Men and women around the world enjoy the conviction, albeit of varying degree, that the decisions made in regard to their marriages and family lives are matters of personal choice. Even in those societies such as India, wherein arranged marriages remain the norm, it is nonetheless held that the element of control lies, if not necessarily within the bride or groom, in the families concerned, and is therefore an intimate, personal agenda. What is evident in examining various cultures, however, is that each society actually and subliminally exercises the ultimate prerogatives in domestic relations. It may, of course, be the case that the culture itself has been forged by a consistent adherence to certain modes of domesticity; the links between society and individual family, from any broad perspective, are inherently blurred. Nonetheless, however the cultural tides have been set in motion, it appears irrefutable that societal needs and standards ultimately dictate the intensely personal spheres of how marriage is manifested.
As marriage must reflect how men and women of a culture view gender relations, it may be asserted that male and female roles are the basic foundations for the institution, and in any culture. Moreover, societal impact in this arena is not only and obviously vastly influential, it is as well something of a consequence itself; that is, expectations of gender roles within the culture must be shaped by the circumstances and needs of each region, or society, and these foundational necessities then evolve into ritual and custom. For example, polygamy is typically reviled in modern, Western thinking as an expression of a fierce, patriarchal order, one in which women are denied any form of equality. It is, usually, seen as an expression of masculine dominance and sexual avarice. This is not necessarily an unfounded viewpoint, but it ignores the probability of an initial, societal need as generating it in the first place. For example, in certain areas of the world, women greatly outnumber men. In a monogamous state, then, most women would never have the opportunity to marry and, more importantly to the state, produce legitimate offspring. Consequently, many Islam nations wherein there has been a traditional paucity of men have sanctioned polygamy, and infused it into their most devoutly held belief systems. Thus the inflexible patriarchal component within Islamic gender relations is actually based upon a literal fact of living and an essential requirement of the state, to best utilize the available human assets.
Of course, this inevitably translates into the intimate relations between man and wife, as well as into the raising of children and the woman's role in the home. In these Middle Eastern nations, influences of faith combine with societal gender expectations to establish child-rearing as virtually unthinkable for the male. If, for example, a new mother is unwell and a nurse attempts to guide the father in necessary duties for the infant, he will not merely fail to comply; insulted, he will refuse to listen. By way of contrast, the !Kung women of the southern African tribe explored by Marjorie Shostak appear, art least initially, to evince a modernity beyond even Western norms of domestic arrangements and expectations. Women of the !Kung are the “breadwinners” of the family, gathering the major portions of the family's diets, and they subsequently enjoy a great deal of autonomy. They may be absent from the home without accounting to their mates, and men and women share equally in the raising of, and influences on, the children. In these communities, function and form become synonymous, in terms of gender activity. The !Kung rely on grown food as their chief sustenance, and the women obtain it, which must convey something of a status upon them. As, then, the landscape and conditions permit great measures of gender equality, the culture embraces gender equality in the marriages because the shared labor most effectively ensures quality of life.
It seems, no matter where a focus is applied, that living conditions radically influence how even the most time-honored aspects of family life are viewed. In discussing the high rates of infant mortality in the northeastern area of Brazil known as Alto de Cruzeiro, Nancy Scheper-Hughes explores the ostensibly unlikely way in which the women of this predominantly poverty-stricken region accept the deaths of their babies as, essentially, a condition of nature. In this instance, all traditional concepts of maternal attachment, both Western and Eastern, are strangely diffused; midwives in the area, for example, are as busy in advising mothers as to how to prepare an infant for an inevitable death as they are in assisting in births. Here, not only are external forces of the society shaping the most intimate and internal domestic affairs, they are as well altering what is typically viewed as an inviolable process, that of the mother forming a potent, emotional bond with her baby. Few gender roles are as emphatically maintained in all cultures as that of motherhood, and it is indicative of the power of regional and/or cultural conditions that even this elemental role may be drastically altered.
As men and women continually discover anew everywhere, marriage is a thing far beyond that of a union of two people. It is intrinsically familial, as the families of both parties are typically involved in the process. Then, a society is little more than an extension of a family. Acknowledged differences in size and complexities aside, the basic reality is that both systems are communal, and rely upon as harmonious a merging of abilities and duties as may be achieved. Consequently, more than a few cultures practice the arranging of marriages by the families, simply because the well-being of each family, and the subsequent formation of a healthier new one, is deemed so important as to eclipse concepts of romantic attachment as the basis for marriage.
India provides a striking example of how a culture's precepts regarding marriage may become inextricably infused within the belief systems of its people, to such an extent that there is no longer any real distinction between what is state-endorsed and what is demanded by family honor and tradition. The nation holds to a conviction that no mode of uniting couples is more likely to be beneficial than the arranged marriage, and for all concerned parties, and this exists even in the face of modern influences: “Even among the educated middle classes in modern, urban India, marriage is as much a concern of the families as it is of the individuals”. This ideology, naturally enough, is both dependent upon societal and cultural practices, and vastly instrumental in promoting the same. No matter the outcomes, it can be reasonably concluded that the arranged marriage reflects a gravity likely to be absent in that more romantically inspired; it is based upon sense and rationality, and considered as a vital factor in the greater whole of the involved families. This, in turn, reflects a concern for the well-being and stability of the society as a whole. Then, as investigated by Serena Nanda, there is an interesting mode of thinking evinced by the young women of India which is by no means resistant to the tradition. Rather than lament such arrangements as precluding their options for romantic choice, there seems to be instead an appreciation for the fact that this “obligation” is being determined by others, allowing the girls a freedom in living they see as denied to Westerners. Here again, then, it appears that a social construct actually perpetuates itself, as advantages are derived from the process practiced.
It is relatively safe to assert that the culture has yet to be identified in which men and women have developed infallible and uniform means of entering into marriages, sustaining them, and raising children well. Patriarchies, even today, generally demand that the chief burden of child-rearing fall on the women. Moreover, even those cultures which exhibit a marked parity between the genders in marriages are not unacquainted with failed marriages, and the unhappy consequences of them. What is most important to regard, however, is that no culture fosters its ideas on marriage apart from the life and foundations of its society, and men and women view marriage, consciously or otherwise, through the lens of how the society perceives it. No matter what cultural tides have been set in motion or what basic, regional concerns demand,, it appears incontrovertible that each society's needs and standards ultimately dictate the intensely personal ways in which marriage is conducted.
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