The birth of an infant is celebrated with rites of welcome and blessing, typically much more elaborate for a boy than for a girl. Although India boasts many eminent women and was once led by a powerful woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and while goddesses are extensively worshiped in Hindu rituals, statistics reveal that girls are, in fact, disadvantaged in India. The 2001 Census counted only 933 females per 1000 males, reflecting sex-selective abortion, poorer medical care and nutrition, and occasional infanticide targeting females. [iii]
Parents favor boys because their value in agricultural activities tends to be higher, and after marriage a boy continues residing with his parents, supporting them as they age. In contrast, a girl drains family resources, especially when a large dowry goes with her to her
husband’s home. In recent decades, demands for dowries have become quite exorbitant in certain groups.
Marriage is deemed essential for virtually everyone in India, marking the great watershed in life for the individual. For most of Hindu northern and central India, marriages are arranged within the caste between unrelated young people who may never have met. Among some south Indians communities and many Muslims, families seek to strengthen existing kin ties through marriages with cousins whenever possible. For every parent, finding the perfect partner for one’s child is a challenging task. People use their existing social networks, and increasingly, matrimonial newspaper advertisements. The advertisements usually announce religion, caste, educational qualifications, physical features, and earning capacity, and may hint at dowry size (even though giving or accepting dowries is actually illegal).
Among the highly educated, brides and grooms sometimes find each other in college or professional settings. So-called love marriages are becoming less scandalous than in previous years. Among Indian residents of North America, brides and grooms often meet through South Asian matrimonial websites. Many self-arranged marriages link couples of different castes but similar socioeconomic status.
Usually, a bride lives with her husband in his parental home, where she should accept the authority of his senior relatives, perform household duties, and produce children—especially sons—to enhance his family line. Ideally, she honors her husband, proudly wears the cosmetic adornments of a married woman, and cheerfully fulfills her new role. If she is fortunate, her husband will treat her with consideration, treasure her contributions to his household, and allow her continuing contact with her natal relatives. For many young wives, this is a difficult transition. While some negative stigma is still attached to women’s employment in many circles, an increasing number of women are working in a variety of occupations.
Death causes the restructuring of any family. The demise of a woman’s husband brings the dreaded status of inauspicious widowhood. Widows of low-status groups have always been allowed to remarry, but widows of high rank have been expected to remain chaste until death.