Marriage Across Cultures Globally

Once during his extended sojourn in Central Asia, this writer had the opportunity to meet an Ingush woman from the Caucasus, and to learn about her life. A charming lady who carried a .22 caliber at all times, she informed him with pride that a man who liked her kidnapped her on an impulse when she was all of 15 years old, and 'married' her –and then he really married her. All by force. This was while she lived in the wild east town of Makhachkala in Dagestan on the Caspian, where such things are not a rarity. She bore him two children and was eternally grateful to him for having the courage to kidnap her against her wish. At the time when this writer met this woman, her daughter was 23 years old, and she was totally against letting any man kidnap her in order to marry her.

Her experience did not seem out of place in the twin republics of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in Central Asia, where Ala-Kachuu or Alyp Qashu (bride-kidnapping) is a widespread phenomenon –even though it has been an illegal act for a number of years now, albeit rarely prosecuted. (Of course it is a different matter that nothing bad seems out of place in Kyrgyzstan, where the officially recorded intentional homicide rate is seven to eight times greater than India. Nazarbayev's Kazakhstan is no different in its essence; when a popular opposition leader Zamanbek Nurkadilov was found with one shot to the back of his head and two to his chest, it was ruled a suicide by the prosecutor general.) Bride kidnapping is done sometimes with and sometimes without the woman's consent.

In New Zealand back at the turn of the century, this writer noted that the institution of marriage in the larger cities survives mostly in the form of de facto partnerships, and you are much more likely to meet a person who describes his or her partner as just that, and not as a wife or a husband. While this is a relatively new phenomenon for the Pakeha (NZ European) majority, many pacific island people (like the Samoans for example) who constitute a significant portion of the population of Auckland are inveterate practitioners of live-in relationships from olden days. There is a perfunctory exchange of gifts between a man and a woman, and then they start living together. Chinese and Indian immigrants are also picking up this form of marriage very quickly. This is all between humans, and reports about Kiwi men marrying their sheep are purely speculative, though understandable considering the emergence of literacy amongst harem fantasists who see tremendous scope in the sixty four million merinos in the land of the long white cloud.

While on the topic of live-in relationships amongst Chinese and Indians, it is interesting to note that this phenomenon is spreading to many traditionally restrictive cultures too. In Singapore, young Chinese yuppie women consider it a status symbol to have a white boyfriend (or a Caucasian boyfriend –as they are referred to in this Chinese dominated culture, where the local authorities do not encourage the use of the word 'white' for Europeans, as they consider themselves to be white too, and do not wish to let any foreign ethnic group monopolise this adjective). This phenomenon is reflective both of a national urge to marry the desirable ethnicity, as well as the liberation of women to the point where they can reject their own men for no fault of theirs, all the time making jokes about a sensitive physical attribute, inter alia.

In India too, the trend of living-in has emerged in certain small but influential social pockets. The Indian experience, however, is laden with rape accusations post break-up, as can be made out from a rash of news reports in the past few months. However the most charming contribution made by India to women's liberation and the institution of marriage remains the Swayamvar, which means self-selection of her groom by a bride. The fact that there is no special word for selection by parents indicates that the predominance of arranged marriages is of an ancient provenance.

Lord Ram married Sita after performing a task set by her father. Arjun did something similar to gain Draupadi's hand. These were task oriented swayamvars. The other common type of swayamvar was the one in which the bride selected the suitor who she found most charming. Desirable girls in India in the twenty first century also practice a de facto form of swayamvar, although they don't gather a crowd of men at one time and place for this purpose. This is partly the result of the prevailing skewed gender ratio nationwide, and partly due to the desirability of the girl under consideration.

The Bible and other Mediterranean histories have several references to men stealing other men's wives and marrying them, with different end results. The wives are often depicted as innocent figures in the whole game. Paris kidnapped Helen of Troy and was killed eventually. David –slayer of Goliath, father of Solomon, and ancestor of Jesus Christ– seduced Bathsheba and then organised the killing of her husband Uriah at the hands of enemy troops.

In ancient Egypt, many of the Pharaohs married their own sisters. This was apparently done to preserve the purity of the royal line. They even included this phenomenon in their mythology. Isis and Osiris were ancient deities who were siblings and married each other. Isis went on give birth to Osiris' child Horus, the hawk-faced Egyptian god. On Earth, there was a long line of Ptolemies and Cleopatras, brothers and sisters who were married to each other.

The final Cleopatra –the one who is famous in history– married her father Ptolemy after his wife/sister died. After his death she married two of her brothers –also named Ptolemy– one after the other. Later on she had a relationship with Julius Caesar, and married Marc Antony after Julius Caesar's death, but these men were not her brothers by far, although the word 'brother' was evidently meaningless in that time and place, and it would have only made a positive difference to the probability of her and them having sexual relations had they been siblings.

In the USA, marriage followed by divorce as a means to personal enrichment is extremely common, and has been commented upon by many writers. The one phenomenon relating to marriage in America which is most notable goes by the name of Las Vegas. People elope and get married in Lost Wages, at very low cost compared to a traditional wedding, without the bother of gathering a crowd of relatives and friends or organising a feast. Pastors who solemnise weddings in this town often dress up as Elvis or Marilyn Monroe or Mickey Mouse or (insert name of your favourite personage here) to bring that extra touch to a wedding. It is also possible to have your honeymoon in Paris or Venice without leaving this town. Drive through chapels to get married are a phenomenon unique to Vegas, and are a fitting second act to getting a marriage license in a matter of minutes.

Marriages exist in Brazil also, but just how the institution has managed to survive is unfathomable. Brazilians are rumoured to **** anyone who catches their fancy. This is quite problematic, considering the fact that this country tops the table of countries vis-à-vis the percentage of attractive people in their population. Football is NOT their national sport, reports to the contrary notwithstanding. Another soccer crazy country which has pretty much the same problematic or joyful situation is the Netherlands –home to the city of Amsterdam. Incidentally both these countries were pioneers in the recognition of same sex marriages.

Russia on the other hand treats homosexual propaganda as a criminal offence, but adultery is evidently their national sport, pretty much like the Brazilians. It also has the highest rate of herpes infections in the world, incidentally, and the divorce and suicide rates are quite simply stupefying. Rampant corruption, unpunished crime and endemic alcoholism are often claimed to be punishment from God for adultery by members of the Orthodox Christian clergy. Brazil is also not untouched by crime. Some visitors to Delhi remarked to an audience which included this writer that it was a pleasant surprise to see that beggars in Delhi actually begged instead of grabbing. Another –perhaps apocryphal– story goes that bus drivers in Rio, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte wear wristwatches on their right wrists to prevent them from being snatched by people who ask the time.

In China politicians often marry more than once, or keep concubines. Some successful and active men have been known to have more than a dozen such. Successful Japanese men have traditionally sought companionship from Geishas who excel in the art of conversation and ego-massage, while using their wives for child-rearing. Marrying and divorcing within a day or a week is a phenomenon which can be seen in a number of Arab countries, where sex outside marriage is a crime. Saddam Hussein, otherwise no observant Muslim in life –though he died with the name of Allah on his lips– stuck to a maximum number of four wives. Muammar Gaddafi too married only twice. Both these men had many ladies outside marriage, with Gaddafi being reported to have more notches on his belt than any man dead or alive.

Many national leaders have had failed marriages, with Indira Gandhi, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Vladimir Putin being names that spring to mind immediately. Many have opted to remain single. There was a time when both the President (Abdul Kalam) and the Prime Minister (Vajpayee) of the country were bachelors, and Digvijay Singh had infamously blamed drought in India on the fact of being ruled by such men.

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Published by Manish Udar

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Last updated on 24th July 2013
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