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Marriage presumably makes our lives better. It’s an opportunity to cherish traditions and culture with loved ones. It has had a questionable relationship with politically dominant institutions like State and Religion. Typically, these institutions have determined legitimate forms of relationships and outlawed relations that go against conventional moral boundaries. Various groups with deviating notions of love have challenged status quo by either demanding equal rights or rebelling against the established norms. Some attempts were successful (inter-racial marriage in US, inter-caste marriage in India, same-sex marriage in most places) while others were countered with discrimination resulting in their taboo status (polygamy among Mormons, consensual incest, etc.).

Influence of religious groups on determining statuses of relationships has reduced over the last century. Yet, people still acknowledge governmental right to decide the limits of marriage and love. Lawyer Dean Spade and cultural studies professor Craig Willse (2013) define civil marriage as “a tool of social control used by governments to regulate sexuality and family formation by establishing a favored form and rewarding it”. They point out how civil marriage has historically been a symbol of racism, gendered social control, immigration enforcement and much more.

Anthropologist Gayle Rubin in, ‘Thinking Sex’ (1984) describes how systems, hierarchically ranking sexual practices, change over time to sustain their control. She differentiates between “the charmed circles” and “the outer limits” of relationships and how they are considered normal and abnormal respectively. The first group consists of heterosexual, monogamous, procreative, non-commercial, vanilla sex, non-pornographic, married and same generational relationships. She categorizes the second group as homosexual, promiscuous, non-procreative, commercial, sadomasochistic, cross-generational, casual, pornographic and unmarried relationships. Rubin elaborated this sex hierarchy circle in a paper published three decades ago. Unsurprisingly, since then various relationships have changed their moral status. This is consistent with her theory about how dominant groups, based upon their survival needs, choose to award relationships with the desirable status. Rubin says, “Society is organized into systems of power, which reward and encourage some individuals and activities, while punishing and suppressing others”.

According to the Indian Special Marriage Act, 1954, a couple must satisfy following conditions to be recognized as a lawfully recognized relationship:

  • The bridegroom must be at least 21 and the bride must be at least 18 years of age at the time of marriage. This is the minimum age limit for a boy/girl to marry, respectively.
  • Both the parties must be monogamous at the time of their marriage; i.e. they must be unmarried and should not have any living spouse at that time.
  • The parties should be mentally fit in order to be able to decide for themselves; they must be sane at the time of marriage.
  • They should not be related to themselves through blood relationships; i.e. they should not come under prohibited relationships, which will otherwise act as a ground to dissolve their marriage.

Clearly many relationships Rubin mentions in “the outer limits” are criminalized by this Act. These restrictions fail to focus on arguably the most significant criterion- consent. Married individuals are even restricted to separate through divorce under the same Act unless a sufficient reason is provided. Sadly, sufficiency is a subjective factor. Without a marriage license the consensual relation would be illegal. When such concepts are applied to personal issues, it becomes clear how much the state influence has penetrated our lives.

In India, there are discrepancies between religious personal laws based upon their doctrines and the common law government intends to establish over all citizenry. Though it is good that everyone in a nation be treated equally by same rules, critics have time and again argued how these laws shouldn’t permeate intimate affairs concerning sexuality and marriage.

Even the globalized struggle advocating legalization of homosexual marriage tries to enter such a discriminative system. The conservative understanding of marriage is challenged with these goals. Yet, on the larger scale, the conclusion people draw is that everyone wants to be part of the “accepted” groups. Civil marriages help people with tax cuts, healthcare, job opportunities and many other things. These services are largely unavailable to those below poverty lines who actually need it but are unrecognized by governmental organizations because of tedious registering procedures. For the state, these relationships are illegitimate and hence don’t reap benefits they deserve. People should be skeptical that something so personal has been in the political arena for so long.

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Written By Paresh Hate

I do social and political criticism of status quo because it has unresolved foundational issues pertaining to ethics and philosophy that call for scrutiny.

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