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Defining Marriage: Children Vs. Choice?

11/05/2015 8:16 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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What is the definition of marriage? Is it sacred? Does it imply a life of liberty and freedom? Is it only a bond between two individuals of the opposite sex? Is it about love and commitment? Is it about having children and raising them? Is it about fidelity? Is it the foundation of family life in any society? There is no single answer to these questions, and it appears the definition of marriage depends on who you ask.

I am certain that if one were to conduct a comprehensive survey across India, there would be multiple definitions of marriage. Some might call it a divine blessing, others may talk about duty, some may say it is about women looking after their husbands, some may underline the importance of love and commitment while others may talk about equality and sharing and probably a mix of all of the above.

So, it depends on who you speak to.

This fact makes the Obergefell v. Hodges US Supreme Court case extremely interesting as it will determine whether same-sex marriages should be legalised across the country or whether the power to ratify such marriages remains in the hands of individual states. At the outset, it was clear that the issue would invoke individual rights, liberty or freedom as stated by the Constitution and then the institution of marriage.

"In recent years, even in India, a growing number of marriages are based on the choices of the two individuals. Love has become a critical part of it, indicating that everything changes, even the definition of marriage."

John R Bursch, representing the State of Michigan suggested that marriage was about raising children and the state was only interested in protecting minors. This mirrors a common attitude in India: the goal of marriage is procreation.

But what does this definition actually mean?

According to Associate Justice, Elena Kagan, "So when people come in and ask for a marriage license, they just ask a simple question: 'do you want children?' and if the answer is no, the State says 'no marriage license to you.'" With such a definition, what room is there for love, fidelity and commitment? What would 50- and 60-year-olds who wish to marry do, if this were the definition? What if one were to marry and not have children or merely adopt?

Some of the justices on that day claimed that marriage has been fixed for centuries as defined by the wedding of two opposite sexes and nothing more. This view was criticised as there is enough to show that marriage as an institution has been influenced by economics, politics, scientific advances, adoption, all of which have influenced sociocultural change.

"Gay groups admit that marriage is sacred... But sanctity does not imply that religion and society are handed all the power to make choices.."

"The mandate of procreation to preserve the human race has always been part of the definition of marriage, certainly, but rarely the only goal or, in some cases, even the principal one," points out Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times (the article is titled "Same-sex marriage: Supreme Court Justices don't know much about history"!). Hiltzik refers to Stephanie Coontz, a historian who specialises in family studies stating, "the notion of marriage as the creation of a family unit living together -- man, woman, children -- is by no means a global cultural standard and is even frowned on in some communities as unduly isolating. Polygamous marriages were legal in some American communities through the late 19th century, and according to some legal holdings, still are. And in other parts of the world and other times, the practice was by no means uncommon."

Even a few years ago, reports in India suggest that some farmers in the state of Maharashtra resorted to polygamy as it helped the man have more hands on board. At the time of drought, this was a 'unique' structure that had worked for 30 years already!

marriage india

Historically and even now in India, marriage is often an arrangement -- not just forced by parents but also to fulfil an economic need with the daughter being put up (virtually) for sale. "In Shakespeare's plays alone one finds a kaleidoscope of purposes for marriage -- for love, for dynastic purpose, for spite, for sex, Hiltzik points out. And if we look a bit closer to home, our very own epics depict many variables to a marriage.

In recent years, even in India, a growing number of marriages are based on the choices of the two individuals. Love has become a critical part of it, indicating that everything changes, even the definition of marriage. And that live-in relationships now have some of the status of marriage as per the courts here, underlines this flexibility.

There is no doubt that procreation is important, but so is raising children and taking care of them. Same-sex couples are responsible for raising several million children in the US. If such liberties were allowed in India, more orphans would be adopted by same-sex couples here. In any case, as pointed out by one of the justices, that if care for the children is the only interest that the state has in a marriage, divorce laws and other laws ensures they are cared for.

Gay groups admit that marriage is sacred -- a term used by the Indian government a few days ago in the context of marital rape. But sanctity does not imply that religion and society are handed all the power to make choices. As argued in court, no clergy is expected or forced to bless a marriage but the law must recognise it as a right to liberty enshrined in the constitution.

Clearly, marriage has its variables and should be left to the choices and situations that draw two people together. One must not forget that marriage is not just about children, but about a home established by two people. At some stage, such a marital home may need to be inherited by one of the two surviving partners or split at the time of separation. These liberties or freedoms of choice should be left to the two partners, regardless of their gender.

And never forget that my liberty or freedom to marry another man -- if I were to be allowed -- is not threatening anyone else's ability to marry. We both have that right and can enjoy it in our own private ways.

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