Punjabi Women Are Gaining Leverage in the Marriage Market Through Education

With emigration in mind, those who possess English-language skills have an advantage with potential suitors

Punjabi Women Are Gaining Leverage in the Marriage Market Through Education
Anchalpreet preparing for the IELTS exam at her home in Punjab in 2020. (Ravleen Kaur)

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Manpreet sat, filled with dread, in the matchmaker’s cramped, dimly lit office. It was January 2020, only a few months since her family had first put her on the marriage market. They had begun reaching out to distant relatives, downloading matchmaking apps and posting ads in local newspapers, advertising her as a young woman, age 19, who was qualified to apply to foreign universities and needed a suitor who would pay her tuition. To her great anxiety, over a dozen serious offers had already come in.

Manpreet had spent her entire life with her mother, father and elder sister, living in a small home tucked away on a busy street in Amritsar, the second-largest city in the north Indian state of Punjab. Hers was a cloistered existence. Since she graduated high school, she had begun attending a computer class in the afternoons. Otherwise, her family did not allow her to venture out alone or socialize, fearing the men who stalked, stared at and catcalled young women like her in the streets.

Months earlier, Manpreet had passed the International English Language Testing System exam, popularly known as IELTS — a proficiency test that judges the writing, reading and listening skills of nonnative English-language speakers. The test was far more than a certificate of proficiency in a foreign language. Passing the exam with a good score qualified Manpreet to apply to universities in several countries in the West, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, which then allowed her to apply for a student visa, marking a critical step toward an entirely new life abroad.

Manpreet had never thought of migrating as a child. “Not at all,” she said, recalling how she was close to her mother growing up and content with the idea of living at home. But after graduating from an English-language school where she estimated that 90% of her classmates planned to prepare for the IELTS in lieu of enrolling at a college in India, she had changed her mind. “Everyone said they wanted to go abroad; then I want to go abroad, too,” she continued.

Now, she had her mind set on moving to Australia. It was a choice that felt unique, since most other people she knew went to Canada. In Australia, she imagined, she would be free to dress as she liked and go wherever she wanted without fearing for her safety — free from the specter of petty harassment and violence that loomed over women in her hometown.

Yet the exorbitant cost of an international education stood in the way of these dreams. Manpreet’s father worked as a private security guard and made around 10,000 rupees ($120) a month. The family lived in low-income housing and could barely manage day-to-day expenses, let alone the tuition demanded of international students. As a result, they had little choice but to do what many other families were doing: Find a man who would marry their daughter and take on the expense of her education.

Back at home, we sat in her living room as she and her sister half-watched the Hindi TV soap opera “Choti Sarrdaarni.” “I don’t want to go there again,” Manpreet told her mother, speaking in Punjabi. Since that meeting, the matchmaker had called Manpreet several times, insisting she come back to his agency so that he could introduce her to a fresh set of potential husbands. “This all feels so weird,” she continued, scrolling through her phone, showing me photos of offers that made her cringe — men nearly twice her age whose photos sparked howling laughter from the three women.

Manpreet skims through profiles on a matrimonial app. (Ravleen Kaur)

But for Manpreet, the desperation to leave Punjab was so great that marrying at a young age was a sacrifice she was willing to make. In her heart, she knew that she had signed up for this compromise. If she wanted to emigrate, she would have to get married.

In India, marriage has long had a transactional character — a social arrangement between families intended to secure continuity of caste, class and honor. The burden of this transaction has always fallen most heavily upon women, whose own preferences are often treated as an afterthought. Under the influence of expanded educational access and growing migratory pressures, however, this situation is beginning to change.

For generations, women’s education before marriage has been treated as merely a pastime. Yet today it is offering something new and valuable: not only greater career opportunities and intellectual fulfillment but also the chance to immigrate to a Western country on a student visa. While women have often been required to pay dowries for marriage, today it is young men, many of whom lack the same English-language skills and certifications required to study abroad, who are agreeing to “reverse dowries” — paying for the tuition of the women they marry in exchange for being invited abroad with them on spousal visas.

In this sense, student visas are disrupting old gender dynamics, giving women an escape from domestic duties and the chance to support their families back home. In turn, they are provided with a sense of dignity and importance previously reserved for sons. The emergence of more paths abroad via education has offered young women the promise of new social and economic capital, freeing many of them from the shackles of caste and economic class.

“They hope to get a better life due to a good education. The idea is also to be economically independent,” explained Manvinder Kaur, professor of women studies at Panjab University. “Many of them feel that once we are economically independent, nobody can harass us or subordinate us.”

In generations past, stories abounded of Indian men, settled immigrants in the West, who would come back to Punjab to marry, only to later abandon their Indian wives without sharing the benefits of their immigration status. Today, though, it is Indian women, empowered by education and the attainability of student visas, who are increasingly able to set the terms of their relationships. Decisions and norms about marriage are still based on the material requirements of family and society: financial security, immigration status and notions of respectability. Yet the agency of women today counts for far more than it has in the past.

“The girls may also be using marriage as a steppingstone to empowerment,” Kaur said, adding that the prospect of emigration offers a rare pathway out of the stifling social expectations and dangers of life for women in the country.

“Here, if a girl wants to express herself, wants to do something for herself, there are limitations imposed, [if] not by your own family … by everybody around you,” Kaur continued. “Oh, this girl, she goes out at night, she talks to boys, the clothes she wears — bad prospects in the marriage market. That seems to be the be-all and end-all situation for girls.”

Balbir Arora stood at the doorstep of Manpreet’s family home with a thick journal filled with notes on potential matches. A matchmaker who had been contacted by the family to help find a suitor for their daughter, he had arrived with a clear mission in mind. At his office, tucked away in an alley in one of the oldest parts of Amritsar, he often met families in similar circumstances — with daughters who had passed the English-language tests needed to emigrate but lacked a husband willing to pay their educational expenses.

Arora has been a matrimonial agent for over 30 years. Through the decades, he has helped arrange countless marriages between men and women from all ages, castes and education levels. Nowadays, he says, emigration prospects trump everything else when his clients judge the attractiveness of a match.

“Everyone wants to move abroad,” Arora told me when I interviewed him in 2020, sitting in his office overlooking a puddled road. His son, himself a newlywed, was packing up, having seen off their final customers of the day. His daughter was married and settled in Sydney, Australia. Many clients aren’t even necessarily interested in studying abroad, Arora said, but simply see acceptance to a foreign school as the most viable route to migrate.

“These IELTS girls are in high demand,” he told me, adding that many of his female clients today were “born in 2002, 2003” — underscoring just how young they are when they get ready to marry. The gender imbalance in his business is brutal. Arora says that he has roughly four female clients for every 10 men. Amid the growing economic and social pressures of life in Punjab, old barriers about class and even caste have begun giving way to the overriding need of families to find a suitable spouse for their children. If they are lucky, a good match can secure them not only a life partner but also a coveted pathway to a new life in the West.

For Manpreet, the clock was already ticking. She had to get married as soon as possible because, for visa purposes, her IELTS score would no longer be valid after two years. As Arora showed her photos of men in their 30s willing to marry her, her family refused each one of them. “She’s so young,” said Manpreet’s mother. “We want someone not older than 22, 23, 24. Someone too old, it doesn’t look good.”

For her part, Manpreet wasn’t picky. “He should be handsome, and he should be around my age. That’s all.”

Over time, Manpreet had developed a preference for cocooning herself at home. Early in February 2020, as temperatures started rising in Amritsar after a particularly bitter winter, Manpreet and I meandered in the public rose garden just outside her housing complex on the outskirts of the city.

Although her family was reluctant to address it directly, they were seriously considering a marriage proposal. In a few days, they would travel to meet the young man and his family.

“The other day I started crying and told my mother I can’t do it,” Manpreet told me.

As the younger of two daughters, she was the baby of the family. She did no household chores and slept in the same bed as her mother. Occasionally, she had meals spoon-fed to her. Even though she was eager for the autonomy she would have if she settled in Australia or Canada, she knew she was unprepared for it. “I’m still saying I don’t want to get married. But I also know that I must.”

On a Saturday morning that same month, dozens of young women who had recently graduated from high school, their traditional Indian salwar kameez outfits worn snug under winter jackets and backpacks, ran across the parking lot of a shopping complex in Batala, a small town about 20 miles from Amritsar. Deftly avoiding murky puddles that had accumulated after the last of the winter rains, they were here to take a mock test at a tutoring center to help them prepare for the IELTS exam next month.

A student outside a tutoring center in the city of Amritsar. (Ravleen Kaur)

As the students waited for the test center to admit them, jittery with nerves and excitement, they Googled sample answers for an essay prompt: the benefits and drawbacks of commercial flight taxation. Most of the young women, who had traveled from neighboring villages, never spoke English as they were growing up. Now they would have to draft complicated essays in English, complete with examples and reasoning.

Passing the IELTS exam is no easy feat in a rural state such as Punjab, where English-language skills for most of the population remain below proficiency. Students who attend public schools in India are typically from economically disadvantaged backgrounds where, unlike the wealthier classes in India, no one speaks English at home.

Students who attend public schools in rural areas still share their richer peers’ dreams of moving to the West, despite often not knowing English. To fill the gap, thousands of IELTS tutoring centers have mushroomed all over Punjab — in small towns and big cities, near highway exits and bus stands. Nowadays, young women feature prominently on the billboards put up on highways advertising the services of these centers.

Punjabis have long been a migratory people — from the indentured-related travels during the British Raj to the forced displacement during the Partition, which divided the state of Punjab between India and Pakistan, to the refugee crisis triggered by the anti-Sikh massacres carried out by the Indian government in the 1980s as it waged war to crush an insurgency that sought to create an independent Sikh state of Khalistan. A pervading feeling of hopelessness reigns in many parts of Punjab today. Corruption, environmental degradation and high unemployment have combined with a growing opioid crisis to darken the prospects for countless young people. For many families, sending their children abroad, even at the cost of selling their farms and losing their traditional way of life, is seen as the only way to save them from the hardship of life in the state.

The IELTS test has become a primary pathway of migration out of Punjab. Most commonly, it is women who perform better at the test than their male classmates. Rouble Tuli, who has been running a tutoring center in Amritsar for eight years, has seen this firsthand. “Girls tend to have better scores and learn faster,” he said, adding that 90% of his students are from villages and that the majority of them are young women.

Parents are also pushing their daughters to score high because it could increase their chances of securing a marriage that benefits the entire family. “[In some cases] the parents know their daughter is intelligent, so they make her get scores as high as possible, so maybe she could get married off [in a] transactional marriage,” Tuli continued.

The office of an immigration agent in the city of Jalandhar. (Ravleen Kaur)

Going abroad has also become part of digital folklore, captured in Punjabi cinema and music. They depict the desperation to emigrate through both satirical and serious lenses. A recent Netflix series “CAT” follows the story of a young man in Punjab who is desperate to pass the IELTS exam in order to move abroad. The 2022 Punjabi film “Aaja Mexico Challiye” shows the lives of those who failed to get coveted visas to the U.S. and have to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. The 2018 film “Jatt vs IELTS” is a comedic take on the lengths young people go to in order to pass the exam.

In the Batala shopping complex, students left the coaching centers looking relieved after completing the mock tests. A group of young women walked around the complex, mulling over where to eat. As they decided, a group of young men who had been loitering around the parking lot followed them. They circled around a dozen times in their cars and motorcycles, showing off and leering. “They come here to check out the IELTS girls,” one of the students told me. Many young men will try every avenue they can to secure a relationship and, hopefully, a marriage with a promising young woman who scores well on the test and can offer them the prospect of a life abroad.

The group of young women finally settled into a nearby cafe. There they sipped soda, nibbled on sandwiches and debriefed about the mock exam. One of them, who was engaged, shared that her future in-laws were pressuring her to take the IELTS exam. Another said that her parents told her that once it’s time to emigrate, she’ll have to get married. Yet another spoke of a boyfriend whom she knew her conservative family wouldn’t approve of and would have to be left behind when it was her time to go abroad.

Another young woman in the group had been selected to join a flight attendant academy, but her parents didn’t want to pay the $2,000 tuition. Instead, they invested $20,000 to send her brother on a “number two” journey to Austria — code for an unauthorized or illegal migration route out of Punjab. “That really hurt me,” she said. “I have dreams too. But my parents think I’m going to end up in someone else’s house, so why invest in me? Better than this would be to have been born a boy. You’d have your freedom, no worries, no tension.”

For these young women, the test was not a fight to master the English language, it was a fight for freedom. Everything hinged on passing that test. They felt that once they migrated, they could finally experience the independence and safety they lacked in Punjab. The chokehold of gender norms would loosen. They could finally be free from the watchful eyes of parents, relatives and acquaintances who set invisible lines that they could not cross.

For the lucky young women who do make it abroad, life in the West often brings new challenges.

“The things which we will accept in a person who’s working overseas, we will not accept for the person who’s currently in India,” Kaur said, explaining the attitudes of Punjabi families. Landowning farmers who would rather be unemployed than take up work as truck or taxi drivers in Punjab nonetheless take immense pride in sending their sons abroad to do the same work. Young women often find themselves working in retail stores or gas stations in the West — jobs that would be deemed not only unsafe but also undignified in India.

Manisha, 22, a young woman from Punjab who moved to Ontario, Canada, in 2021, found that life in her new home could often be dreary. Renting an apartment with roommates, she worked at a warehouse while studying hospitality at a local college. For weeks after she arrived, lacking the funds to buy a mattress or furniture, she slept on the cold floor of her home. The adjustment was jarring.

Back in Punjab, Manisha had been surrounded by family who made sure that she had all the necessities of life. Growing up in the alleyways of Jalandhar, Manisha always dreamed of going abroad. In her free time, she read romance novels in English and watched movies set in New York City. Yet in Canada, she found herself working all day, only to return home too tired to even cook. Moreover, her family pressured her to send them hundreds of dollars from Canada every month, putting an added strain on her limited student budget. Despite these struggles, Manisha has still managed to complete her diploma and has begun a new life and career in Canada. But the loneliness of life as an immigrant persists. Early this year, she felt the sting of homesickness while watching her brother’s wedding in Punjab on a WhatsApp video call in her apartment.

Before moving to Canada, she had found someone willing to enter into a contract marriage, where the couple had agreed to a temporary, platonic marriage of convenience that would end once mutually beneficial terms were fulfilled: Her educational fees are paid in full and his immigration status abroad made permanent.

In summer 2022, her husband flew to Canada and began his own, separate life, assuaging his worries about whether she would keep her end of their deal. For both contract and legitimate marriages, there have been stories that some young women are abandoning men who are sponsoring their studies before they can join them abroad. News reports have highlighted such stories, where men alleged that the women broke their marriages once abroad. According to Kaur, media attention has focused disproportionately on such young women. “Why do things become more problematic when women do them?” she asked. “Not justifying the desertion of husbands by wives, but instances would be very few as compared to the desertion of wives.”

Anchalpreet, 22, also from rural Punjab, flew to Vancouver amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. The timing of her trip meant that she was forced to quarantine in a hotel for 15 days upon arrival. This requirement would be hard enough for a seasoned traveler. But for Anchalpreet, who had never even been on a plane before, the journey was an ordeal. For the first time in her life, she was spending her days completely alone — attending online classes during the day, halfheartedly eating bland hotel food in the evening, and tossing and turning sleeplessly through the night.

Once she left isolation, Anchalpreet was relieved to move in with a cousin who lived in the nearby city of Surrey, where she began to look for a job. Yet her new home felt alien and overwhelming. For the first three months, she never went anywhere alone. “My cousin would tell me, you have to survive alone, I can’t stay with you all the time,” she recalled.

Compounding her sense of anxiety, despite passing the IELTS, Anchalpreet felt self-conscious about her English. “When you come into a different language, a different culture, you hesitate a lot, you wonder, ‘Will they even understand me?’” she said. Masks muffled already difficult-to-understand accents. “I arrived at a time when you couldn’t even see a person’s face,” she continued.

Growing up, Anchalpreet wanted to be like her father, a police officer, or enlist in the Indian army. But her family disapproved. Police work, with its inevitable night shifts, was an unsafe career choice. Because she was the eldest of three siblings, her parents felt if she established roots abroad and earned a high income, it would help the family. When she scored well enough on the IELTS exam, her cousin in Canada urged her parents to send her abroad as a married woman — for emotional and financial security. So, she chose to marry an old family friend, Harmanpreet, at the suggestion of mutual relatives.

For over a year, Anchalpreet waited for her husband to join her in Canada while she studied for an associate of science degree and worked night shifts at a Lululemon warehouse. His immigration was delayed because of pandemic slowdowns and stricter rules targeting suspected cases of fake marriages. Yet, unlike many others, they had maintained a strong bond during their long-distance relationship, spending hours communicating by phone each day. “If someone is with you, you can share things with them. I can’t tell people in India my problems; my parents will worry that their child is struggling,” she said.

In early 2022, her husband joined her in Canada. Since then, Anchalpreet has been focusing full time on completing her studies and building their new life together. Despite the hardships involved, moving to the West has given her a sense of self-worth and respect from her peers back home. “When people ask your parents how she is doing abroad, and they proudly say she is doing great, she is surviving, working, studying and living in a different culture, the people who used to disrespect you start to respect you,” she said.

In April 2020, two months after we first met, Manpreet married a young man with similar dreams of moving to the West. Yet this marriage has not meant a speedy transition to a new life. The couple’s emigration file was initially delayed by lockdowns triggered by the pandemic, as well as the closure of international borders. Her husband, who had also passed the IELTS exam, had applied to a Canadian university, only to be refused after a year of waiting. By then, Manpreet’s own score had expired, leaving her disheartened. Three years later, she is still in Punjab. She lives with her husband and in-laws, wondering when the new life that she had dreamed of will begin.

Recently, Manpreet took another exam called the Pearson Test of English, similar to IELTS and approved by the governments of Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. Her mother said that the couple is looking into their options. Some immigration agents have suggested novel ideas, including finding universities willing to accept her old score or getting a fake degree certificate to cover the three-year gap in her educational background since finishing high school. For the time being, Manpreet and her husband feel that their lives are on hold.

“But her desire for this dream has only intensified; it hasn’t gone away at all,” Manpreet’s mother said. “For her, everything is about going abroad, no matter what it takes.”

This article was published in the Spring 2023 issue of New Lines’ print edition.

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