Revisiting arranged marriages


By Oluwabusola Adedire

I am not one you can call a diligent Yoruba student, as I have shared the story of my persistent failure in Yoruba examinations in a previous article. However, one topic which stood out for me in our Yoruba lessons till date was ARRANGED MARRIAGES. My Yoruba teacher had explained that many years ago, a man’s family looked into ‘respectable households’ to seek a woman’s hand in marriage. Usually, such families are from a similar social class, religious background and known to be free from severe illnesses or mental health (madness or epilepsy) issues.

While these practices are almost extinct today, it is still subtly practiced by ‘old monies’ and even some middle class families. Although people marry for diverse reasons other than social standing, the influence of classism in marital settings is one we cannot completely eradicate in our society. In this case, the phrase ‘marriage is social and political’ by Lamido Sanusi certainly rings true.

At the heart of the political aspect of a marriage are in-laws, and we all know that in-laws can make or break a marriage. This is where arranged marriage comes in. Knowing / having a cordial relationship with your in-laws beforehand puts you at a selective advantage- especially as an African female. HoweverB there might be ‘awkward situations’ in form of high expectations either along the matchmaking process or after marriage.

In the recent times where everyone seems to be having a field day with 21st Century dating, I often wondered if the traditional method meeting prospective life partners was not a bad idea after all… but sometimes, I could not decide as I have been on the other end of a potential ‘arranged marriage’ – the grass does not seem to be greener. If anything at all, it requires twice the sensitivity of an organic relationship.

Few years back, a close friend of the family had called me aside to tell me he would like to introduce me to his son. I was fairly open minded about it but I knew it was quite ‘a dangerous territory’ with the level of closeness that existed between both families. Shortly after, I met Bobo X, but something was different. It was his Dad who was in constant communication with me than Bobo himself. The Bobo was just blowing hot and cold at the same time. In the midst of that situation, I had thought of three possibilities.

Possibility 1- Bobo X was probably coerced into meeting me and reluctantly obliged to his father.

Possibility 2- Bobo X had a girlfriend but did not tell his father about her.

Possibility 3- Bobo X could grudging oblige to his father to the point of a marriage.

God forbid possibility 3, I often thought to myself and I even took it to God in prayer. What is the point of a marriage without autonomy? Heavens forbid I would be hearing stories that touch in the future. You know those stories that sound like ‘If not because my father asked me to marry you’… that statement hurts more than a slap.

Few months later, the puzzle was resolved as to our surprise Bobo X married someone else. While, on one hand, I was relieved, on the other hand I could not get past how things could have taken a dramatic turn. I could have accepted a half-hearted marriage proposal out of fear of saying NO to someone close to the family, or worse still, the failed situation could have caused tension between both families. Thankfully, it didn’t! Everyone just moved on like that part of our life story never happened.

Where introduction by a third party is concerned, I am all for honesty and laying ALL the cards on the table prior to introduction of both parties as that helps to manage high expectations.

I am also of the opinion that it might be easier to navigate introduction by close friends or outsiders while parental /family involvements are more demanding. Nobody loves well where fear is involved. But proponents of arranged marriage may argue that ‘fear’ is a good thing… at least relationship issues are resolved faster because of ‘fear and reverence’ for each other’s parents, and in dating you are almost certain it is not ‘one chance’ situation. Also, they could further argue that parents know what suits their offspring best as they have seen more of life than them. More often than not, parents recommend those they can vouch for (character-wise) and since character is the most important aspect of an individual, you cannot go wrong with their selection.

This is where ethical debates on Autonomy vs. Beneficence comes in. A physician just like a parent is obliged to render help in the best possible way. Would you rather a physician make the best medical decision for you, or would you rather make decisions which could turn out non-beneficial in defence of autonomy for yourself?

There is also an argument as to whether or not arranged marriage promotes subjugation of the female gender in a family setting. Well, subjugation is a global problem for all women and there is no guarantee that it cannot occur in a conventional love marriage.

The Asian community continues to challenge the status quo with the rates of marital success recorded in their arranged marriages. Some say it is because love grows with understanding in an arranged marriage, others attribute the failure of conventional love marriages to law of diminishing return (a.k.a limerance).

Dr Robert Epstein an American Psychologist from Harvard University says “The idea is we must not leave our love lives to chance. We plan our education, our careers and our finances, but we’re still uncomfortable with the idea that we should plan our love lives. I do not advocate arranged marriages, but I think a lot can be learned from them.”

While I cannot explicitly say I am for or against arranged marriage, I do wonder what makes an arranged marriage different from a conventional love marriage since parental consent still matters anyway. Also in Africa where social security is a problem for many, do you blame parents who want to ensure that their daughter is adequately taken care of? I have heard my mother say it is often harder for a woman to adjust below her social standing as finance is one of the major triggers of divorce. What implication does classism in marital settings have in today’s society?

Do you have stories of arranged marriage? Share your thoughts on arranged and conventional love marriages in the comments section below.

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