Do your duty — The D-word that Goa really doesn’t want to hear in a marriage

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In India, marriage is everybody’s business. Now, even divorce is everybody’s business if you listen to Goa’s law minister Nilesh Cabral. As if it wasn’t enough that your parents, in-laws, relatives and neighbours jumped in to give their two-pennies the minute people uttered the D-word. Now, the Goa government also has turned into a marriage counsellor. This comes after the UP government told us who to date and fall in love with.

Nilesh Cabral announced Tuesday that the state government will introduce ‘pre-marital counselling’ for couples in response to, what he says, is an unprecedented surge in divorces and annulments. Meanwhile, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, also a Nobel laureate, ruffled quite a few feathers when she said in her Vogue issue this week: “I still don’t understand why people have to get married. If you want to have a person in your life, why do you have to sign marriage papers, why can’t it just be a partnership?”

But marriage is on everyone’s mind in India this week it seems. More so than general, at least. And to top it all, the topic ‘marriage’ was a top trend on Twitter India Friday.

This is not entirely surprising because Indians love weddings. They practically invented the concept of the ‘Big Fat Wedding’ — an elaborate celebration of the socially sanctioned coming together of two individuals. However, when it comes to the concept of marriage, the Indian definition of the institution is devoid of any intimacy, emotion or equality.

A marriage isn’t just about two individuals, but is a social duty here.

The Goa minister’s outline for the proposed counselling underscores this fact.

“We should… tell them (couples) what their duty towards each other is, what their duties and responsibilities towards their children are, what their duties towards their in-laws are. We have made a small programme,” said Cabral while discussing his plan.

The keywords in this quote are ‘duties and responsibilities’. Perhaps what Cabral fails to realise is that it is this age-old and fundamentally flawed understanding of marriage. That is why the D in marriage isn’t that half-open door called divorce but duty.

Also read: India’s Constitution is ready for gay marriage. Are India’s society and courts?

Principle of desi marriage is flawed 

Desi marriages are avowedly unequal, offensively heterosexual and embedded in the patriarchal and casteist fabric of society.

There is also unequal labour inherent in a marital relationship. The onus of that physical and emotional burden always falls on the woman. And yet, India has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world. According to a 2018 study, the divorce rate in India stands near 1 per cent. In other words, out of 1,000 marriages, only about 13 end up in divorce.

But the pandemic has definitely made things much worse for married women.

Confined within four walls of a house due to the coronavirus, several marriages crumbled in face of the labour that one partner had to put in as opposed to the other. And it was often always women.

A study by not-for-profit firm Aspire for Her and Sustainable Advancements, published in March 2021, revealed that “38.5 per cent of working women surveyed said they were adversely affected by the burden of added housework, childcare and eldercare while 43.7 per cent said that work-life balance has become worse.”

And yet, as evidenced by the divorce rates in the country, women often choose to stay in bad marriages. Opting for a life of utter misery and possible violence than getting out of it because of sustained stigma against divorce and her economic security. It’s worse if you have children.

Once a woman does get divorced, it’s a brand she carries all her life. She is often seen as a threat to the ‘established order’ of society, even when this deified order is steeped in a nexus of gender inequality and violence. 

It is assumed that only a certain ‘type’ of woman ends up divorcing her partner. Furthermore, if she is a working woman, independent and outspoken, she will be invariably blamed for the divorce.

For instance, no matter what Malaika Arora does in life, somehow she is always known as Arbaaz Khan’s ex-wife and a divorcee. And now that she is in a relationship with Arjun Kapoor, she has endured endless trolling for it.

Narendra Kinger, a clinal psychologist, told HuffPost: “If a marriage fails, we are quick to jump to conclusions and blame the woman for not having ‘adjusted to the situation’. Walking away from a marriage is viewed as a personal failure of the woman in our society.”

Even a ‘’ hasn’t been able to end the stigma.

Also read: ‘Weekend marriages, ego battles’ — why some IAS, IPS couples who meet during training separate

The Goa case

The Goa government’s decision to intervene in marriages is a classic example of the State entering spheres of life that it has no business in.

Marriage is a personal experience and one that should remain personal without any government intervention, which is being done as a misguided attempt to ‘save’ the institution of marriage.

Compared to India’s 1 per cent divorce rate, the number is much higher across the world. According to the study, the European country Luxembourg had the highest divorce rate of 87 per cent. Countries like the US, Russia and France also have very high divorce rates of 46 per cent, 51 per cent, and 55 per cent respectively. And yet, the Goa government thinks divorce should be its priority in a pandemic year. Conveniently choosing to ignore the fact that getting a divorce or annulment is much better than being trapped in a bad marriage.

Perhaps the most important illusion of all to dismantle is the idea that marriage is sacrosanct. This is something that even courts have referred to while giving verdicts against live-in couples, and something politicians have referred to while opposing criminalisation of marital rape. In a judgment on 18 May, the Punjab and Haryana High Court said that live-in relationships were “morally and socially” unacceptable. This came almost a decade after the Supreme Court itself recognised live-in relationships.

And the perfect antidote is that many Indians, in fact, are not willing to get married at all. A YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey in 2020 showed that among millennials, 19 per cent are not interested in either children or marriage, while 8 per cent want children but are not interested in marriage. Among post-millennials (or Gen Z adults), 23 per cent aren’t interested in either children or marriage. This isn’t surprising for a climate-anxious generation that won’t even commit to buying a car and instead only prefers Uber and Ola, as finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman pointed out.

Like every other social institution, marriage is also constantly evolving across the world. While some are outrightly rejecting it, some have embraced different facets of things like a ‘throuple’ (a relationship between three people), or a platonic marriage. It’s time we also strictly reevaluate our ideas of marriage, and when to end it. Use the D-word if it needs to be used.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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