The Institution Of Marriage From A Cultural Lens

The concept of marriage is flexible. I know it may be hard to believe, but it’s true. In our little bubbles, monogamous marriages are the norm- one man marries one woman. Right here in India, the Hindu form of marriage is widespread, with a monogamous union at its core. Quite frankly, I would call it serial monogamy, especially in reference to North American societies, where divorce is also the norm. The idea that marriage is ubiquitous across the globe is false. It’s interesting to see how the concept of marriage varies across societies.

Credit- The Statesman

Almost all societies regulate marriage practices differently. But why does marriage fall under the domain of social control- why is it important to regulate marriage? Primarily, marriage is the best way to streamline sexual relations. Think about it, before the advent of birth control, or even today in societies with limited access to birth control, free-flowing heterosexual intercourse could lead to unplanned pregnancies or the spread of sexual diseases. So to avoid the many risks of unregulated sex, marriage was used as a tool to create sexual boundaries. According to strict religious law- historically shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims- adultery (sexual relations with the wife of another man) was punishable by death. Things have changed drastically now. Although some traditional societies still have many sexual restrictions. An extreme example of this- In the year 2010, in a Taliban-controlled village in Northern Afghanistan, mullahs (priests) found a young couple guilty of adultery, they were subsequently buried waist-deep in holes dug outside the village and stoned to death. But, for the most part, sexual restrictions in general, and sexual restrictions through the institution of marriage have diminished greatly. A majority of all cultures today are considered permissive or semi-permissive in terms of sexual expression. Only a minority of about 15% have rules requiring that sexual relations take place within the bounds of marriage. Today, in most Wealthy industrial nations, the practice of marriage is no longer an institution central to society.

A Ghanaian Wedding, Credit- BellaNaija.com

°The Societal Angle

The type of marriage prevalent in a particular society is directly proportionate to its social and cultural needs, and is required to be both in synergy with, and support the rest of its cultural and social structures. This totally sucks the concept of marriage dry of any romance- Marriage really is an institution, with great social value. To reiterate, in most industries, particularly Northern European societies, the social value of marriage has declined for a multitude of reasons- the balancing of gender relations, changes in political economy etc. 

A Hindu wedding in Bali. Credits- Joakim Leroy

But, for societies in the past, and even today, for many non-industrial and even a few semi-industrial societies, marriages remains of great social value. Let’s take the Kapauku Papuans for instance, a mountain people of Western New Guinea. This example beautifully illustrates how the type of marriage practised supports all other economic and social aspects of society. In this community, marrying multiple women is not only permitted but highly desired. 

Seems like every man’s paradise, doesn’t it? Not really, this type of marriage wasn’t designed for the sensual pleasure of men, but to complement its societal structure. Their main occupation is plant cultivation and pig-breeding. The men derive their power and legal authority from the number of pigs they own. Breeding many pigs requires a lot of food, and plant cultivation was considered largely the domain of women in these societies. So having multiple wives was a means for more power and authority, the political backbone of their social structure. Another functional value for this type of marriage was the surplus of females in the society due to loss of men during warfare- considered a necessary evil by society.

Credit- Slideserve.com

Now don’t go applying a feminist lens to this seemingly patriarchial society, the point is that the form of marriage practised was determined by the community’s social structure. 

°Endogamy & India

Credit- BBC

Next, let’s look at India. Endogamy is the practice of marrying within the group to which one belongs- and no I’m not talking about incest! It simply means marrying someone of the same religion, or same socio-economic class, or any other social parameter. However, in some cases, endogamy does translate into an incestuous union, but we’ll cover that later. An extreme and unfortunate example of endogamy is India’s caste system, formally abolished in 1949- but its structure and effects still remain. Indian caste groups are grouped into five major categories or varnas– each ranked relative to the other. The untouchable varna refers to those whose ancestry, ritual status and occupations are considered inferior and outright impure relative to other high castes. To protect the purity of the caste line, endogamy is enforced. In some communities, inter-caste marriage is unheard of, which can be traced back to the belief that inter-caste marriage leads to ritual impurity for the higher caste partner. This form of marriage is reflective of and clearly maintained by such cultural beliefs. So once again, we see how marriage is an institution designed to complement societal beliefs and structures of society. 

°Attraction and Sexuality

The spectrum of sexuality too has opened up- there’s pansexual, homosexual, demisexual- the list is seemingly infinite. Now, let’s look at incest- the greatest social taboo of all. Leaving aside its moral and biological implications, and its obvious cringe factor, incest is not advantageous to society, that means it has close to no social value. In most societies, people discourage incest by promoting exogamy, marrying outside one’s kin group. Why? Because it’s socially advantageous! Marriage helps create long-standing group alliances and social ties. Humans are social creatures- we need the support of other humans to continue to be adaptive and survive. There is simply more to gain by extending peaceful relations to a wider network of groups. However, this is not always the case. For certain societies, the concept of incest is desirable, for a variety of cultural beliefs and reasons. Royal Endogamy, the idea of brother-sister marriage, is a highly desirable form of marriage in Inca Peru, ancient Egypt and traditional Hawaii. There exists the concept of mana, an impersonal force believed to exist in all creatures and being, in Hawaiians and other Polynesians. It was believed no one has as much mana as the ruler and that the transfer of mana was based on genealogy. Therefore the only other person matching up to the King’s level of mana was his sister. Obsessed with keeping pure mana identities, much like India’s obsession with pure caste identities, the practice of royal exogamy was inevitably incestuous.

Credit- Anna Fuernsteiner

Most relevant to today is the concept of same-sex marriage. Modern societies are now lobbying for this form of marriage to be legal, many have been successful. The desire to culminate one’s love, the widespread awareness about sexuality and its fluidity have fueled these movements and changes.  Interestingly, same-sex relations have been culturally acceptable and significant to many societies, past and present. The Papua societies in New Genuine believe the transmission of sperm from mature males to young males, through oral sex, is a vital right of passage into adulthood, keeping the males protected from the risk and diseases associated with heterosexual intercourse. The Nandi of western Kenya, practice same-sex female marriage, for women who are unable to conceive to keep them from being marginalised and excluded from the community.


Credit- The Week

In modern society, there are no ‘right’ forms of marriage. All marriages are a result of a culture-specific history, values, beliefs and social structures. Some may be in need of reform, because they may be regressive, like India’s inter-caste marriage taboo, but understanding their culture and social significance can mobilise necessary change as well as non-judgment and tolerance in the times to come.

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