On 14 February, Arun Faiz and Aruna Devi, a transgender man and a cisgender woman from Tamil Nadu got married in a self-respect ceremony. In an interview with The News Minute, the couple said they were influenced by the Dravidian idealogue Periyar’s writings about women’s freedom and oppression. As the news made headlines, the discussion about self-respect marriages was revived.
Marriage is built on inherently patriarchal ideas of ownership and control, a way of forcing women to adhere to societal ideals, often resulting in the erasure of their individuality and identity. Although this has been long discussed and debated, opting to not marry is still heavily stigmatised. The very beginning of a marriage, the wedding ceremony, if dissected, is based on deeply entrenched themes of women’s subordination and casteist superiority.
The idea of a self-respect marriage is not new. It was part of a larger self-respect movement founded by Periyar in 1925 to initiate anti-Brahmin and anti-caste practices. The social movement expanded to focus on relieving marriage from misogynistic shackles and caste endogamy based on the Brahminical obsession with “purity”.
In self-respect marriages, there are no priests, no Gods, no mantras, and mangalsutra is optional. Periyar despised the ritualism and the term, “deyviga kalyanam” or “a wedding ordained by the gods themselves”, which he considered a scam to keep a woman tied to the husband. He spoke against a marriage that treated a woman as subservient to a man, according to Sabrang India, a news platform focused on reporting about gender, Dalit and minority rights.
Instead, the self-respect marriage is built on a promise of respect and equality, and the couple is wedded as partners in every sense. It doesn’t see women as property to be handed over from one man to another but as humans with equal rights, a basic idea that has remained elusive in a society that continues to benefit from discrimination. Be it in the 1920s or today, this type of ceremony remains revolutionary, which points out the continued existence of the problem and a need for radical change.
Over the years, people have turned to self-respect marriage as a way to reclaim control and build companionship with dignity and equality. One of the vows in self-respect marriage ceremonies translates from Tamil as, “In all of life’s joys and troubles, we swear to share equal responsibility and equal entitlement/right, living as firm friends/companions. Whatever privileges you have the right to expect of me in our future, I have an equal right to expect the same of you,” Isai Inmban of the Periyaar Marriage Bureau in Chennai told Sabrang India.
The challenge remains in implementation. Self-respect marriage is currently legal only in Tamil Nadu where the state recognises it as part of the Hindu Marriages Act and limits its applicability to Hindu ceremonies. Hence, while the idea may gain momentum the legalities will limit the follow-through process.
Self-respect marriage offers an alternative viewpoint and proposes: what if we considered marriage to be between equals and not in terms of exchange value? This line of questioning explores alternative ceremonies that lay an equal foundation for marriages are important to change the discrimination that traditional marriages are based on. However, there is still a long way to as marriage continues to reinforce gender binaries and power structures which are normalized to an extent that a change feels more like a demand than a right and that’s where the problem lies.