a process by which two people come to know one another before their romantic love develops, if it does indeed develop. Online matchmaking services and social networking sites (such as MySpace) enable individuals to learn about potential mates before even initiating conversation, let alone meeting them face-to-face. A common criticism of Western courtship practices is that such relationships often become sexual before two people really get to know one another, and thus the passion of initial lust is frequently mistaken for love. In framing these criticisms, the high divorce rate in the US is often cited as evidence that “love marriages” are not all they’re cracked up to be:

“Arranged marriages have worked well in the past. But like I said earlier, love doesn’t necessarily last. In America the divorce rate is over 50%. I think the whole myth of instability in arranged marriages is blown out of proportion. More often than not, it’s the love marriages that end up in ruin.” (Indian High School student on Facebook India network forum, Nov. 2007)

It is important to assess the social consequences of new technologies, particularly those that may at once challenge and reinforce traditional practices and beliefs in conflicting ways. My preliminary findings reveal that online matrimonial sites empower young Indians and Indian Americans by: expanding the field of potential marriage partners; granting them a greater degree of autonomy in choosing them; and facilitating the search process, thus making it easier to find others compatible with one’s upbringing, lifestyle, personal goals, and beliefs. At the same time, many seem to view their membership on the site as either a current duty or a future inevitability, yet another obligation fulfilled in order to appease the demanding high expectations of Indian parents. The frustrations experienced by young Indian Americans in relation to the expectations of their parents is exemplified by the popular Facebook group “I can’t live my life the way I want too because I got DESI PARENTS!” which has 3,802 members. The mass appeal of Shaadi.com may, I suggest, lie in its successful fulfillment of both the young modern Indian’s drive for independence and autonomy, as well as the older generation’s inherited traditions of ensuring compatibility between their children in accordance with specific markers of identity.

Indian Americans, in particular, struggle to formulate self- and collective identities that fulfill the often contradictory demands of traditional Indian values and modern American ambitions. The result is a variety of hybridized identities collectively known as “desi.” The identity crisis faced by the children of India-born “desis” living in the Western world has given rise to the term “ABCD,” or “American-Born Confused Desi.” The situation of Indians in the 21st century is one marked by extensive transmigration, evolving communications technologies and subsequent increased career possibilities for both men and women, and the influx of Westernized ideals of self-determination and independence. There are complex forces at work here, and any sensitive exploration of these issues would do well to avoid framing them as merely binary oppositions (ie; traditionalism vs. modernism, Indian vs. Indian American). Rather, I intend to conduct original research, exploring the complex experiences of individuals encountered “in the field” through discursive analysis and participant-observation. These include native Indians as well as American-born Indians, and the various unique ways in which these individuals incorporate different Western and Indian values in the construction of their worldviews, sense of belonging in their communities, and production of self-identities in talking about marriage and engaging with Shaadi.com. In particular, understanding and articulating the plight of Indian and Indian American women, who must balance traditional norms of self-sacrifice to the family with their own desire for independence, may shed light on similar struggles faced by women around the world.