The danger of having a narrow-minded notion of success is that it neglects how different shoes fit different sizes, thereby expecting people to live up to ridiculous standards that are in conflict with their real selves. Lies disguise as truths until they are questioned.
For ages, society has lied that a woman’s crowning glory is a man, and that companionship and emotional fulfilment only lie within the confines of matrimony. These, among many other myths, maintain women’s oppression in society.
Origin of marriage
Through the decades, anthropologists, sociologists, and the like have advanced various theories to explain the emergence of the institution of marriage. The common denominator among these theories is that marriage came into existence for the protection of women and children. To get by in a hunter-gatherer society, one needed physical strength. Men were strong; women were weak, and men possessed wealth to be passed down to their offspring.
In an era without paternity tests, controlling women’s sexuality was the only way to ensure the “wrong” children did not inherit a man’s wealth, because patriarchy thrives on women’s financial and sexual dependence on men. Ending this dynamic would likely bring about a matriarchy, as in the case of Umoja Uaso, a women-only village in Kenya.
In Marriage, a History, Stephanie Coontz explores how different societies thought romantic love was disruptive to marriage. At inception, women were pawns in the game of acquiring fortune. It was not until the 18th century that romance worked its way into wedlock.
Many-a-times, women get into the marriage institution wearing rose-tinted glasses and holding lofty hopes of romance, only for that hope to be crushed into splinters of despair when the harsh reality of the marriage manifests itself and swats the glasses off their faces. Marriage (in the heterosexual context) gives women the illusion of a romantic space; the reality is that marriage provides the easiest way for a woman to experience misogyny.
Marriage ought to provide love, comfort and companionship, or so Anthony Giddens writes in Sociology. However, recent statistics have shown that this is not the case. Giddens goes on to write that on the flipside, marriage can also be a locus for exploitation, loneliness and profound inequality. As Nawal El Saadawi puts it in The Hidden Face of Eve, one of the conditions of true love is an exchange, and that a necessary condition for exchange is balance – equality between partners. Exchange cannot take place between a master and a slave. Real love cannot therefore be based on a relationship characterised by exploitation of any kind. It is therefore correct to say that most of the relationships that arise between men and women are not built on love.
“Men don’t operate from love. Unlike women, men enter marriage with a utilitarian mindset, because the male mind is predatory. They think: What can I take and how can I take it?” Uduak Ukem, a banker in Nigeria, told AWiM News.
Men don't operate from love. They enter marriage with a utilitarian mindset. They think: What can I take and how can I take it?
Chidi Nnam, an unmarried graphic designer, concurs, saying that the average man wants someone who can take care of the home.
To put their claims to test, I carried out a dipstick survey of men and women in a couple of African countries. Ninety-eight per cent of respondents (40 per cent men and 60 per cent women) agreed with the premise that marriage exploits women more than it does men.
One then wonders: Why do women desire marriage, an institution that doesn’t favour us?
What’s love got to do with it?
In a 2017 interview with the Sun Nigeria, Nigerian artiste Muma Gee said,” I believe one of the duties I have to fulfil on earth is motherhood, and that includes getting married and building a family with a partner.”
In most societies, matrimony and motherhood are the indices of successful femininity. We cannot say the same about masculinity because of the double standards in gender-based socialisation. Independent single women are seen as a threat to the brittle beams holding up society. To reduce this threat, society invented mechanisms such as (slut) shaming, insistence on virginity and female genital mutilation.
As far back as 1913, Kate Cornell stated in a lecture titled Spinsters Indispensable: “Women are perceived as some man’s wife that was, and the spinster some man’s wife who ought to have been.” This is because women were wives and homemakers for most of history, and it was difficult to see women as capable of existing as anything other than wives.
Society teaches us that true bliss lies in acquiring the Mrs status. We internalise this concept and weave it into our personal definition of success, thereby stirring the feelings of inadequacy when we fall short of “landing” a man. Sadder still, we are bombarded with reminders of the wonders of wedlock in which we are not reveling.
Is the pursuit of happiness women’s motivation to be a part of this institution?
Despite a woman’s level of career success, society invalidates her achievements because she is “manless”, and this causes her sorrow. Are married women happier than unmarried women are? 59 per cent of the respondents of the dipstick survey disagreed, while 33 per cent took a neutral stand.
“Most married women are not happy! They are traumatised, but they post happy pictures online to prove that they are happy; that they are winning,” said Uduak.
If marriage does not guarantee happiness, why do women get married?
Nene Lyn, a recent divorcee, says, “Women get married for societal reasons. Based on upbringing, most of us feel incomplete without the Mrs tag. Even when they know the men do not genuinely like them, and only want the marriage for kids, they want to feel included. At times, it is love. Financial reasons are involved. For some, life has dealt them blows and they seek a feeling of safety by falling in love with a man they believe is a safe haven, like in my case.”
Chidi believes women who rush into marriage at a young age lack ambition.
“In the real sense, society can’t tie your hands and legs and throw you into marriage. Society can say this and that, but you are the one that chose to get married.”
While 73 per cent of the respondents felt that men do not experience as much pressure as women to get married, Chidi says society does put the heat on men too.
“When a man gets to a certain age or level, people expect him to get married. If he doesn’t, they begin to suspect that something is wrong with him. Sometimes the pressure to marry is based on circumstances, such as if he gets a woman pregnant. He would be given no choice but to marry. Most men don’t get married for love; they are compelled to get married. Society equates maturity with marriage,” he said.
73 per cent of respondents said that men do not experience as much pressure as women to get married
Interestingly, mothers nudge their daughters into matrimony, despite talking often about how it has failed them. It is almost like a case of generational Stockholm syndrome. Different respondents give their reasons for this: mothers want to save face and feel validated; they want to brag to their friends; they think marriage gives women respectability; they love weddings.
In modern times, people do not necessarily need physical strength to acquire financial wherewithal. If we hold on to the protection theory of marriage, we expect the institution to fade naturally, as it is redundant: women do not need protection from those scary things that made ancient people invent marriage.
Then again, marriage can be beautiful and favourable to women in modern times. Equality in marriage would make this possible, as it would entail both parties treating each other with compassion, love, and respect.
Based on the dipstick survey, 76 per cent of respondents believe there is no equality in African marriages.
Do men want marriage equality?
Chidi says men would be ready for marriage equality when women are self-sufficient and are contributing equally to the upkeep of the family.
However, Apryl of VH1’s Love and Hip-Hop: Atlanta thinks differently. Amidst sobs on the show, she vented, “Black men go through a lot, and we have to support them. And that is a lot on us . . . domestic chores, carry the baby, breastfeed . . . I gotta provide, I gotta put 50-50 on the bills. What are you doing? I’m tired! And what do you do? You treat me like trash.”
A good number of African women find this experience relatable. Nigerian musician Tiwa Savage had a similar experience with her ex-husband. Being the breadwinner did not shield her from disrespect. Most times, we give too much and get too little in return, leaving our backs bare to the blows of patriarchy.
Patriarchy’s callousness rides on women’s complicity. Thus, we must take responsibility for the dynamics of romantic spaces. Our attitude teaches people how to treat us. We must make demands of our romantic (male) partners. Deciding to avoid intimate spaces with men who are yet to divest themselves of their male privileges is sensible.
We must not put appearance (of happiness) over genuine, personal happiness. We must forget socialisation and create our individual concept of happiness. Companionship and emotional fulfilment can come from several avenues that preclude marriage. As Chidi says, “Society can’t tie your hands and legs and throw you into marriage. Society can say this and that, but you are the one who chooses to get married.”