Mass marriages in India have been used by
communities to help parents with inadequate resources to manage the colossal expenses
demanded by cultural norms incurred in hosting a wedding, especially since the
bride’s parents are the ones who bear the costs of the ceremony. Added to this
is the omnipresence of the social custom of dowry,
paid by the bride’s parents pay for the alliance to the groom’s family. Hence,
social organizations have over the years engaged in this practice of community
marriages where young couples solemnize their wedding at communal functions which
not only reduce the cost of the wedding but often are also free.
The success of such events has meant that
state governments and political groups have also joined the fray. As a
consequence mass marriages in recent years have constantly courted controversy
like instances of minor girls being married off at such functions. The latest
in a series of such controversies was generated at a mass wedding in the central
Indian state of Madhya Pradesh where hundreds of would-be brides reportedly underwent
virginity tests, tests they were informed of only when they reached
the venue. Many were apparently bullied into the ‘medical examination’ as they
were told that their refusal would mean that they would be denied their wedding
gifts worth 6,500 rupees (approximately $132) and even the wedding ceremony. Under
the state-run scheme marriages are solemnized free of cost, all arrangements are
made by the district administration and every couple is also provided
assistance in the form of household articles. Each woman underwent an extensive
physical examination before being given a special badge which allowed them to
participate in the ceremony. Almost all of the prospective brides who were from
poor, tribal families complained of the shame and humiliation they felt
following the exercise.
This scheme, started by the state
government in 2006, was to aid girls from poor families to get married on the
government expense. The denials and explanations have come fast from the local
administration. While some
officials refute that the virginity tests took place there were others who said
the tests were conducted to ensure that “…the women were not pregnant.” Still others said many of the would-be
brides did not have ‘proper documents’ and looked “dubious” which led to the necessity
for a doctor’s examination of the candidates. What really prompted this controversial measure is believed
to be the earlier incident of a woman going into labor pains during the course
of the wedding ceremony sending shock waves throughout her community.
For most communities in the traditional
Indian context the bride’s virginity is expected. With concepts of honor and
dignity deeply woven into women’s role in society and closely tied to her
sexuality, pre-marital sex is frowned upon and a young woman’s virginity is highly
prized. Juxtaposed against this are powerful concepts of male virility and
masculinity which sends confusing signals to young boys and girls especially in
rural areas with fewer avenues for information on sexuality.
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Still other accusations
surfaced following the controversy with allegations that ‘fake marriages’ were
being held since “middlemen produce recently married couples as unmarried” and earn
their ‘cut’ or commission from the government’s financial assistance to the
couples. It is believed that these allegations prompted the local authorities to
order the virginity and pregnancy tests in their desperate attempts to weed out
already-married brides kicking up a storm in the bargain. Of the virginity
and pregnancy tests ordered on the 152 prospective brides, 14 were pregnant
while one girl turned out to be a minor. In the process violating the privacy
of every young woman waiting to be married. Thus the ‘virginity test’ which for
centuries has been traditionally conducted in the groom’s household to test the
chastity of the new bride was converted into a state-sponsored circus.
The National Human Rights Commission
(NHRC) issued a notice to the state government even as the national woman
rights watchdog, the National Commission for Women (NCW) launched an
investigation. On its part, state government insists the ‘procedural medical
examinations’ aimed to keep the event free from any fraudulent entries. Even as the incident shows
signs of taking on political colors as two tribal girls, who had alleged that a
virginity test was conducted on them ahead of the mass marriage function later retracted
their statement the truth is that the state machinery violated the
human rights and dignity of the women present.
Is the concerned state
department then perpetuating the notion that only virgins should be married and
those non-conforming to this primary requirement can be denied the courtesy of
mass wedding? And yet the scheme claims to be applicable to poor unmarried,
widowed, divorced or abandoned women who have found a prospective spouse. How
does that explain a virginity test? While a bride’s virginity is a contentious
issue in traditional Indian context, activists working amongst the tribal
communities claim that many such tribal communities actually have a culture of
boys and girls living together before they decide to marry.
A study titled ‘Youth
in India, Situation and Needs’, conducted across six states representing
different geographical and socio-cultural parts of the country carried out by the International Institute for
Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai and the Population Council, New Delhi
comments on the incidence of premarital sex amongst the youth. According to the
survey, around 19 percent of rural and 10 percent of urban male youth indulge
in pre-marital sex. And young men from certain tribal regions showed a higher
incidence than the national average. Eight percent of young rural women indulge
in pre-marital sex as compared to two percent urban female youth.
Could then also be a case of the state
administration’s own disconnect with local cultural practices; or the actions
of an insensate grassroots bureaucracy who, in its attempts to nab ‘fraudsters,’
infringed upon both tribal and women’s rights. With the government’s financial
aid for such families hinged on the chastity of the girl, this humiliation was
the price the poor women paid for government largesse.