Arranged marriages are a common traditional practice within the South Asian community in Britain (Hemmings & Khalifa, 2013). There is ambiguity surrounding arranged marriage practices as the Home Office (2000) found practices vary from greatly coercive to completely consensual (Hemmings et al., 2013; Marcus, Begum, Alsabahi & Curtis, 2017). This is problematic as there is a lack of research which focuses on the psychological implications of arranged marriages, considering there is a varying degree of consent and pressure experienced.
Therefore, this study explored the meaning of South Asian women’s lived premarital experiences of their arranged marriages, with particular attention to their experience of choice. Seven South Asian women in Britain were interviewed using semi-structured interviews. Transcripts were analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, which captured the complexities and inter-subjective experiences within their cultural context (Smith, 1996). Four themes were identified: cultural and religious belief systems as influencers, the ripple of pressure, decision-making: negotiation of agency and choice, and self and identity. The themes highlight that women are confined within religious and cultural boundaries that guide their decisions. For South Asian women, permission is fundamental and being given a choice, is perceived as an indirect permission for women to exercise agency, to express their own needs and pursue behaviours in line with their identity. For these women, there were varying degrees of choice given to them at each stage of the process. Importantly, the experience of choice was meaningful for women, as this gave an opportunity for self expression and others caring about their wellbeing. Also, women experienced subtle pressure from their parents and the community, to ensure they uphold cultural duties. The premarital distress often led some women to subjugate their needs, and to accept and conform to alleviate psychological and emotional distress. Although some women exercised personal agency and pushed gender boundaries, many felt objectified due to the lack of involvement within the process, which challenged their sense of identity.
This research informs clinical practice which is to provide South Asian women a safe therapeutic space to understand their own needs, tensions and feelings which may help women to feel connected to their experiences. Fundamentally, women voiced their need for more rights and involvement within the arrangement process, as their family’s needs were often prioritised. This research also proposes more community work for individuals to be aware of their basic human rights and to understand the subjective element of individual’s experiences in arranged marriages. Limitations and future areas for research are explored and discussed.