I spent much of my childhood fantasising about my wedding day.
It was always an outdoor wedding in a private garden. A gazebo stood tall, embellished with fresh roses that glistened in the sunlight.
I made quite an entrance too. I would grace the aisles in a magnificent gown fit for a queen.
To think of fairytale weddings as anything more than a recipe for a chick-flick bewilders me now, but back then, the fantasy was captivating.
I yearned for it to be a reality.
To Have and To Hold —
Suddenly, I was tossed into the reality of my existence. It woke me up like an alarm on a Monday morning.
I came to understand that such fantasies only actualised if you met certain criteria. These criteria defined gender-specific standards for characteristics ranging from aesthetics to ambition.
I found myself to have failed across the board.
I must say I was not at all surprised to think this way. At the back of my head, I had always known how far I fared from the criteria. It was enough for my mind to take a jibe at my self-esteem each time I looked in a mirror. Like many others, the road to confidence has been an uphill battle for me.
Gradually, I stopped fantasising about that archetypical romance.
For many years, I kept my womanhood locked in a state of oblivion. Until recently, that has been my saving grace.
How Sweet the Sound
We had a wedding in my family.
It was beautiful, like weddings were meant to be.
I was excited but also drained before the day even began. I spent a great deal of time familiarising myself with the etiquette of such traditional social situations. It struck me that I represented my family like an ambassador would his/her country.
As the ceremony went on, I traded my enthusiasm for lethargy. Thankfully enough, I was able to hide it with affective labour, but my mind turned to a blank. I expected the indifference to perpetuate itself, until a conversation I inadvertently overheard piqued my interest.
We were in the midst of the tea ceremony. A young father sat next to me holding his daughter in his arms.
The ceremony had been going on for some time. Naturally, his daughter grew fidgety as toddlers do. Eventually, she channeled her restlessness into curiosity and sought to understand the significance of the ceremony.
Then, her father said to her, “so you cannot get married okay? otherwise daddy have to give you away“.
I take thee
My eyes widened with confusion.
The exchange is perhaps best read as an endearing father-daughter moment. Yet, I was bewildered.
As bad as I felt for invoking the skeptic in me, I refused to doubt the underlying sexism I saw entwined in the father’s words.
Till this day, I have been asking myself the same question:
Should we be indoctrinating girls with the idea that acquiescence is a virtue to be upheld?
At this point, I should raise a few caveats.
For one, I have been raised by strong women who have been fortified by disappointment and disunion. This alludes to my feminist convictions.
Also, I have been told many times that I think too much into things. Trust me, I am more than aware. In fact, it is my excessive contemplation that has given birth to this blog. In such fashion, I endeavour to be as impartial in my perspective as possible.
This is my solemn vow.
The majority of societies are patriarchal. I’d go so far as to say that the ideology behind patriarchy became a universal language before the term was popularised. Perhaps much of this is owed to an assumption that history is truth.
Aristotle believed that women were inferior to men based on the functions they fulfilled within the household. He identified the chemical-based differences between a male and a female body as reason. We see this logic very much at large today, oft under the guise of virtue. The chemical makeup of a man’s body supposedly allowed them to play a more active role, while a woman’s ability to bear children relegated them to passivity.
Thousands of years later, this line of reasoning continues to haunt us on a subconscious level. A male breadwinner and female homemaker are such habitual phenomena that they become the definitions for the norm. This institutionalises the patriarchy as an unerring social system by way of its historical significance. Today, it is sustained and justified by religion.
For much of the past, the church and the state were amalgamated. It is arguably difficult to separate the two entirely. Like governance, religion continues to hold much jurisdiction over individual will, albeit indirectly and often called for by individuals themselves. The waters are indeed murky, and my perspective is but one of many. The ongoing contest has been to identify whether or not there is a line to be drawn, and if it is currently in the individual’s capacity to draw that line. Still, as a consequence, we can see how patriarchal customs and gender roles remain dressed in religious sanctity today.
Regardless, the forces of paradigmatic shifts fell upon society just as they once did when they replaced magic with science. Women rose, rallied and challenged the assumption that they should be satisfied from fulfilling their ‘biological duties‘ — a truly powerful sight.
To assume that childbearing is a woman’s duty is an outrageous notion. In fact, the convention that a woman is child-bearer and homemaker might just be a strategy to ensure that she remains economically dependent on the man. This undoubtedly tightens the system’s reign over her in an attempt to rein in her strength.
It is the privileged who stand to benefit from the status quo that we should be pressurising. Unfortunately, it cannot be denied that many of those who fall into this category are men who hold positions of power and influence. Because men have had the upper-hand as they have historically, they also come to benefit from this social system in ways they might not even perceive. Many operate in a state of dominance where they can take advantage of their role as the breadwinner. There exists men who expect regular comfort and pleasure from women as reward for simply playing the role of breadwinner. Sometimes, they parasitically feed off of these women even when they have not delivered to their responsibilities.
However, that is not to say that all men are members of an evil cult of oppression. There are many who recognise the toxicity and speak against gender-based injustices. Not enough is being written about the men who worked intensely for the Women’s Suffrage, such as Frederick Douglass and Thetus W. Sims. Today, this spirit lives on in movements such as the #HeForShe, and the men who readily stand as allies.
So, wherein lies the problem?
When the father told his daughter that marrying someone means he has to give her away, it perpetuates the inferiority of women. His daughter might be too young for his statement to be catalyst for an identity crisis, but his choice of words is still problematic. We see the same issue come up when a woman decides not to get married and she is asked why, as if to defend her resolve against the righteousness of the patriarchy.
Historically, women have been treated like tokens to be won in battle. The media perpetuates this with every storyline where the male hero gets the girl, but we remain oblivious to it because they are framed using the aesthetic allure of weddings and romances. Till this day, there are communities in which daughters are sold and exchanged for money — daughters as young as that father’s child.
Change lies in recognising the subtle ways that we are acting as agents of a dogmatic system and (perhaps unknowingly) teaching its damaging standards to girls. All this under the guise of virtue and tradition.
Words such as “give away” preserve the historical discrimination of women. These words might influence the girls to accept and live by a flawed perspective on their role in relationships, with matrimony as the absolute goal. What is at risk is the next generation of women might warrant the relegation of control over their beings from one man to another upon marriage. This is dangerous no matter how little that control may be.
Words are powerful and we must use them carefully. Ultimately, we should teach the children to love and cherish themselves; that they hold the power over their lives; that they are worth so much more than a cultural habit.
It is imperative that your relationship with anyone works for you as a team and as an individual. I hope that if you do take away anything from this piece, it is to never undervalue your self.
originally published: 21 Sept 2019