The politics of love and marriage

The politics of love and marriage

By Debotri Dhar | 17 September, 2016
Love and marriage are not just personal, they are also profoundly political.

Some time ago, on a subway ride in New York, I met a newly married interracial couple. He was white, she was black, and they were having a spirited discussion about the mayor. Well, impossible for any mayor to match that moment when Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, had called his assembly members “great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies,” I remarked, and we all laughed. That this couple had an equal, mutually respectful and deeply loving relationship was apparent. The United States had already chosen a black President—for some commentators, this historical event was a harbinger of a post-racial society, even though some of us worried that there may be a backlash, in the form of “great” political events as well as in the quotidian every day—but this couple’s love marriage was perhaps a greater victory. Because love, but more so marriage, are not just personal; they are also profoundly political.

During periods of racial segregation, there were laws penalising “miscegenation” or inbreeding between racial groups; and while much has changed, much has not. Interracial marriage—especially based on mutual respect rather than fetishisation (heard of Asian fetish clubs?) —is certainly more acceptable now, at least in some spaces, but it would be impossible to argue that it is the norm anywhere in America. This is similar to inter-caste love marriage in India; considered taboo in orthodox circles, the stranglehold of caste norms may have weakened in some ways but remain as stubborn, as irresolute, in others. While writing my interdisciplinary thesis at Oxford that combined theoretical perspectives on education and empowerment with everyday manifestations in public culture, the latter including matrimonial advertisements in major newspapers, it was saddening to see that the formal degrees of the “highly educated” did not necessarily stop them from seeking a partner from the same caste. Marriage, in other words, has functioned as a tool to enforce race and caste endogamy, to preserve the “purity” of groups, and maintain hierarchy. 

The injunctions of certain religious texts notwithstanding—like all texts, religious texts too are an ideological and material product of their times, and some texts are more problematic than others—a higher faith, a higher wisdom, would understand love’s idealism. 

Moreover, these practices cannot be reduced to that oft used-and-abused binary of the secular versus the religious. The injunctions of certain religious texts notwithstanding—like all texts, religious texts too are an ideological and material product of their times, and some texts are more problematic than others—a higher faith, a higher wisdom, would understand love’s idealism. 

The interracial couple on the train was Christian, and my own Hindu parents had an inter-caste love marriage, as have other family members and close friends of faith. (On the other hand, many “secular” and atheist spaces are informed by endogamous marriage practices that would ironically meet the approval of religious orthodoxies.) As bewildering is the manner in which ingrained ritual hierarchies can comfortably cohabit alongside a superficial cosmopolitanism, with marriage arranged upon the most orthodox of caste lines followed by Instagrams of honeymoon pictures from all over the world. What right do we then have to shudder at gruesome honour killings of young couples in “backward” villages, by communities who did not approve of their caste transgressions? 

The role of gender in these dynamics is particularly intriguing. In an essay in my forthcoming new book titled The Color of Love, Marie-Josephine Diamond dissects the double standards of Frantz Fanon, that powerful anti-colonial voice which had declared “Today I believe in the possibility of love.” Fanon condemned as racist and collaborationist the Martinican woman writer Mayotte Capécia’s novel for its representation of love between a Martinican woman and a white Frenchman—while himself marrying a white French woman! With every social group exerting ownership claims over women, a woman’s right to challenge group endogamy and choose a partner is difficult without economic independence. And while female agency and autonomy have always existed in the annals of history, it takes only a cursory glance at newspaper reports of forced marriages and acid attacks by jilted suitors to realise how we are still uncomfortable with a woman’s right to say no.

 Yet for all these heartbreaking cases, including those where women themselves have actively aided the maiming and murder of men they loved, for being of a different race, caste or class, are some beautiful stories, where love is still the reason for love.

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