Lived experiences of marriage: regional and cross-regional brides in rural North India
Based on eleven months of ethnographic fieldwork (September 2012-August 2013) in a village in Baghpat district located in the western part of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the thesis compares the lived experiences of marriage of women in what I describe as regional marriage (RM) with women in cross-regional marriage (CRM). RMs are marriages that conform to caste and community norms (caste endogamy, gotrā [clan] and village/territorial exogamy) and are negotiated within a limited geographical region, i.e., the state. CRMs are those between men in north India and women from the southern, eastern and north-eastern parts of the country. Such marriages cross caste, linguistic and state boundaries with the marriage distance exceeding 1000 kms. CRMs also differ from RMs with regard to their modes of arrangement and the payments involved. They result from two sets of factors – one operating at bride-sending regions (mainly poverty) and the other at bride-receiving regions (masculine sex ratios and the difficulties some men have in achieving “eligibility” for marriage). NGO and journalistic accounts and some academic work has focused on CRMs: being a consequence only of masculine sex ratios and bride shortages; deviating from north Indian marriage norms; involving the “sale” and “purchase” of poor women from poor districts and states; and CRBs’ low status and lack of agency in receiving communities. This research aims to interrogate the moral panic surrounding the “plight” of CRBs. The thesis begins by contextualising CRM by exploring the factors that lead some (UP) men of particular castes to seek brides from other states and those that influence the migration of women over long-distances for marriages. It examines the process of negotiation entailed in making a RM and a CRM – the role of matchmakers, marriage payments and the rituals regarded as necessary to make a marriage “legitimate”. The thesis then focuses on the question of lived experiences of marriage by examining different aspects of regional brides’ (RB) and cross-regional brides’ (CRB) everyday lives – what the process of adjustment in a new (marital) home means for women when they leave their natal homes to live in their husbands’ homes and villages, the work that married women do, their relationships with other women in their marital villages, their relationships with their husbands and with their natal kin. Married women’s lives are embedded in various power dynamics and this research aims to address how factors such as caste, class, religion and age/years of marriage shape women’s post-marital experiences, in addition to their regional origins. This ethnographic study also attempts to outline issues specific to CRBs, particularly discrimination, belonging and incorporation within a culturally and linguistically different context, as well as the intergenerational implications of these marriages in terms of the (caste) status, rights and marriages of children of cross-regional couples. This research departs from existing studies on CRM as it attempts to understand postmarital experiences through a comparison with RM. Such an approach makes it possible to recognise similarities in the lived experiences of RBs and CRBs that enables a more nuanced understanding of the gendering of intimate/marital relationships in contemporary rural India within a context of caste inequalities and poverty.