From a shortage of women to the "importation" of wives

From a shortage of women to the "importation" of wives

All the articles of the month

Apprehensions of a "nation without women"

Matrubhoomi, A Nation Without Women, was released in 2003. This Indian movie, though little known in India, has won three international awards. As its title hints at, it deals with the consequences of selective abortion and female infanticide in India. The film depicts a rural village where girls are systematically killed at birth and where only one woman remains, Kalki. After hiding her for years, Kalki’s father, a peasant, agrees to sell her to a wealthy family to be married to five brothers. Failing to find wives, the men in the village ease their sexual frustration as much as possible: from pornographic movie screenings to dance performances with transgender people, zoophilia and gang rape. In short, not only does the director, Manish Jha, push the problem of sex-ratio imbalance to its climax, but he also shows without any complacency that the masculinization of society is a source of multiple kinds of violence.

Poster for the film Matrubhoomi
Movie poster of Matrubhoomi, A Nation Without Women (Manish Jha, 2003)

In the absence of sufficient data, it seems risky to support the correlation between an imbalanced sex ratio and these kinds of violence, which are nevertheless supported by several researchers (Oldenburg, 1992; Hudson and den Boer, 2002). Yet, this politically engaged movie has the merit of showing one type of marriage that can result from situations of unbalanced demography. Usually, in Northern India, marriage takes place between two families of a same caste, and the dowry (this combination of cash and goods such as gold jewelry, furniture, car, etc. that the bride's family gathers and gives to the husband's family) constitutes one of its fundamental elements. Based on the case of Kalki, the film director stages an unusual marriage: not only does it defy the usual class and caste boundaries between spouses but, additionally, the union is sealed without a dowry. This echoes one of my current research questions: how are alliance rules reconfigured in a context of demographic imbalance? To what extent can conventional matrimonial rules be applied in a country where 63 million women are missing?


Sex ratio map of India
Sex ratio map from the data of the 2011 Census
Source :

Considering hypergamy and land fragmentation

Over the past two decades, men from a district in Haryana have been mobilizing through collectives such as the "Association of Single Men" (Avivahit Purush Sangathan) or the "Union of Single People of Jind District" (Jind Kunwara Union). The latter, formed in 2009, during a campaign of political elections, deplored the fate of forced celibacy and offered votes to the political candidates who would be able provide them women.

Members of the Union of Single People of the Jind District
Members of the Union of Single People of the Jind District (Source)

Unlike these collectives, for which the sex-ratio imbalance is the source of the problem, Punjabis struggling to find a local wife are more likely to blame their personal fate or the agricultural crisis. The ethnographic fieldwork I have carried out in different villages in Malwa - a rural region of Punjab, a state historically known for its sex-ratio imbalance - has shown that demographic imbalance alone cannot explain the difficulty that some men face in finding a wife. While the men I met acknowledged that female selective abortion was a persistent practice in Punjab (sometimes citing a few cases from their own villages), the correlation between a shortage of girls and a shortage of wives was not always established. My respondents mentioned the problems of land fragmentation more than the impact of gender imbalance.  In an inheritance, the land is divided between the sons within a given family; for the less well-off or the larger families, the area decreases considerably over generations. Who, as they told me, would agree to marry a peasant who only owns a couple acres of land? This concern was particularly acute among Jat families - so-called dominant landowners - who have become impoverished. Among them, men who suffer from a bad reputation (because of alcoholism, drug addiction, a tendency to violence, publicly known family conflicts) or who are physically handicapped (from the amputation of a hand or an arm during an accident at work, for example) were particularly concerned. Because of female hypergamy - a highly valued practice in North India, whereby a woman is married to a man of higher status - men from disadvantaged backgrounds find it even more difficult to find a wife.

Finding a wife

In Punjab, single men are frequently mocked and pejoratively referred to as shadaa. This category of unmarried men in their thirties to whom the villagers of Malwa sometimes referred to, giggling, is also taken up by the director Jagdeep Sidhu and made fun of in his recently released movie Shadaa (June 2019). This movie reminds us that marriage remains the norm in India and that single men are, as such, usually excluded and considered as second-class citizens.

In Punjab, as well as in Haryana (Kaur, 2004, 2016) and Uttar Pradesh (Chaudhry, 2018), some men who have not been able to marry and who have reached their thirties bring in poor women from other Indian regions or even from neighbouring countries such as Nepal or Bangladesh. Based on my data (45 couples interviewed one to three times each), these wives are mainly illiterate women, who usually come from Bengal or Bihar (known as poor Indian states) and whose caste, language, habits (clothing, cooking, etc.), age, sometimes even religion, differ from those of the Punjabi husband. The methods for match-making are diverse, ranging from acquaintances or neighbours taking advantage of their networks and professions to bring a woman for a fee, to more or less organized networks of traffickers kidnapping teenage girls or persuading parents in need (precarious economic or family situation) to sell their daughters, or even formerly purchased wives who, in turn, bring young girls from their place of origin.

It is known that in India - particularly in the north of the country - unions, mainly arranged and accompanied by a dowry, follow respected and well-defined criteria such as hypergamy, endogamy (a union between two members of the same jati, caste) or exogamy (a union concluded outside of one’s own gotr, can). Thus, couples who violate marital norms often endure severe, sometimes violent and occasionally fatal sanctions ("honour killings"). Given this context, how can we explain that inter-regional, inter-caste and interreligious marriages are considered an option and carried out?

Portrait d'un couple composé d'un homme pendjabi et d'une femme bengalie
M. Sing (Punjabi, 65 years) and his wife (Bengalie, 52 years)
in a village in Sangrur district, Punjab (19/06/2018) © C. Jullien


Because they stray from traditions, inter-regional marriages are disparaged, and the women involved are often given little consideration and are called “foreigners” or “bought women”. However, even though these marriages are not held in high regard, everyone still agrees that a woman is needed in a household. To legitimize their union and show that they had no choice, Punjabis who married an “imported” wife exclaimed: "Otherwise, who could have made the chapatis1? ».

In addition, there are strategies to ensure that these unusual unions are accepted by families and villagers. Once married, a young woman - originally Hindu, or even Muslim - adopts her husband's religion - usually Sikhism (in Punjab, Jats are mainly Sikhs) - and gradually learns to speak Punjabi. It is also requested of her to change her first name, clothing style and food habits. In other words, the identity markers of the "imported" wife are systematically erased. Moreover, a certain leeway prevails with regards to the question of caste membership. The husband (or his family) often ensures that the young woman comes from the same caste or from a caste with a different name but of similar status. Some of the Bengali, Bihari or Orissi2 women with whom I spoke explained that they had "forgotten" their family name and caste when I enquired. A 60-year-old male respondent even assured me that his wife - whose facial features were characteristic of Northeastern India - was, like him, a Punjabi Jat Sikh. Without contradicting her husband, who claimed that she was Punjabi and who remained at our sides during the whole interview, she still gave me the name of her village of origin, a village located in the district of Nalbari, Assam. Of course, villagers are not fooled: facial features, skin colour and the language spoken are all indicators of the foreign origin of these women but given their far-away origin (often several thousand kilometres away), the exact identity of the woman cannot be proven and so the benefit of the doubt is granted.

In short, these unusual inter-regional marriages are somewhat tolerated, if not respected, at least in states such as Punjab, where the most disadvantaged men struggle to find a wife. This contrasts with inter-caste love marriages, which are still highly criticized for undermining the honour of the community. In the case of inter-caste or inter-religious romantic relationships, the couple has to secretly plan its escape in order to avoid the admonitions of the respective families and to avoid punitive measures (violence, rape, humiliating practices) sometimes prescribed by the village council. It is by stressing that they had no other choice and by playing on the unclear origin and identity of their wives (the geographical distance making it difficult to verify) that Punjabis Jat men, renowned for their strict respect for endogamy and their strong sense of honour, come to flout matrimonial norms and marry women from different socio-cultural backgrounds. It remains to be seen whether these inter-regional marriages are likely (or not) to change the dowry system and whether they will make it possible, as Ambedkar - the father of the Indian constitution- would have liked, to gradually dilute the inter-caste borders.


Clémence Jullien
Clémence Jullien is a post-doctoral fellow in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Zurich as part of a project supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation. She is also a junior researcher associated with the Centre for Indian and South Asian Studies (CEIAS -Paris) and the Centre for Human Sciences (CSH- Delhi). Her current work focuses on the impacts of the masculinization of Indian society (inter-regional marriages, involuntary celibacy) in Punjab. She also coordinated a special issue on hospitals in South Asia (Purushartha, 2019) and conducted research on maternal health policies in Rajasthan as part of her doctoral research (LESC, 2016). This study, which has been awarded the Chancellery Thesis Prize, the AMADES Thesis Prize and the GIS Asia Thesis Prize, will be published this coming December at the Edition de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme under the title Du bidonville à l'hôpital. Nouveaux enjeux de la maternité en Inde (From the slum to the hospital. The new challenges of motherhood in India).


1- Chapatis are a kind of flat bread widely consumed throughout India.
2 - Punjab is lacoat approximately 1500 km away from West Bengal, 1000 km away from Bihar, and 1700 km away from Orisha (formerly known as Orissa).


Chaudhry, Shruti. 2018. “‘Flexible’ caste boundaries: cross-regional marriage as mixed marriage in rural north India”, Contemporary South Asia, vol 27, n°2, p. 214-228.

Hudson, Valerie M & Andrea Den Boer. 2002. A Surplus of Men, A Deficit of Peace: Security and Sex Ratios in Asia's Largest States, International Security, vol 26, n°4, p. 5-38.

Kaur, Ravinder (ed.). 2016. Too Many Men, Too Few Women: Social Consequences of Gender Imbalance in India and China, Orient Blackswan, New Delhi.

Kaur, Ravinder. 2004. “Across-Region Marriages. Poverty, Female Migration and the Sex Ratio”, Economic and Political Weekly, vol 39, n°25, p. 2595-2603.

Oldenburg, Philip. 1992. “Sex Ratio, Son Preference and Violence in India-A Research Note”, Economic and Political Weekly, vol 27, n° 49-50, p. 2657-2662.


Indian men sitting under a tree