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The Jane Theory Of Time

Jain women, who are marrying late, represent a tussle between tradition and modernity in the community

The Jane Theory Of Time
Photograph by Getty Images; Picture for Representation Only
The Jane Theory Of Time

Facts For A People

  • Jain population 4.22 million (0.4%)
  • Literacy rate 94.1% (national average: 74.04%)
  • Female lit. rate 90.6% (national average: 65.46%)
  • Sex ratio 940 per 1,000 males (nat avg: 944 per 1,000 males)
  • Child sex ratio 870 per 1,000 males
  • Proportion of unm­arried Jain women between 20-29- 19% (National average: 8.4%)


Ancient Jain literature tells the story of Rajimati, a famous female monk. Rajimati, promised in marriage to Lord Nemi, is jil­ted at the altar by her would-be husband, who chooses instead to live as a monk in the forest. Having bequeathed her heart to Lord Nemi, she decides to follow him into the forest. Rajimati’s tale is often held up as an example of the traits a marriageable woman must have. Yet, in the 21st century, while matrimony remains central at the social-familial level, the unspoken rules governing it are changing. A new tendency within the small Jain community bears witness to this—educated Jain women are increasingly opting to marry late, which, when coupled with a staggeringly low sex ratio and a deference for social norms, poses a unique, paradoxical problem for Jains.

Rekha Nahar, a 27-year-old, makes a com­fortable living as a tuition teacher in Che­nnai. Though her parents want to get her married soon, Rekha just wants to concentrate on her career. Women like her are now  common in Jain families across India. Jain women, empowered by high levels of literacy, are opting out of the social norms that dictated the traditional ‘marrying age’.Recent census data on marriages—which suggests that 19 per cent of Jain women between the ages of 20-29 are unmarried—reflects this growing trend. The national average for unmarried women between ages 20-29 is less than half of this, at 8.4 per cent. At the same time, over 2001-11, Jains remained in sync with the national trend of a decline in the number of women aged 20-29 joining the workforce. Coupled with the statistic on unmarried young women, it is a clear indicator that more women are opting for higher education.

Jains boast of a literacy rate of 94 per cent, higher than most other Indian communities. The female literacy rate is 90 per cent, way above the national average of 65.46 per cent. This naturally empowers women in not succumbing to social pressures for mar­­­­rying within a certain age. “The force of education overcomes the demand factor for brides amongst Jains,” says Ravinder Kaur, a sociologist at IIT Delhi. The high rate of literacy has also translated over time, as in other communities, into a precondition for marriage, because of its prestige value. “Not only are women not willing to settle before gaining a certain level of education, families they marry into are also increasingly expecting an educated daughter-in-law,” says Ashish Mishra of Jain4Jain.com, a matrimonial website for Jains. This has created a zone of consensus, rather than conflict, and helped push the age of marriage to the late 20s, with few women getting married before 25.

There are also other dynamics at play. Known to be traders and businessmen, the Jains are a close-knit community. The thr­eat of cooption within the Hindu fold in the early 20th century forced them to remain insular, preferring marriage wit­hin their community. The perception of Jains being a closed group got an official stamp recently, when they got a ‘minority’ tag, eliciting mixed responses from the community.

Sanjay Srivastava, a Delhi-based sociologist, says the main reason for insularity is to keep businesses within the community. “Mar­­­­riage in India is considered not just a union between individuals but also families and, in turn, businesses,” he says. Most Jain families today look for brides who are well-equipped to lend a hand to family business. Take Bhavini Jain’s case. The 31-year-old MBA married into a family of traders two years ago. “My husband’s family expected me to lend a hand with the business,” she says. “Both my husband and I are working towards expanding the business now.”

The Jains’ highly-developed culture of kinship helps retain a sense of old identity, while allowing younger generations to neg­otiate the social trends of the day with more openness. “The level of affluence ach­­­ieved by them has also made them sensitive to globalisation and hyper-consumerism, as compared to the rest,” Sriv­astava says. In the main, it’s a virtuous cycle: literacy, affluence, relaxing of norms.

Despite educated women marrying late, Jain society still forbids exogamy. This has also resulted in many young Jains failing to find suitable partners.

But the sense of community being strong, marriages would still be governed by codes that forbid exogamy. That, taken with the trend of late marriages and the skewed sex ratio, also mean more men and women fail to find suitable partners from within the community. Suchit Patni, a 29-year-old Jain from Allahabad, has wanted to get married for a while now, but is unable to find a suitable bride. “I am looking for som­­­eone a few years younger but I haven’t been able to find a girl marrying that young,” he says. This is after his parents registered on several matrimonial websites.

The Jains are a urba­n community, with over 75 per cent living in towns and cities. This causes another rural-urban str­­a­­tification, with women based in the city relctant to marry boys from villa­ges and small towns. The Jains make up only about 0.4 per cent of India’s population, a number that seems to be declining in recent decades. This is the backdrop against which conflicting attitudes are playing out—exposure to the globalised world making the community more liberal than others, while retaining a conservative element in its desire to remain a distinct, coherent social bloc.

As the number of qualif­ied, independent women grows, the avenues for marriage often decline—creating novel situations. Indeed, as a res­ponse, the younger generation is looking to break barriers. Sukriti Jain, a 27 -year-old Delhi girl, got married to a Gujar­ati Jain. This might seem minor when read against more drastic inter-community unions, but it was big for the family, almost as if she was marrying out of the clan.

Despite progressive parameters on education, the jarring paradox that remains is the low sex ratio—which, at 940, is almost at par with that of the Sikhs, who come last on the graph. The child sex ratio (between ages 0-6) is much worse—at 870, it is far lower than the national average of 927.

This anomaly may be the residual effect of an interim phase where conservatism coe­xisted with new sex-determining technologies—and may level out over time, as the phenomenon of late marriages among modern, educated couples (with its long-­term effect on fertility rates) chan­ges attitudes. The paradox was well encapsulated by the Jain monk who was given a pulpit in the Haryana assembly last week—strong words against female foeticide versus an archaic perspective on gender relations.


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