Why do human beings marry? For sex or for children! But why is marriage necessary for secure and safe sex or for children? Out of all living species it is only humans who feel the need to marry. But don’t all other animals stay together, procreate and bring up offsprings? Marriage is not even essential for trust or loyalty. There are many animals that happily spend entire lives with the same mate, the one they choose in early youth. Never again do they desire for a new mate, never again do they feel the need to start afresh with the new one. They are loyal and monogamous in the most incredulous way! No matter how far they go, how many seas they cross, how old they become, they come back to the old mate of years to kiss and live in love. They never get to know the meaning of adultery, what it means to be polygamous or how does it feel to be betrayed. Albatrosses, swans, black vultures, bald eagles, turtle doves, dik-diks, bonnet-head sharks, gibbons, French angelfish, grey wolf, snow leopards – there are many such animals.
Humans marry to live happily ever after. But how many of them do end up living happily ever after? Most marriages either fail or survive without love. People hold on to loveless marriages for varied reasons – children, financial security or in fear of what the society or people would say. But should such coexistence be called a marriage. Many, who already have a husband or wife, nonchalantly indulge in extra-marital affairs. When one romantic affair ends, they start a new one. Human beings are not bald eagles, or black vultures. Humans are hardly monogamous and often polygamous. But at the same time it cannot be said with utmost certainty that humans are purely polygamous. Humans are much more complex and complicated. They could be monogamous, polygamous, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual – all at the same time and many more things. And there can be no close comparisons to human beings when it comes to embracing the new and abandoning dead, old ways.
Most religions pronounce marriage as a holy union between a man and a woman. Apparently god preselects one’s partner prior to even birth. So come what may, marriages must not be broken – god warns. But as we know even the most loyal devotees of god do not care to follow this advice anymore. They utter the word talaq casually to abandon a partner who supposedly was chosen by god for someone they like. It seems god has failed badly as a ‘matchmaker’. Most religions intrude in matters of matrimony, laying out rules on what ought to be the ideal age, sex, caste, beliefs when two people marry and also the duties of the ideal husband and wife. Though marriage is a thoroughly personal matter, it is largely a social affair. Women, if not men, are certainly the property of a whole society. Did the woman have an affair before marriage? Was she a virgin? Does she have an affair outside of marriage? Who does she hang out with? What time does she return home? Does she have unknown men visit her at home? And it is not just her immediate family but the entire community that takes keen interest and follows her each and every move and action. The fathers and brothers lose honour at the drop of a hat because a woman’s life remains not only her private and personal life but a concern of the entire family, community and the society. Thus fathers and brothers are ready to even kill a woman to protect the cause of family honour.
Marriage is almost becoming extinct in progressive and liberal parts of the world. Some people still marry because marriage as an institution continues to exist and they just follow a much-treaded route without much thought. It is almost like observing the need of climbing Mount Everest because one feels its looming presence. If marriage goes out of practice many will not care to marry. People continue with traditions often out of mere habit. But very few take the initiative to renew traditions and customs that are dead. There are many lovers in liberal countries who live for years together, have children and raise a family outside of marriage. The patriarchal nature of an archaic tradition called marriage is but a joke for many such couples. Marriage is just like religion that lives on despite being proven as something that has no basis in reality. A set of irrational beliefs that have survived in the same way as some superstitions have continued for thousands of years. Yet most superstitions too meet with death. Hundreds of religions and hundreds of gods have died silent deaths. Where is the heroic Apollo now, for example? Where are Jupiter, Zeus and Hermes? Where are Thor and Odin? One day marriage too will go out of fashion just like the gods and religions of bygone eras.
There is another secret reason why some people still choose to marry in countries of northern Europe – in such places one pays less tax when married. The state also bears the expenses of raising children. A lot of people in those countries are reluctant to marry or have children. So the government tries to tempt citizens with benefits of tax rebates lest the institution of marriage completely dismantles and north Europeans become an extinct race altogether. Some actually do marry because of these social benefits but many still prefer to live either alone or with a partner without marrying. Many couples who choose not to marry and yet stay together receive the same kind of state support allotted for married couples. In the West polygyny is uncommon and the practice of polygamy too is less common than in the East. What is common in the West is known as serial monogamy.
Towards the end of 60s many people came out of the narrow confines of their homes to lead a revolution, challenge the politics of a past era and change society. Old and worn out ideas like women must protect virginity, purity and motherhood to be known as good were defied. The hippies of the era almost altogether stopped marrying. Many cohabited as a group, had multiple sexual partners among themselves and raised children as joint responsibility of everyone in the group. There was no concept of seeing a partner as one’s private property. The commune lives did not last long. Had hippies been successful, the institution of marriage by now would not have remained a living institution of the society but would have found a place in the pages of history.
Intellectuals in different countries have written flamboyantly on how marriage is utterly meaningless. “”A wedding is a funeral where you smell your own flowers.” “One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry.” Katherine Hepburn even in her times was not in the favour of a man and woman sharing the same house. “Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” she said. She also added, “If you want to sacrifice the admiration of many men for the criticism of one, go ahead, get married.” These are exceptional observations of exceptional personalities. “Marriage is a wonderful invention; but, then again, so is a bicycle repair kit.” “Marriage is a cage. Those outside are desperate to enter and those inside are desperate to leave.” Marriage is good for those who are afraid to sleep alone at night.” There are more. “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?” “A husband is what is left of a lover, after the nerve has been extracted.” “Marriage is a bribe to make the housekeeper think she’s a householder.” French author Balzac wrote, ““The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin.” However, not that all sayings are against marriage. There are some that argues in favour of it. “I’d marry again if I found a man who had fifteen million dollars, would sign over half to me, and guarantee that he’d be dead within a year.”
When the West was swayed by a hippie revolution and women’s liberation movements, women in the East wore invisible chastity belt. Many men in the East still continue to marry for primordial reasons because of which the institution of marriage originated. What is needed is a womb, a womb necessary to bear the child born out of a man. The key purpose of marriage is to protect the identity of the father. It is actually women have sustained the tradition of patriarchy for thousands of years by marrying men and protecting men’s interests. The balloon of patriarchy would have burst with a loud bang long back had women revolted.
In Bengali societies I often witness women’s wings of freedom being clipped right after marriage. Women have to leave behind everything, their home, family, friends, the familiar neighbourhood, the city of their youth and childhood, a life and a past to make the husband’s home their own. They have to add the husband’s surname to their names and call home a house that belongs to the in-laws. The husband and his family decide on behalf of adult educated women whether she should hold a job. Once it was very common and even now some people say things like women must not do professional work after marriage. Women must aspire for a life of endless sacrifice and dedication, so they must stay at home, cook, take care of the family and children. Gloria Steinem once famously said, “A liberated woman is one who has sex before marriage and a job after.” In present times the husband and his family do not just expect educated women to look after the household but they also want women to hold a job for some extra money for the family. However, women’s earnings continue to be seen as the “extra” in ordinary Bengali homes even if they earn more than the husband. Being indoctrinated in values of patriarchy, women are happy to deposit their earnings in the hands of the husband and acquire the ‘good girl’ tag. Women in most cases have no authority on how to spend their own earnings and often it is men – no matter how unintelligent – call the shots in money matters. Even if they manage to earn well women – it is assumed – remain clueless on managing finances. Therefore, men take it upon themselves the responsibility of looking after these important matters. Most Bengali women do not know the meaning of freedom.
In Kolkata I often shivered to see married couples living on in cold and loveless marriages. “If the marriage breaks, let it break. Why take so much effort to make it last?” I often asked. I never got satisfactory answers. Women get used to living in unhappy lives. Children for whom couples often linger bad marriages grow up witnessing tensions and pains of a troubled family and that does more harm than good. It is difficult for women to live alone or raise children on their own if they are not economically independent and lack financial security. But does that mean one must compromise with abusive husbands? The thought of sharp rise in instances of violence on and homicide of women is chilling. And all this is such a brutal expression of misogyny that remains at the heart of patriarchy!
Societies that have more of educated, independent and aware women than otherwise tend to witness higher divorce rates and low marriage rates.
However, in the Indian subcontinent even educated and independent women – having imbibed the values of patriarchy – silently tolerate abusive and polygamous husbands and choose to remain married just like those who are not self-sufficient. Marriage in these societies is almost like a conquest for men and sacrifice for women. To some marriage offers a relief from loneliness and ties a heavy shackle of bondage on others. Barbaric acts are rampant in these societies. There exist caste discrimination, dowry, objectification of women, practices of treating the wife as sex object, slave or child-producing machine, want and constant pressure of having a male child, killing of female foetus, murdering or abandoning the girl child, divorcing the wife for not giving birth to a male child and remarriage.
While there are many who follow norms and traditions blindly, there are some others who break the rules. The old norms of marriage are crumbling as more and more people are becoming civilised. It is only a handful – and not teeming millions – that change society, while the majority holds on to archaic customs and traditions.Some daring women in the West no longer abide by rules like women must not work after marriage, must never disobey husbands or that widow remarriage should not be allowed.
Marriage too has evolved as an institution. The purpose of marriage has changed in some societies and so has the nature of marriage. In the West marriage is no longer seen as a way for men to have a line of descendants or to have women toil hard to raise children and a family in the West – in societies in the West there exist a long history of struggle for women’s liberation and women have come to enjoy equal rights and opportunities to a large degree. In those places it is hardly a matter of concern if there are no children in a marriage. And people realise that what is needed most for a healthy relationship and happy family life is not marriage – but mutual love and respect.
If there is love and mutual respect two people can remain faithful to each other. If marriage could ensure loyalty then adultery would not be so rampant. The couples who live together without marriage also remain faithful to each other by the same bond of love and respect.
But it is not that all couples want monogamy or commitment. Sometimes, to beat the monotony of monogamy or to add some variety to the relationship some couples – even though they love each other – invite other men or women to join them in sex. There are no hush secrets, no hide and seek – one more person or more than one, two or three can join a couple in their very own bedroom and in the very nuptial bed. Such orgy- many couples believe – add some flavour and variety to the relationship and recharge the married life. Some sociologists vociferously support the concept of group marriage. Rather than have an ugly divorce it is much more practical apparently to be in a group marriage and not disturb the lives of children. Group marriage basically means a communal relationship of some men and women who could be married to each other. There is something called group love or polyamory – the love of many. This means the love of some men and women who are each other’s lover. Polygamy has been common in many societies from time immemorial and it mostly means a man having multiple wives. And in some societies there exists a different kind of polygamy, when a woman takes many husbands – polyandry. Many such combinations have happened in the world and they continue to happen. Yet it is monogamous marriage that has remained the most common and dominant form. Of course! Because monogamous marriage offers the best form of leverage by one on the other.
Marriage is basically a license for sexual relationship – a social license that is acquired with much fanfare and hue and cry. It is merely a tradition that is archaic, patriarchal and illogical and serve no practical purpose. There are many customs that are already dead or in the process of dying – like sati or witch-burning. Many such meaningless traditions are allowed to live on by making people either too fearful or irrational so they fail to act with reason. But even then customs and traditions will have to die when they become out of practice among large communities. It has been proven over centuries that marriage has no role in making relationships last, to bring happiness in families or to help children to excel – therefore the future of marriage too does not look very bright. Our forefathers lost an extra tail to evolution because it no longer had any value. So, will evolution not banish a practice as worthless as marriage from our societies? Philosophers of the past – Nietzsche, Kant and Hegel for instance – were known to be extremely anti-women in their views. The intellectual practice of philosophy has evolved and those with extreme hateful attitude towards women would no longer be acknowledged as a philosopher.
Patriarchy was born out of extreme misogyny. Patriarchy has given rise to many anti-women traditions; marriage is one such custom. The more patriarchy is subjugated and won over, the more women will regain their independence and confidence. The more women will drive away misogynist religions and beliefs from the society. The more society will defeat barbarisms. The more society will enlightened. The more men will reform. Then more and more patriarchal traditions will perish slowly. We are already witnessing marriage becoming less and less common in liberal societies. It may still remain a prevalent practice in societies that are not enough enlightened. But even those societies will not remain uncouth forever. And what are the signs that a society has progressed? When women are no longer raped and abused, when women enjoy equal rights and opportunities, when women do not have to end up as sex slaves or menial slaves of men. But they are free to love, be in tumultuous romance and live in with a loved one and yet do not think of marriage. When marriage becomes extinct, a remnant of the past.
Marriage is nothing but a social sanction to dominate and subjugate women. Many feminist writers have been vocal against it. Andrea Dworkin thought of marriage as the other name of rape. And someone once beautifully said that marriage is but an ‘intimate colonisation.’ Many agree that women can never be liberated in the true sense in presence of a barrier like marriage. Most feminists at one point saw it as an extraordinary means of perpetuating the norms of patriarchy and some still think on those lines. Some even see heterosexual love as a form of political conspiracy, a conspiracy for which women fall and willingly agree to get married or surrender to the enemy. Had marriage not turned women into slaves, feminists would not have such objections.
At a time when educated heterosexual people in progressive societies are rejecting this institution, many homosexual groups are fighting for rights to marry. Many liberal countries have begun to recognise the marriage of same sex couples. Many progressive individuals, who otherwise do not believe in marriage, support same sex couples’ demand of rights of marriage because the majority in society does not accept and are against such rights. Supporting same sex couples’ rights of marriage translates to disobeying and challenging the rule of religion and the moral policing of conservative societies. But it also true that the possibility of equality of both partners is better in same sex marriages than in heterosexual marriages because there is no gender discrimination in the former. However, when marriage becomes a mundane and commonplace affair even in homosexual societies, then the ones who today clamour for rights of marriage will see it as unnecessary and oppose it.
One day marriage will become extinct. Archaeologists in days to come would discover the fossil of marriage, a social practice long dead and forgotten, in the relics of history and narrate the story of the past to an enlightened generation. “There was once a dark age in this world. In those days there used to be a tradition that lasted over generations. The tradition was known as marriage.” To explain the why and what of marriage, the subject of patriarchy would of course be raised. And human beings in such an unseen future would shudder imagining a horrific society of a long gone past – a horrific society that is our present.
Utopia? But, what’s wrong in utopia?
( My Bengali article translated by Suruchi Mazumdar)