A Hinge match recently sent me a post which read, “Ek baar feed refresh kar lo, aur teen log shaadi kar chuke honge (Refresh your feed once and three people would have tied the knot).”
Had it not been for an arranged marriage proposal that fortunately fell apart a couple of months ago, I would have been one of those three.
As a woman still in her early twenties, I should be concentrating on my career, thinking about getting a master’s degree and checking out guys on Bumble. But somewhere along the way, society conditioned girls like me to believe that marriage is the key to eternal happiness and freedom.
How many of us have heard our mothers say things like: “You want to travel? Get married and travel wherever you want.”
By denying women the same quality of education that is afforded to men in the family – which eventually results in fewer career opportunities to earn financial freedom and lead an independent life – many families keep women as hostages to the patriarchy. They then subsequently ‘sell’ them to the same patriarchal set up by showing them a false sense of freedom that seems to lie on the other side of being single.
The boy my parents had arranged for me to court once told me that at least three women had told him up front that he was their “ticket out” from their toxic and regressive families. At the time, I was shocked by how women viewed marriage – as an exit plan.
But deep down, I was avoiding the fact that underneath my hope of finding a companion for life, my reasons were perhaps the same – freedom from society and its undue expectations of what a morally upright young girl should be, expectations that magically cease to exist when a man puts a ring on her finger; to finally be able to cut my hair short, dye it green, and get that piercing I’ve wanted since I was 15.
Marrying off a daughter is viewed as a gruelling task, a moral obligation that all ‘good’ parents must fulfil, and in most Indian communities, this time arrives once the girl turns 23-24. The pressure to tie the knot with each passing year of a single woman in India can be hard to fight against. It takes plenty of willpower to push away the intimidation of family members and relatives and not succumb to the ‘guilt’ (the ‘your grandma is unwell, please get married soon’) that parents leverage to get their daughters to agree to potential proposals. And pushing back is a privilege not all may have – especially women from low income, middle-class families who have little agency of their own.
Early marriage, however, is a tool to deny women sexual autonomy and economic independence, making them vulnerable to domestic violence. There is also the added pressure to prove one’s fertility by bearing children at the earliest, because what else would women want sex for other than to procreate?
Recognising and breaking this conditioning that I need to marry to live my best life and make my family proud was a revelatory experience for me, a moment of enlightenment. It was like my mind had broken out of a cage. It came from realising that I have the same potential as any man to give myself anything I want; it came from surrounding myself with fierce independent women who stand up for themselves against the norms set by society. It came from tearing myself away from the fairy tale Instagram pictures of happy couples who had come together under the holy bond of matrimony; it came from by opening my eyes and seeing what lies beyond that new love – adjustments and sacrifices that women are expected to bear alone.
This is not to say that marriage is an evil social construct. There are plenty of men who support and cherish the dreams and desires of women, break gender roles, and put equal effort into unpaid household work. However, to marry or to not marry and, if to marry, to be able to choose their partners irrespective of class, caste and religion, is agency most Indian women lack. And it is the lack of that choice that is evil. It is cruel to expect women to suppress their dreams and expectations, and follow a path chosen by others.
Marriage can be something beautiful – a celebration of love and companionship. What it shouldn’t be is a sacrifice to placate the needs of the society to maintain social order. Nor should it be a cry for help. Women do not need to get married to ‘come into their own’ and live their true lives. They can do that at any age, being single and a cat-mom.
Reniya Naji is a software engineer by profession who aspires to pursue her creative interests through writing. You can reach her on Instagram @reniyanaji
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty