Arranged Marriage, Rearranged

Professor Deborah Gambs (left, with book) and featured author, Professor Rifat Anjum Salam (right)

Professor Deborah Gambs (left, with book) and featured author, Professor Rifat Anjum Salam (right)
May 5, 2014

Is there a place for arranged marriage in contemporary culture? Are expectations of arranged marriage changing as it travels to the United States?

As part of Asian Heritage Month, Professors Deborah Gambs and Soniya Munshi organized a book talk with BMCC Social Sciences professor Rifat Anjum Salam that explored these questions.

Professor Salam is the author of Negotiating Tradition, Becoming American: Family, Gender, and Autonomy for Second-Generation South Asians, released in 2013 from LFB Scholarly Publishing.

Her research focuses on the changing tradition of arranged marriage and is based on interviews with 60 individuals, ages 22 to 38 years. Most are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and she found her subjects through ethnic organizations.

“I also tried to get balance by reaching out to people from different regions,” she says.

An evolving tradition

Arranged marriage, says Professor Salam, “is embedded in traditional gender ideology … I wanted to see what happens when it is removed from its social construct.”

Her research indicates that arranged marriage in the United States today “evolves through negotiation, compromise and a nuanced understanding of tradition,” she says.

“I found people gravitated toward three different life trajectories: the neo-traditional pathway, the independent pathway and the ethnic rebellion pathway.”

The neo-traditional pathway, she explains, is taken by individuals who have a strong sense of ethnic loyalty and have chosen to marry within their community, while those on the independent pathway have made choices based on what they believe is right for themselves, not parental expectations.

Individuals on the ethnic rebellion pathway started in traditionally oriented families, but made conscious choices to move away from that upbringing.

“Their choice is to move away from traditional expectations, and is very grounded in political decision making,” she says, “often rejecting what they perceive as racism and stifling gender expectations. They’re American but they’ve assimilated into an activist tradition of what it means to be American.”

Life stories

During her presentation, Professor Salam read aloud several of the engaging narratives from her book.

For example Nina, a 33-year-old finance executive, is not completely opposed to the matchmaking events her parents encourage her to attend, but also dates African American men and others outside her culture. As with most of the other interview subjects, she balances her sense of cultural heritage with notions of autonomy and assimilation.

Another commonality of the interviewees is that differences in background and culture are more likely to be accepted by their families if the “outsider” is from a more upper-class family.

“A lot of the stories are about class homogeneity,” says Professor Salam. “People within the middle and upper class are expected to engage in upward mobility and class maintenance.”

She also noted a pattern in which parents of the interview subjects tended to “turn a blind eye” to sons who date outside their cultural heritage group, while daughters “are more closely policed.”

Changing definitions

“I let the subjects talk about what arranged marriage means to them,” says Professor Salam, who was careful not to impose definitions on the interviewees.

“What the parents thought of as ‘arranged marriage’ often changed by the time the children grew up,” she adds.

Professor Salam grew up in Bangladesh, moved to New York with her family and received her Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University.

Her research interests include not only Asian American studies, gender, family, race and ethnicity, but Writing Across the Curriculum and pedagogy for diverse student populations.

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  • As part of Asian Heritage Month, Professor Rifat Anjum Salam discussed her new book, Negotiating Tradition, Becoming American
  • Her research explores the tradition of arranged marriage in families that have immigrated to the United States
  • Sixty interview subjects, ages 22 to 38, shared their personal stories

share this story »