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Family, Marriage & Gender Roles

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Jubi, a recent bride, talks about her engagement party and wedding.

The family is an enormously important - some say all-powerful - social institution in India. Where geographic mobility has increased, and where striving and middle class Indians have become more focused on higher education as a means of advancement, older norms are shifting, but family is still a powerfully cohesive and determinative force in people's lives, and marriage is seen as an alliance between two families, not just two individuals. Multigenerational families are the norm, and beyond that, extended family networks can be quite influential. First and second cousins are traditionally addressed as brothers and sisters.

Purity is an important theme in Indian religion, including Indian Catholicism, and sexual purity is a significant part of that. Guarding the purity of spouses and children is seen as very important, and families take the primary role in overseeing each other to make sure that happens.

Even though Indian Christians speak of the family as the central institution of Indian social life, Catholic families tend to be small. Family planning is the norm, and Indian Catholic families tend to be smaller than a generation ago – smaller than Hindu families, and much smaller than Muslim families. Studies in the 1980s and 1990s showed that in Kerala, Christians had nearly the lowest fertility rates of any religious group.1 There is some evidence that because Syrian Christians are aware that their numbers are shrinking in light of family planning and migration, they are having slightly larger families, with three children as a norm. In at least one diocese, the bishop will visit to baptize a fourth (or greater) child born to a family, and Catholic school fees will be waived for that child.   


Young people generally wait until their mid- to late-20s for marriage. Christian women have the highest age at marriage of any religious group.2 Young Indians often value a greater degree of romance and choice, but even then there is significant pressure to negotiate a marriage through and between families. Trusted intermediaries also take on such roles for families. Marriage outside of caste, and marriages to romantic matches are largely an upper class prerogative. 

A page of ads from the Renewal Voice magazine of the Renewal Retreat Centre, Bangalore, gives some insight into the kinds of qualities that families and young people see as significant for a potential spouse. Educational degrees and employment are important, as are languages spoken (Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, English), Christian affiliation (Latin Rite, Syrian rites, Orthodox, etc). The boy is expected to be slightly older than the girl. Families negotiate the terms, and though discouraged by the Church, dates are sometimes chosen on the basis of astrological consultation to ensure an auspicious time. 

Catholic weddings feature lots of music, but no dancing.

In the audio interview on this page, Jubi, a recent bride, talks about her engagement party and wedding. The emphasis of most of the events she highlights have to do with each family welcoming bride and groom into the other, and symbols of that process. Some photos from that wedding are also featured here.

At the end of the wedding, the bride is expected to move in with the husband's family, where she will have a secondary status compared to her mother-in-law, and even to her sisters-in-law. 

Gender roles

Though India has had powerful women in politics, gender segregation in India is more formalized and obvious than in many parts of the world. Trains have “ladies only” carriages, and airport security lines feature separate lines for “ladies." Women do work outside the home in large numbers. Cooking and kitchen life are almost exclusively female roles, and women may stand and serve while male guests eat. In church, women and men will generally sit separately, though at times a whole family may sit together.

While husbands are no longer quite the "gods" they were in the past, explicit deference by women is still expected to a remarkable degree, and women are "protected" in many ways. Catholic culture shares in this pattern.  Speaking in particular about Syro-malabar families, though it would apply more broadly, Shiji Varghese argues, “Even though official church teaching considers men and women to be equal, different and complimentary, there is a strong notion that females are inferior… The decision making is given to the male bread winner of the family or even to the male head.”  At the same time she claims, it is a truism that “mothers-in-law may rule the house even of a son or daughter-in-law.3

Though the number of children in Catholic families may be small, all agree that it is important to make sure that there is a boy among them. A good deal of attention has been drawn to the imbalance of sex ratios in India, tied to sometimes much higher rates for abortion of female fetuses. In Kerala, the most heavily Christian state, there is no imbalance in the sex ratio. Karnataka ranks third in India, and Tamil Nadu 11th.4

In southern Kerala, in Veli, interviewees pointed out several exceptions to the patriarchal culture. Theirs, they say, is a matriarchal society in terms of much house ownership. Women inherit their parents' houses and manage family finances, and fishermen are expected give over their money to their wives to manage. 

Homosexuality is taboo in Indian society, and homosexual acts are illegal. Paradoxically, though, transgendered people and eunuchs have a traditional and respected role Indian society. In Bengaluru, one Catholic retreat house held a retreat for transgender youth, something that seems hard to imagine in the West. 

Physical touch is extremely important, not only for devotees at statues, but in friendships in daily life. One frequently observes persons of the same sex, whether friends or family, holding hands or touching one another in public in ways that would seem startling to many westerners. At the same time, married couples are discouraged from making public displays of affection, even at home with family.

At some of the more highly regarded shrines in Kerala, there is apparently a folk wisdom that women should not visit during periods of menstruation, though this is not a value articulated by nuns or clergy, and not something that folk wisdom apparently requires at ordinary churches.5 This practice directly parallels Hindu shrine practice, though it has no official Catholic sanction.

The elderly

Households in India tend to be intergenerational. Deference to family elders is expected to overrule personal preference, and it is a stereotype that the mothers-in-law may rule the house even of a son and daughter-in-law.

Writing about Christians in Kerala, the demographer K. C. Zachariah has noted, “Traditionally, the Christian churches have been more concerned with children and the youth than their elderly… The situation is understandable when more than 40 percent of their members are children and less than 4 percent only were elderly.” Very soon, however, one-quarter of the population will be elderly, which will call for new services.6

Read more

Websites in India put a bit of choice into arranged marriages, New York Times, April 24, 2015

  • 1. K. C. Zachariah, The Syrian Christians of Kerala, Demographic and Socio-Economic Transition in The Twentieth Century. (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan Pvt., 2006), 17.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Shiji Varghese, “Family, Marriage and Gender roles in the Syro-Malabar rite," lecture at the inaugural Catholics & Cultures international conference, "Catholic Cultures, Indian Cultures: Workshop on Rites, Religiosity, and Cultural diversity in Indian Catholicism," Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, Bangalore , January 13, 2015.
  • 4. Census of India, Office of Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India, 2011. http://censusindia.gov.in/2011-prov-results/paper2/data_files/india/Statement2_RU_Pop&Sexrtaio_State.xls
  • 5. Corinne Dempsey, Kerala Christian Sainthood: collisions of culture and worldview in South India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 70-72.  Her primary informant reported that this was not something priests and nuns countenanced, but “something we [women] all know about and do.”
  • 6. K. C. Zachariah, The Syrian Christians of Kerala: Demographic and Socioeconomic Transition in the Twentieth Century, (working paper, Center for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, November 2001), 6-7.