Wednesday, 12 October 2011
What a complicated matter this is. Most marriages used to be arranged in most parts of the world, the idea of romantic marriage coming second to the idea of romantic infidelity. Marriage legitimated children and property. In terms of sex it was better to marry than to burn, according to St Paul. If you couldn't be continent it was either a cold shower or a wedding.
I remember Sheena Iyengar, the author of The Art of Choosing, telling us on the radio programme, The Forum, how her parents had an arranged marriage back in India while she had a romantic one in the US. She remarked that her parents' marriage seemed to her a happy one. A love marriage developed.
I can't imagine either C or I would have been pleased to be part of an arranged marriage, but then we grew up in a different culture with very different expectations. For the purposes of marriage we not only had to love each other at some stage, but to have been in love with each other. Tick. That's fine then. Having been in love you were committed to life-long love. That was fine too.
But the point wasn't just love, of course. It was also choice. By choosing to marry we would become the self-consumers of our wooing. Choice was our divine right as consumers.
I am not in fact sure how far the scandal of forced marriage, as we perceive it now, is a scandal about love or a scandal about choice. I suspect it is more the latter than the former. Individual choice lies at the heart of western democracy, so it is a state matter that we should be able to exercise that choice.
This morning Harriet Harman was being asked about a judge overruling the law against importing young people for the purposes of forced marriage. The way she put it was that it was clearly wrong for a young woman in England to be forced to go to India and marry an older man or indeed for an older man to come to England in order to marry a younger woman.
Put that way it is in an odd argument. Traditionally, the groom has been a few years older than the bride so Harman must have been referring to the more unseemly matching of crabbed age and youth. Yes, but such marriages do happen for one reason or another, not excluding love, on a perfectly voluntary basis. Comparative age seemed to be beside the point. Most arranged marriages are between young people of a similar age.
The point is that the woman in such cases is always seen to be the victim. She has never even met the prospective husband, goes one complaint. But that means he has not met her either. The proposed marriage obliges him as well as her to embark on it.
His position in this is never questioned. His choice doesn't matter. That may be because, in the west, it is the man's prerogative to request and the woman's to deny or grant. The consumer choice is hers to exercise, not his. For her, it is assumed, the choice is vital, enduring and freighted with intense feeling. For him it's just a step in a set life-pattern. Feelings - say feelings he might have for someone else prior to the marriage - don't enter into it. That at least is how we see it. It's exactly how Harriet Harman saw it. The law against forced marriage is a law to protect women.
The very fact that it seems so natural is in itself strange. That naturalness assumes a great deal that is unstated and, possibly, uncomfortable.