In the past ten years, the concept of arranged marriage has been undergoing a cultural revival in transnational works that represent a mobile, middle and upper-middle class of South Asian women in the subcontinent and the diaspora. The term “transnational” here is understood as the interconnection of cultures and mobility across space (Ong, 4) that has intensified during this contemporary period of globalization. These popular cultural works may be read as creating what Lauren Berlant calls an intimate public, a “porous, affective scene of identification among strangers that promises a certain experience of belonging and provides a complex of consolation, confirmation, discipline, and discussion about how to live as an x” (viii). These literary and filmic texts mobilize the sentimental to offer an alternative perspective to progressive feminist works by constituting a transnational community of women through conjugal ideals. They present a streamlined form of culture that diminishes, rewrites, or ignores the practices and structures that have historically surrounded arranged marriage. In this article, I define and analyze this intimate public as a way to understand how women from an elite transnational class are claiming gendered South Asian identities inside and outside of liberal narratives of progress and neoliberal discourses of choice.
Arranged marriage has become an object of fascination in the West, a point of revulsion, outrage, curiosity, and even envy. Representations of South Asian arranged marriage appear in fiction, film, popular television, and the media. Vikram Seth chose a story about a mother’s search for a husband for her daughter to bind 1,349 pages and multiple plot lines together, depicting India in the years after independence in his 1993 novel A Suitable Boy. Deepa Mehta’s film Fire (1996) examined [End Page 181] the intimate relationships of arranged marriages. Prize-winning contemporary novels, such as Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003), and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003), use the theme of arranged marriage to explore the nature of assimilation. The American sitcom Outsourced (2010–11) featured an arranged marriage plot throughout its first season. Prominent newspaper articles with titles like “First the Marriage, Then the Courtship” (Goodale) explain the continuing practice of arranged marriage in Britain, the United States, and Australia to a popular audience. Tabloids describe “Brides of Doom” (Hall), subject to their immigrant husband’s control.
References to arranged marriage have radically increased in Britain and North America. According to a LexisNexis search, the number of articles published in the United States that feature “arranged marriage” and “India” as primary search terms jumps from under 10 between 1980 and 1985, to over 600 in the last five years of the twentieth century. The same search in British and Canadian newspapers turns up comparable increases on a smaller scale. In Britain during the same time spans of 1980–85 and 2005–10, major newspaper references to arranged marriage relating to Pakistan or Bangladesh increase from under 5 articles to over 450. The number of English-language books with key word “arranged marriage” increases steadily until 2000, and then multiplies more than fivefold in the next five years, doubling again between 2005 and 2010. Within this broader contemporary discourse about arranged marriage, a distinctive—and perhaps unexpected—thread has emerged: the cultural revival of arranged marriage in representations of a “westernized” professional class. This strand has appeared primarily in mass culture, fiction, film, and the media.
Before examining this cultural revival, it is useful to explain the term “arranged marriage.” Despite the widespread recognition of arranged marriage as a concept and its association with South Asian traditions, it is surprisingly difficult to fix a definition. Certain practices, within and outside South Asia, are associated with arranged marriage, such as the match being brokered by elder relatives and/or a match-maker who looks for a spouse from a “good family,” the significance of caste and even subcaste, marriage within the extended family (in the case of certain Muslims), the idea of matching horoscopes, bride-viewing (in which a man’s family comes to tea to “see the girl”), dowry [End Page 182] and...