Feminist Review

, Volume 113, Issue 1, pp 1–16 | Cite as

narratives of choice: marriage, choosing right and the responsibility of agency in urban middle-class Sri Lanka

  • Asha L Abeyasekera
Original Article


The shift to companionate marriage in South Asia and elsewhere is widely read as a move from ‘tradition’ to ‘modernity’ resulting in an expansion of individual agency, especially for women. This paper critically examines the narratives of urban middle-class women in Sri Lanka spanning three generations to illustrate that rather than indicating a radical shift in the way they negotiated between individual desires and social norms, the emphasis on ‘choice’ signals a shift in the narrative devices used in the presentation of the ‘self’. The paper illustrates how young women’s narratives about marriage appear to suggest ‘modernity’ as inevitable—that its processes are reconstituting the person who, less constrained by ‘tradition’ and collective expectations, is now experiencing greater freedom in the domain of marriage. However, it also shows how urban middle-class families in Sri Lanka have collectively invested in the narrative of choice through which ‘a choosing person’ is consciously created as a mark of the family’s modernity and progress. Rather than signalling freedom, these narratives about choice reveal how women are often burdened with the risks and responsibility of agency. The paper illustrates that the ‘choosing person’ is produced through narratives that emphasise agency as a responsibility that must be exercised with caution because women are expected by and obligated to their families to make the ‘right’ choices. Hence, a closer look at the individualised ‘choosing person’ reveals a less unitary, relational self with permeable boundaries embedded within and accountable to family and kinship.


marriage agency personhood modernity South Asia Sri Lanka 


  1. Abu-Lughod, L., 1990. The romance of resistance: tracing transformations of power through Bedouin women. American Ethnologist, 17(1), pp. 41–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Adkins, L., 2004a. Introduction: feminism, Bourdieu and after. In L. Adkins and B. Skeggs, eds. Feminism after Bourdieu. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 3–18.Google Scholar
  3. Adkins, L., 2004b. Reflexivity: freedom or habit of gender? In L. Adkins and B. Skeggs, eds. Feminism after Bourdieu. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 191–210.Google Scholar
  4. Ahearn, L.M., 2001. Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Altorki, S., 1977. Family organization and women’s power in urban Saudi Arabian society. Journal of Anthropological Research, 33(3), pp. 277–287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bourdieu, P., 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bourdieu, P., 1990. In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  8. Caldwell, J.C., Gajanayake, I., Caldwell, B. and Caldwell, P., 1989. Is marriage delay a multiphase response to pressure for fertility decline? The case of Sri Lanka. Journal of Marriage and Family, 51(2), pp. 337–351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Carsten, J., 2004a. After Kinship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Carsten, J., ed., 2004b. Introduction: cultures of relatedness. In J. Carsten, ed. Cultures of Relatedness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–36.Google Scholar
  11. Collier, J.F., 1997. From Duty to Desire: Remaking Families in a Spanish Village. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Craib, I., 1994. The Importance of Disappointment. London and New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Davy, J., 2006[1821]. An Account of the Interior of Ceylon and its Inhabitants with Travels in that Island. New Delhi: Asian Education Services.Google Scholar
  14. De Silva, W.I., 1990. Age at marriage in Sri Lanka: stabilizing or declining? Journal of Biosocial Science, 22(4), pp. 395–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Donner, H., 2002. ‘One’s own marriage’: love marriages in a Calcutta neighbourhood. South Asia Research, 22(1), pp. 79–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Donner, H., 2008. Domestic Goddesses: Maternity, Globalization and Middle-class Identity in Contemporary India. Aldershot: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  17. Edwards, W., 1990. Modern Japan through its Weddings: Gender, Person, and Society in Ritual Portrayal. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Engels, F. and Hunt, T., 2010[1884]. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics.Google Scholar
  19. Ewing, K.P., 1991. Can psychoanalytic theories explain the Pakistani woman? Intrapsychic autonomy and interpersonal engagement in the extended family. Ethos, 19(2), pp. 131–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fuller, C.J. and Narasimhan, H., 2008. Companionate marriage in India: the changing marriage system in a middle-class Brahman subcaste. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 14(4), pp. 736–754.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Giddens, A., 1992. The Transformation of Intimacy: Love, Sexuality and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  22. Grossberg, L., 1996. Identity and cultural studies. Is that all there is? In S. Hall and P. Du Gay, eds. Questions of Cultural Identity. London, New Delhi, Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Limited, pp. 87–107.Google Scholar
  23. Hirsch, J.S., 2003. A Courtship after Marriage: Sexuality and Love in Mexican Transnational Families. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  24. Hirsch, J.S. and Wardlow, H., 2006. Modern Loves: The Anthropology of Romantic Courtship and Companionate Marriage. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Illouz, E., 1997. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  26. Jackson, C., 2012. Introduction: marriage, gender relations and social change. Journal of Development Studies, 48(1), pp. 1–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Jayawardena, K., 2000. Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association and Sanjiva Books.Google Scholar
  28. Kemper, S., 1979. Sinhalese astrology, South Asian caste systems, and the notion of individuality. Journal of Asian Studies, 48(3), pp. 477–497.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kemper, S., 1980. Time, person, and gender in Sinhalese astrology. American Ethnologist, 7(4), pp. 744–758.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kendall, L., 1996. Getting Married in Korea: Of Gender, Morality, and Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lindberg, A., 2009. Islamisation, modernisation, or globalisation? Changed gender relations among South Indian Muslims. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 32(1), pp. 86–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Mann, K., 1985. Marrying Well: Marriage, Status and Social Change among the Educated Elite in Colonial Lagos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Markus, H.R. and Kitayama, S., 1991. Culture and the self: implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), p. 224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Markus, H.R. and Kitayama, S., 1994. A collective fear of the collective: implications for selves and theories of selves. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(5), pp. 568–579.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Mody, P., 2008. The Intimate State: Love-Marriage and the Law in Delhi. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  36. Moore, H., 1988. Feminism and Anthropology. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  37. Myrdal, G., 1968. Asia Drama: An Inquiry into Poverty of Nations, Volume III. New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  38. Osella, C., 2012. Desires under reform: contemporary reconfigurations of family, marriage, love and gendering in a transnational south Indian matrilineal Muslim community. Culture and Religion, 13(2), pp. 241–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Osella, F. and Osella, C., 2000. Social Mobility in Kerala. Modernity and Identity in Conflict. London: Pluto Press.Google Scholar
  40. Parish, S.M., 1994. Moral Knowing in a Hindu Sacred City: An Exploration of Mind, Emotion, and Self. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Peiris, R., 1956. Sinhalese Social Organization: The Kandyan Period. Colombo: Ceylon University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Rapp, R., Ross, E. and Bridenthal, R., 1979. Examining family history. Feminist Studies, 5(1), pp. 174–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Rebhun, L.A., 2002. The Heart is Unknown Country: Love in the Changing Economy of Northeast Brazil. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Roberts, M., 1997. Elite formation and elites, 1832–1931. In M. Roberts, ed. Sri Lanka: Collective Identities Revisited, Volume I. Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 191–265.Google Scholar
  45. Rose, N., 1996. Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Seneviratne, H.L., 1999. The Work of Kings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  47. Spiro, M.E., 1993. Is the Western conception of the self “peculiar”; within the context of the world cultures? Ethos, 21(2), pp. 107–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Strathern, M., ed., 1987. Introduction. In M. Strathern, ed. Dealing with Inequality: Analysing Gender Relations in Melanesia and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–32.Google Scholar
  49. Taylor, C., 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Thornton, A. and Fricke, T.E., 1987. Social change and the family: comparative perspectives from the West, China, and South Asia. Sociological Forum, 2(4), pp. 746–779.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Uberoi, P., 2008. Aspirational weddings: the bridal magazine and the canons of ‘decent marriage’. In C. Jaffrelot and P. Van Der Veer, eds. Patterns of Middle Class Consumption. New Delhi: Sage Publications, pp. 230–262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Yalman, N., 1967. Under the Bo Tree: Studies in Caste, Kinship, and Marriage in the Interior of Ceylon. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Feminist Review 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Asha L Abeyasekera

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations