Narratives of Women in Arranged Marriages in the Christian Philippines: Analytical Essay

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In this essay, I argue that an anthropological perspective can show us that modern views about companionate marriage, often seen as the ideal for romantic love, can co-exist with differing perspectives about love and marriage. To show this, I initially focus on the narratives of women in arranged marriages in the Christian Philippines, then turn to the conflict between polygamy, romantic love, and cultural expectations for the Senegalese. Particular reference is given to two ethnographies about marriages, with Neveu-Kringelbach`s focusing on Senegal (Neveu-Kringelbach 2016) and Cannell`s on the Christian Philippines (Cannell 1999), as they emphasize the significance of the family in the creation of relationships, highlighting their role in both reinforcing traditional practices and driving new ideas about romantic love. I then move away from a focus on individual ethnographies, showing how theories about the globalization of romantic love erase many other relationship ideals. Ultimately, I argue that changing patterns of marriage and ideas about love, moving towards the romanization of relationships, do not have to show the complete rejection of other perspectives.

Cannell`s ethnography of marriage, power, and intimacy in the Christian Philippines, gives weight to my argument that ideas about romantic love can exist alongside more traditional cultural perspectives, particularly arranged marriages (Cannell 1999). Although in the Philippines arranged marriages were much more common in older generations, they still play a significant role in informing attitudes to love. Within Bicol, real love is commonly understood as having understood each other or having talked to each other (Cannell 1999: 32), but in arranged marriages, the young women involved are often spoken for, with the parents taking on this role. While this initially seems to present a conflict between romantic love and traditional marriage practices, the two can actually co-exist. If we reframe the idealistic view of true love and view marriage as more of a process in which love can be learned (Cannell 1999: 42), then it becomes clear that even if women do not speak for themselves, or even show reluctance, towards their marriage, this does not mean that romantic love will not form. For example, Cannell presents the narrative of Severina G, who was given away to be married in order to pay off the debt her father owed to the man who saved his life. Although she was initially reluctant and opposed the marriage, this changed over time, viewing the marriage as successful whilst talking to Cannell many years after her marriage (Cannell 1999: 29). Severina`s account is consistent with many other narratives of arranged marriages in Cannell`s ethnography, and provides two key insights into our understanding of love. Firstly, the emphasis on parental intervention in forming romantic relationships allows us to see their crucial role in keeping traditional approaches to love and marriage alive. Secondly, narratives like Severina`s are also helpful to see how romantic love and practices like arranged marriage can be interconnected, not exist in opposition. Therefore, even reductions in arranged marriages do not suggest either a rejection of parental involvement in marriage, favoring the independent formation of relationships, or a full immersion into modern ideas of romance and companionate marriage.

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Neveu-Kringelbach`s ethnography of alternative marriage choices in Senegal is also useful for my argument that companionate relationships and traditional views on love are able to co-exist- in this case, polygamy is viewed as the traditional Senegalese practice. Neveu-Kringelbach shows how young women`s negative first-hand experience of polygamy, particularly witnessed between their parents throughout childhood, leads to them seeking out marriages outside of Senegal, often to non-Islamic, European men (Neveu-Kringelbach 2016). This experience was the case for Mariam, a Senegalese woman who married and moved to France with her European husband. As a young girl, she saw the effects of bringing a second wife into the home, believing this to be a major contributing factor in her mother`s death. Because of this negative experience of polygamy, she sought out an alternative marriage, believing that a non-Muslim and European husband would not engage in a tradition of polygamy (Neveu-Kringelbach 2016: 167). This search for companionate marriage, heavily influenced by the actions of parents and family, initially appears to present a crucial disjunction between attitudes towards love and marriage, however, in reality, the approaches are not irredeemably incompatible. Romantic love and emotional fulfillment as key aims of marriage are not new attitudes in Africa, becoming increasingly mainstream views by the mid-twentieth century (Thomas, Fair, and Mutongi 2009). Since these attitudes cannot be classed as new, and polygamy is still prevalent within Senegalese society, the rise in companionate marriages therefore cannot be viewed as a transitional period, expanding until polygamy and other traditional practices cease to exist (Neveu-Kringelbach 2016: 159). This view is well documented within Senegal, with the press publishing stories of celebrity polygamous relationships that a well-received by the public, and surveys show a gradual decline in polygamy, not a complete disappearance (Neveu-Kringelbach 2016: 159). Therefore, modern and traditional views about love are intertwined and are able to co-exist in society, rather than competing to become the only acceptable way to approach love.

Both of these ethnographies show the resilience of old marriage relationship practices in the face of new attitudes towards love, providing an emergence of intertwined romantic ideals. The roles of parents and family in facilitating this co-existence are highlighted by both anthropologists, although in contrasting ways. Whilst obedience towards the wishes of parents despite personal reluctance has often allowed the practice of arranged marriages to continue in the Philippines (Cannell 1999) negative experiences of polygamy witnessed through parental relationships have gradually reduced polygamous relationships in younger generations, despite not completely eradicating the tradition (Neveu-Kringelbach 2016). These ethnographies, therefore, provide further strength to my argument, showing how family relationships allow different ideas about love to emerge and continue alongside older traditions more engrained into historic marriage systems.

Wardlow and Hirsch, define companionate marriage as an ideal centered on emotional closeness, labeling the increase of view on the centrality of romantic love to marriage as a phenomenon of modern capitalism (Wardlow and Hirsch 2006: 4). While this can certainly be seen through the influence of global media, portraying love in this way through tabloids, music and film for example, therefore creating romantic ideals, particularly for young women, this view seems to overlook the resilience of more traditional approaches to love. In many cultures, romantic love plays a very limited role in the arrangement of marriages, with reasons such as family alliance, religious obligation, and economic necessity often taking priority. This was observed by Monaghan in his ethnographic study of Nuyoo, where the widower Fernando sought a wife in order to ensure his family`s well-being and fulfill the domestic needs of the household (Monaghan and Just 2000: 76). Neveu-Kringelbach also found this continuation of the traditional marriage practices, observing those that chose to remain in polygamous relationships and marry Senegalese men often did so for religious reasons and to maintain their morality in the eyes of their family and social peers (Neveu-Kringelbach 2016). Even those that chose to marry out often then placed greater emphasis on their moral and religious duties, financially supporting their families, converting their European husbands to Islam, and raising any subsequent children in accordance with religious ideals. (Neveu-Kringelbach 2016: 168) These anthropological examples further illustrate the simultaneous relationship between modernity and tradition in relation to perspectives on love, which I have shown to exist, despite theories about a widespread dominance of companionate marriage.

As I have shown, an anthropological perspective can help inform us about love by providing examples of a co-existing relationship between different views on love and marriage. This allows us to see the complexities of choosing relationships when there is more at stake than just finding a romantic partnership and fulfilling emotional closeness. The two ethnographies I have focused on, have provided insight into the survival of traditional approaches to marriage, showing how new ideas do not necessarily mean a complete replacement and rejection of past attitudes. Cannell`s ethnography does this with particular emphasis on arranged marriages and how family relationships have supported the continuation of this tradition in the Christian Philippines, despite the increasingly globalized narrative of romantic love (Cannell 1999). Neveu-Kringelbach`s ethnography similarly stresses the role of the family in decisions about love but shows how this has led to a decrease (but not total eradication) of polygamy in Senegal (Neveu-Kringelbach 2016). I have used these ethnographies as a lens through which I have been able to show how anthropology allows different perspectives and attitudes towards a love to be seen as compatible, rather than viewing romantic love as a universal truth- a view that is profoundly dangerous in erasing differing reasons why relationships are formed.

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Narratives of Women in Arranged Marriages in the Christian Philippines: Analytical Essay. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from
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