The Sunday TimesPlus

4th May 1997



Mixed marriages: problem or the solution?

By Chamintha Thilakaratne

“Mom, there is something I need to tell you. I am in love with a young man from a different community and he has asked me to marry him”.

That sentence is something most parents dread to hear. Usually, parents and children go their different ways, when the question of an inter-racial marriage crops up. To many parents this would be a nightmare which would dash all their hopes.

Unlike in most countries, in Sri Lanka it is an issue many prefer to avoid, and has been subject to much criticism. People tend to avoid such relationships whether it is due to the on-going war in the country or due to the idea that these kinds of relationships work out only in fairy tales and not in real life. Some even state that such relationships are only imaginary, especially in a nation where there is an ethnic conflict. Although the majority feel that such relationships are a healthy means of encouraging ethnic harmony, they feel that it is a solution that will not work out in practice.

Many parents seem to think the young rarely consider twice about what they do and certainly not of the future. At the early stages of the relationship they feel they can work it out. “Pol sambolai bathui Kala api adareng imu,(we can live on sambol and rice as long as we are in love),” as some couples put it, but in time as the relationship matures they realize that things are not so hunky-dory.

“While I was schooling I met a handsome young Tamil youth I fell in love with. He was a policeman whom I courted for six years. His parents objected to our relationship. But finally after six years his parents gave us their approval and I am proud to say that we have been happily married for 25 years and in this period we have had no problems though we are from different races,” said Ms. Sivaratnam, a housewife.

She claims that even during the riots they faced no fear or threats and their children did not face any difficulties from relatives, family members and neighbours. This was because her husband has been nice enough to allow the children to be Buddhists. “Actually, he is the one who suggested it,” she said.

Ms. Sivaratnam has been one of the privileged few to enjoy an inter- racial marriage that has been accepted by family, friends and the community. But are all those who tie the knot with a partner from a different community equally lucky?

“ My husband and I got married after a long time and finally when we did, our parents did not turn up at the wedding” said Kamalini, who is married to a Sinhalese and is a mother of a two-year old daughter. Kamalini is a Tamil while her husband Saman is a Sinhalese. “It did not matter as much to my parents because they too were from a mixed marriage, but my husband’s parents disapproved of it from the beginning. However, it is only after getting married that I began to realize what racism really meant, for until then I believed that people were making a big issue out of something that is not in existence,” she said.

“Being married to a Sinhalese, the only ‘advantage’ that I have is having a Sinhalese surname,” she said. This has led many to identify her as a Sinhalese which has caused both her and her husband a lot of problems. “When we went house hunting, landlords after having agreed to rent the house to us add remarks like, ‘We are so lucky to have found a young Sinhalese couple. So many Tamils came asking for the house but we didn’t give it to them’, not knowing that I was a Tamil. But my husband always made it a point to tell them that I was a Tamil and the owner refused to rent the house,” Kamalini related.

To her most of the problems were created by her immediate family members and not by the rest of the community. To society they were only a mild source of interest unlike to relatives, she claims. “My mother-in-law now and again hints ‘all Tamils should be sent to Jaffna’, most probably to hurt me. Most of the time she is wounding my feelings and the entire atmosphere at home becomes so unpleasant. While passing nasty comments they object to everything I do,” she added sadly.

“Once some army and police officials came on one of their random searches and asked if there were any Tamils and ‘others’. My husband replied that there were Tamils but no others, only family. Yet the policeman kept on asking whether there are any Tamils and ‘others.’ They were not ready to accept the fact that the Tamil was his wife. And finally, after much confusion one policeman asked whether the Tamil was his wife. Likewise I feel that people refuse to accept the fact that we are from different communities, maybe I feel it more since I am a Tamil” she stated.

“I always believed that it was religion that played the biggest role in a mixed marriage, for unless the partners are from the same religion then there was more room for problems. If the couple hold the same beliefs then there are fewer problems, for religion is something very personal, it’s like questioning your faith,“ she said. But now she realizes that race plays an equally important role in any marriage. “At times I feel that I should have got married to a Tamil, for if I had, then I would not have had to go through all the insults and hurt. As soon as my anger subsides I realize that I have not made a mistake. I would not want to marry anyone but my husband, anyway,” she said.

There is one thing she actually does worry about she said with a heavy heart. “My daughter is very confused, and my greatest fear is that she will grow up feeling ashamed of being half Tamil. While she has also been subjected to a lot of unpleasant experiences in the family circle, the question is what do you tell a child (when there is so much of ethnic mistrust in the family circle),” Kamalini added. She feels that the situation would have been different if they had been abroad. “We would have been in the same boat then, both from two minority groups”. However, she said with regret that even though she got involved in a mixed marriage it was not something that she would wish for someone else.

It was the same with many of the couples The Sunday Times spoke to and are already of mixed marriage. Only a few, like Ms. Sivaratnam, stated that they have had a happy marriage. Many to whom we spoke said they have had to undergo much harassment and verbal abuse as a result of entering into matrimony with a partner from a different community. Should the partner one decides to spend the rest of his or her entire life with be chosen on grounds of the decided by the race they belong to? When race seems to play such an important role in the married life of many, one tends to wonder how things like love and commitment matter in the whole equation.

What kind of role can the government play in promoting inter-racial marriage? There is an attempt in many countries to encourage inter- marriages in the name of harmony and peace. In India, the state government in Tamil Nadu has adopted a system of inter-marriages where high caste people are married into people of lower castes. In Singapore, the government officially supports inter-marriages.

Recently, the Secretary General of the Ceylon Rural and Plantation Workers’ Congress addressing a group of estate committee leaders called on the government to pay Rs.75,000 to promote inter- marriages. “This will be another way to restore ethnic peace in the country” he said. Rs 500,000 is awarded to those marrying into a Sinhala family. But some Muslim communities are on the other hand firmly against inter-marriages. Can the introduction of inter- marriages be effective in Sri Lanka is the question that many politicians, among others, seem to be concentrating on, considering the problems facing the country today.

Out of the many citizens that The Sunday Times spoke to, the majority agreed that inter-marriages are a healthy solution. While they stated that if they had the choice, they would prefer to get married to those of their own race and religion.

“Well I guess it would not have been such a big issue if there was no war in the country. People may have got married to those from different communities and nationalities, but the fact that race is an important issue has created among the public a fear of inter-racial marriages,” said Mr. Ranjith and the majority of those whom we spoke to.

Many young couples feel that even though it may seem difficult to get the approval of parents for an inter-racial marriage at first, such marriages work out as the couples begin to have children and start a new life.

“On the contrary, that is when the problems begin,” said a school teacher Srimani who is married to a Tamil businessman from Colombo. Differences sprout up only when you begin to have kids. Parents from both sides wish their grand children to be of their own race and religion and the problems begin for the couple who are caught up in the issue,” she said. Some couples tend to decide on religion, taking other matters such as schooling also into consideration.

The general notion is that it is due to parents that those in inter-racial marriages find it difficult to work things out. The spouses’ own weaknesses add to the failure of the relationship. As pressure begins to mount from the different communities and the parents, sometimes the couples crack up.

Usually, as Kamalini fears, it is the children who are often placed in an uncomfortable situation with a feeling of being ‘neither here nor there,.’ This, according to psychologists is one of the reasons for youth unrest and other psychological problems that young people face.

The issue remains one that cannot be solved for at least a few more years. For inter-racial marriages to work, the bottom line is that either they should be accepted by parents and community to such an extent that such couples can live in a more peaceful way and be accepted by society, or the government should introduce a program where inter- marriages are encouraged with special benefits to such couples. Yet, regardless of any attempts to encourage inter-marriages, whether society would be ready to accept and whether their preconceived ideas about such marriages will disappear remains in doubt.

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