Artwork by Hafsa Nouman @rangsaaz_hn on instagram
By Syeda Iqraa Bukhari
‘Ammu did not pretend to be in love with him. She just weighed the odds and accepted. She thought that anything, anyone at all, would be better than returning to Ayemenen.’
Return she did. Having had suffered abuse at the hands of an alcoholic husband, the protagonist in Arundhati Roy’s heart-breaking debut bestseller, the God of Small Things, went back to Ayemenen, a village located in the predominantly communist and yet still caste-ridden Indian state of Kerala. It must have been a safer or perhaps realistic, if not better, option for her to go back and endure a lifelong imposed stigma of being a divorcee and resume life with those whom Ammu had been hopelessly running away from all along: her family.
In a novel that thematically speaks about the ‘love laws’ of ‘who should be loved, and how. And how much’, it might seem unusual to the free-spirited that the main character got married to an older, undeciphered man not so much because she felt for him but more so because she viewed him as a ticket to her freedom; a feasible substitute than the dreadful people and the monotonous life she ineffectively faced at home, given she only allowed herself two choices.
While a young Ammu decided to buy the ticket without negotiating the price, a heavy price indeed, many people today are eluded by the definition, and more importantly, the purpose of marriage.
Is matrimony a sacred union or business deal?
Technically neither, since according to the latest research conducted by behavioral science specialist Professor Paul Dolan, wedlock is deleterious to a woman’s happiness, mental health and long life. He stated that whereas men are more likely to ‘calm down’, and live mentally and emotionally healthier and longer lives after wedlock, the same development is observed amongst the unmarried populace of women. Professor Dolan’s analysis indicates that the archaic and fear evoking belief that it eventually gets lonely or tough for ageing women without a spouse and child to accompany their life journey in the ‘big bad world’ out there is not applicable anymore. Instead, it is married women who suffer in distress and unwed damsels who seem to make the most out of their living. Why then do so many women look to marriage as the ultimate escape?
From arranged marriages in some cultures to aristocratic mergers in others, the apparent global trend in the past has been suggestive of a civil partnership being mandated for realistic and pragmatic motives. Race, class, social standing and economic heritage were typically taken into serious account before bringing two people and their families together. The primary objective was for a standard couple to continue the familial lineage by having children and in that process, for their inherited wealth to be accumulated from both sides.
It was stability, not oxytocin that was sought after. In addition, marriage was ought to be successful, even in a bygone era (12th and 13th Century Europe) when scandalous love affairs were reckoned dashingly glamourous and a married couple being in love with each other was too tedious and uneventful for many. Women had to put up with scandals that their husbands brewed and were made to continue in their marriage because they had no other option; it was the convention. Back then, divorce was unwonted and women had to swallow their pride and self-respect and accept their husband’s mistresses because that was the trend, an alluring one for presumed romantics. Love children were the laughing stock of socialites but also the imaginative fantasy of keen romantic novelists and philosophers.
Contrarily, modern marriage does not usually stem from a lone desire for children, even if that is the utmost concern in the parents’ minds sometimes. Women are now more likely to consider their potential partner’s likeability and mental, if not physical, compatibility. Professor Suzanne Degges-White, a licensed counsellor who teaches at Northern Illinois University, outlines the criteria of what women fancy from the special men in their lives as ‘moral integrity, relational sensitivity and satisfying intimacy’. Loyalty is an unspoken, rather understood, requirement today, one that is taken solemnly. The ultimate utopia is for relationships to be based primarily on notions of love and mutual respect. Even arranged marriages are not too controlled and restrictive in today’s day and age, depending on which culture and subculture is taken into consideration – keeping in mind that arranged and forced marriages should be separately distinguished from one another.
Barring certain exceptions, single women in the West and East can question their potential partner’s education, mentality and lifestyle and then refuse to engage in marriage because they do not find a particular person suitable. In other words, nowadays there is a lot more freedom that allows women to choose their life partner than ever before.
This progressive approach that contemporary women embody in picking a spouse is certainly commendable. But what disrupts one’s appreciation, on the other hand, is the fact that despite all the said advances in the process of betrothal, many women are not practising this hard-earned freedom of chance and possibility, entirely through their own decision.
In a relatively liberal world where women can be so much more than what they were allowed to be before, why do they still choose to be dependent, parasitical Disney princesses? In a world where marriage should be a pure act of love, why is it still a deed of calculated negotiation and bargaining?
Women labelled “gold diggers” in modern vernacular are present and active in every culture but are definitely not looked at with approval or respect. Their agenda for foraging a well-off suitor is not very graceful in the scrutinizing eyes of society; this is where dignity comes into play and as tradition commands, a woman should be anything but undignified. Even so, what if tradition silently endorsed the idea of women getting betrothed to gain benefits while keeping their dignity intact? The idea of ‘benefits’ would generally translate into wealth, connections, opportunity and liberation and would be morally illicit but socially approved. To put it unimaginatively, many women pay serious heed to perks including a foreign education, foreign residency/citizenship, opportunities to travel and freedom from the restrictive rules in their parents’ homes when choosing a life partner, as opposed to finding someone purely on the basis of compatibility.
The lines are blurred between what counts as an unethical, selfish move for profiting and what constitutes as valid grounds for women espousing men they adore. Adoration or even reverence, from afar or up close, do not really play a part when marriage becomes a self-emancipation plan, camouflaged under the conveniently cloaked labels of religion and social approval when it is truly just exploitation not just of the other but also of oneself. One makes oneself physically, emotionally, mentally available to the person who can guarantee what one’s parents cannot or do not want to offer; the modern-day prince charming story with a twisted ambition.
In exceptional cases where a woman’s life is at risk or in the face of a perilous threat when she needs someone to look after her, marriage could be the genuine last resort. But in most everyday cases, one’s life is not in danger; it is one’s freedom, independence and personal desires that are in jeopardy and thereby one utilizes marriage for the sake of self-preservation. This is where culture and society play an influentially dark role.
In South Asia, women grow up hearing and subconsciously imbibing the thought that ending up with a socially and financially “well-settled” men is what nuptial is all about. This is why many women – and their families – feel blessed if a shareef (decent) man from an economically superior background selects them as a wife even if it means bypassing glaring red flags along the way; the justification being that the woman would never face difficult times in her life – with “difficult” naturally only meaning socio-economic strains. This mentality defines marriage, not just for lower class women, but for single maidens in general.
Young girls who find that the environment at home is not as libertarian as they would like it to be, follow the same path, with many of them not even realizing that they are committing grave wrong. Before even trying to become financially independent, or making any major move in life like travelling alone, pursuing higher studies, finding a personal place to live in, getting a job, pursuing a hobby, learning to drive, overcoming hardships etcetera, these women get married to men they do not love, nor pretend to love. And when they do fall in love with their husbands, they do so because they are cajoled by what they are dispensed with, not because they suddenly believe in true love. If they counted on love in the first place, they would not marry someone for other mercenary incentives.
They realize early on that their dreams and aspirations will never be achievable in the homes of their conservative, restricting parents so they decide to move from one patriarchal set up to another. They would rather be in a subservient relationship with their partner than their father.
What is dangerous is that such women are not very exposed to the world outside of their homes and so their construct of opportunities, as well as life, is very limited. They decide to get married at a time that they might not even have discovered themselves or their potential, in terms of talent, skills and intellect. Older, dejected men, especially male cousins, prey on such women because the younger, more oblivious and naive a girl is, the more likely she is to be submissive and moldable, even if she thinks she is mature enough to take on the marriage.
Maturity is not in question here because even a mature and responsible young woman can get married for the wrong reasons. It might be her maturity that would make her understand that things are not working out in her parents’ home; it might be her lack of exposure that would make her wrongfully discern that she needs a man, and not herself, to change that.
Coming of age should not be the prerequisite of setting a time in one’s life to get married. Instead, it should be the time for one to explore the world out there and discover themselves as an individual. Level headedness should not come with a punishment in the form of a lifelong contract but rather with latitude.
Numerous women, with pretend innocence, justify that Islam allows females to be funded by their husbands entirely and that it is actually the rightful duty of the husband to do so, though that is only a cherry-picked part of the story with the other half customarily negated by the right-wing. The Islamic ruling, if only read and quoted in full, is that a woman can also choose to not take a penny from her husband after marriage (if she can afford to do so). Therefore, women getting married to prosperous men for thoughtless welfare does no justice to any religion or even to themselves. Besides massively damaging the impression of what kind of a relationship they should seek; women also end up not realizing or acknowledging the difference between the stature of their father and husband.
Whether one admits it or not, parents are superior, period. They give birth to and raise their children and are older by age and status. Hence, parents or more commonly fathers bankrolling their children is normal. The loophole that many do not glimpse is that this pedestal should be reserved only for parents. Women should not see their spouse in the same socio-economic prerogative as they see their fathers in.
A husband should be equal to his wife, socially and more importantly, fiscally. That does not necessarily mean a couple earning the exact same amount. It means being equal as in one does not fund the other, or is expected to, barring in crisis situations. When a woman willfully opts for an inferior association to a superior husband whom she derives cash, certainty and stability from and without whose support she cannot even buy a bottle of water for herself, she does not give herself an alternative but to envision her husband with her father’s authority and supremacy.
This is where women who fall for the harsh reality of not being able to get along with their families and consequently seek husbands simply to run away from their fathers misconstrue their own role in marriage. As per liberal, feminist, Muslim scholarship, capital is the determining factor that designates the superiority and inferiority in any unequal relationship. The patriarch and breadwinner of the family is seen as senior to the unpaid labourer of the house: his wife.
Some women find themselves to be very lucky because they do not have to shed their self-respect and ask for pocket money since their supposedly cooperative and dutiful other halves “look after” them without needing reminders, regardless of how their personal relationship fares. What to them is good fortune is the more tragic fact that their security and wellbeing depends on the mood, and henceforth mercy, of another human being and that they have to bow in gratefulness that their provider is happy enough to fulfil their basic needs – that as grown-ups with a sound mind and capability, they should be doing on their own in the first place.
Tradition and culture in this case, adulate sexism and integrate it into the fabric of some of the most essential human relations. For society to prefer a woman trading her body, mind and presence in exchange for her dreams coming true through an “honourable” marriage over an unmarried woman sharing a relationship with someone she genuinely likes, is nothing but shameful and disgraceful hypocrisy. It does not stop here though, as there is also reverse sexism.
Which male child is born into the world thinking that they will willfully take the burden and responsibility of another human being’s financial security after marriage for the rest of their lives? None, possibly? The idea of being a protector and provider is drilled into the minds of young men as they grow up seeing it get implemented with barely any deviations. Religion and sometimes the misguided path to heaven (in the afterlife) are misused as tools to make men think of it as a divine duty, even if they are personally unwilling themselves. Men are not asked but are told that they need to earn for two beings following marriage.
Still, men should be able to say no to this universal custom of reverse inequality and have the right to demand a wife who would marry them for who they are and not how much they earn. Though this demand might initially attract extreme backlash, it could eventually pave the way for future aristocratic women marrying men from humble backgrounds and vice versa. It would revolutionize the concept of marriage in itself and more people would marry for love because they would be too self-reliant to look at socio-economic factors when selecting a life partner. Of course, for women and men who would be unable to earn due to predicamental circumstances, exceptions would have to be made but the overarching change would be that both genders would be expected to work and earn for themselves and share in household expenses, unlike how only men are traditionally expected to do so. It would create equality not just in the workplace but also at home.
It would also open the path to inter-caste and inter-class marriages where a lower caste individual would not be refused for marriage based on how much they are destined to inherit or how privileged or downtrodden a household they are born into; a factor no one has any control over. After all, caste and class are ideograms of wealth and private property. And because they are so deeply embedded into society, marriage follows suit, especially in countries where the name of God is misused to justify and inflict socio-cultural barriers.
If one were to look towards antiquity, one would find phenomenal women, especially in Islamic history, executing visionary frameworks of equal spousal relationships at home in medieval times. One of them is notably the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Khadija, a wealthy and esteemed businesswoman carrying on her family’s legacy of commerce as a daughter, who is only remembered, and possibly underestimated, for traits such as being intelligent, noble and supportive – when she was so much more.
One of her most endearing and self-determining qualities is that she, “Princess of the Merchants”, as a widowed mother of two children, married Muhammad, a younger and less affluent man because she was impressed with his integrity from when he briefly worked in her merchandise.
The story of how Khadija sent a proposal to Muhammad reveals that she did not feel necessary to wait for the other gender to take the first step. She was confident as a woman and asked for his hand in marriage, boldly defying deep-rooted boundaries of class and gender in the Arabia of more than 1400 years ago.
She was also the one to take charge and provide a blanket of comfort and security (metaphorically and literally) in Muhammad’s initial encounter with Prophethood, that left him shivering with shock and bewilderment. Moreover, the Prophet was able to give massive time to spreading the message of the newly revealed religion, because his wife Khadija was able to cover the financial aspect of running the house, that she actually owned. Such was the love of Khadija. Such was the empowerment of Khadija.
These unusual budgetary dynamics of their relationship would be taken as egoistic mockery by many men not just back then but also today.
While there are other powerful women, coincidentally (or not) disassociated with religion, who are frequently mentioned by the general Muslim public, Khadija’s character is only presented as that of a wife and not an individual. Perhaps the Ummah fears that their own women might take inspiration from Khadija and start questioning norms and create problems in their own homes. It is in liberal circles where Khadija is discussed and applauded beyond a theological light and more with a social one that would appeal to any person striving for equality, regardless of their faith. Knowledge, at least about strong women of substance who have a place in history, should be secular and widely spoken about.
For daughters of apathetic parents dealing with desolate, toxic environments at home, marriage is not made in heaven but rather in desperation. Women like Khadija and her life and times should shine some optimism, if not inspiration to defeated, hurt women whose families miserably fail at remotely reasoning with them.
As opposed to society questioning and ostracizing “gold diggers”, it is time that society and should be interrogated about it makes gold diggers out of demoralized girls who should be chasing after their dreams in lieu of conniving manipulative and adulterated schemes of deplorably sacrificing their pride, potential and innocence to make trade-off contracts out of what should be their chance at intimacy and compassion. It is time women began to think long and hard about not just if they should get married, but for what kind of motivation – superficial or authentic. It is a sacred union, not a business deal that they should indulge in, after all. Moreover, women need to realize that by putting a price on themselves, they objectify their own being; there is no greater insult to the self than that.
In cultures and communities where the older generation is given a lot more veneration and precedence than the youth, it is important for young people to redefine their relationship with their elders. It is reverence, not dominance that should exist in familial relations, especially between parents and daughters as well as between siblings, so that marriage is not looked at as solace or respite from an authoritarian family, but rather what it should be: a lifelong bond between two individuals, one where both are at an equal standing. When women will be happy at home, they will not want to leave but for love; it really is as simple as that.
Far from idealism, marriage for a woman should be many wonderful things but at a basic lackluster minimum it should not make one remorseful in a manner that Arundhati Roy has beautifully encapsulated – mentioned below:
‘When she looked at herself in her wedding photographs, Ammu felt the woman that looked back at her was someone else. A foolish jeweled bride. Her silk sunset-colored sari shot with gold. Rings on every finger. White dots of sandalwood paste over her arched eyebrows. Looking at herself like this, Ammu’s soft mouth would twist into a small, bitter smile at the memory – not of the wedding itself so much as the fact that she had permitted herself to be so painstakingly decorated before being led to the gallows. It seemed so absurd. So futile. Like polishing firewood.’
I would like to dedicate this piece to the incredible women in my life and otherwise, who had to ‘compromise’ and ‘accept’. May they compromise and accept no more.
Bio: The writer is a recipient of the PAIS MA Scholarship and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in International Security at the University of Warwick where she works as a Research Assistant in the Department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS).
Edited by: Bhavi Shah (University of Warwick)