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Here’s why interfaith marriages in India continue to raise eyebrows

Resentment against interfaith relationships highlight ingrained patriarchy and sexism

In February 2018, 23-year old Ankit Saxena was brutally murdered by the father and uncle of his girlfriend Shehzadi in New Delhi. In a fit of fury and fear of societal backlash, the girl’s father took it upon himself to kill the guy in an attempt to end the relationship.

This violent and reprehensible act was the result of vehement opposition to the relationship because it was interfaith. Ankit came from a Hindu family whereas Shehzadi belonged to a Muslim household.

Shehzadi’s father confessed to police that he had gone out with the full intention of killing Ankit and ending the entire squabble, claiming that the relationship had caused him great embarrassment in the community. And while the disturbing incident made headlines across the country, the girl’s parents seemed unfazed in the aftermath of the crime. The primary reason for this apathy was the result of just how unacceptable interfaith relationships are to a significant number of Indians. 

A 2018 survey of urban Indians revealed an astounding 93 percent of respondents had found their partners through a match set up by their parents from within their religious or caste communities. In addition, three-quarters of those surveyed did not approve of inter-caste marriages for their children.

This sweeping number largely stems from strict patterns of endogamy promoting marriages within one’s religion or caste so as to preserve social and financial hierarchy. Since patriarchy subsume’s a woman’s identity into her father or husband’s, inter-religious marriages pose a challenge to this set up.

In addition to wanting to maintain the status quo, Indian families tend to focus on their outward personas as functional units. Interfaith marriages raise questions within religious communities:  Will the girl convert to the guy’s religion? Why did the parents not intervene? What wedding traditions will the couple have? What will be the religion of the couple’s offsprings? Who will marry the siblings of such couples? Families tend to wish to avoid such questions and having to answer them.

In recent times, India has witnessed fervent right-wing extremism and the birth of the concept of ‘Love Jihad’, in which relationships between Muslim men and Hindu women are painted as targeted attempts to convert the women to Islam.  In early 2018, a Facebook page was pulled after it listed the names of 102 Muslim men who were allegedly involved with Hindu women, asking Hindus to “track and hunt the boys on the list”.

Such disturbing trends have been augmented by episodes of violence against interfaith couples by self-appointed moral police. Cases of physical assaults and mob violence against such couples have become prominent in recent times. The occurrence of such episodes has made it more difficult to push the envelope of free choice and more progressive values within the Indian diaspora.

One can witness the situation getting grimmer as interfaith couples are harassed by police officials as well. In 2017, the country’s National Investigation Agency rounded at least twelve interfaith couples in the state of Kerala to question them on their relationships.  The most prominent case was of a 24-year-old Indian woman named Hadiya who was in the eye of a judicial and religious storm for having married a Muslim man. Born Akhila Ashokan to Hindu parents, Hadiya converted to Islam and married Shafin Jahan.

The marriage, her father claimed, was borne out of forced conversion, while Hadiya maintained that it was of her own choice. A case was registered in court to “rescue” Hadiya, calling for the annulment of the marriage. Hadiya persisted that she had married for love, without any coercion. The Supreme Court of India later restored her right to be with the person she wanted to be, irrespective of their religion, that had earlier been annulled by a lower court.

These episodes are a result of narrow-mindedness and right-wing nationalism gaining ground within Indian society. Families, couples and society at large have a long way to go towards respecting individual freedom of religion and marriage, granted as constitutional rights to all Indians.

Accepting love as the basis of happy and successful relationships is the foundation of resilient and harmonious societies. Being born in a particular religion is not a matter of choice, but choosing whom you spend your life with is. While interfaith couples might face more hurdles than intrafaith ones, jingoistic and politically driven actors have tried to give such relationships a nationalistic tinge.

Change, however, is imminent. It can be resisted through fear and hatred, but it does eventually come about.

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court announced interracial marriages valid, placing a permanent end to all state laws that opposed them.  That civil rights decision saw a remarkable rise in the numbers of interracial marriages, which in 2015 constituted 17% in the country.

We are not too far away from the day when interfaith couples become the norm in India. It would indicate a shift towards a more open, tolerant and accepting society. But until then, the fight has to continue to challenge sexism, patriarchy and misogyny existing in the minds and lives of our current generation as well as those of the future.