by Diana Rahim
My mum loves to point out the actor Khairudin Saharom every time he appears on TV. Each time she’ll not-so-subtly say something like “Isn’t he handsome? And he’s smart too, you know…” She even found his Instagram account and suggested that I follow him and leave a comment on a picture of his cats; the first step that will eventually lead to a burgeoning romance. Usually I jokingly reply that if she finds him such a catch, she can marry him herself. It’s hilarious, it’s irritating, and to me, it represents how one of the biggest concerns out there for a mother is that her daughter get married.
The propaganda targeted at young girls to aspire to marriage has failed to work on me. Marriage, to me, is not necessarily romantic. It is unrealistically idealised especially to young girls and women. Two people who love each other committing to a life together? Of course that can be wonderful. But the institution of marriage itself, tied to the state and its resources, riddled with legalities that leave women vulnerable to abuses, and all the difficulties tied to it? Not so much. Make no mistake, heterosexual marriages are still far from egalitarian.
In fact, the heterosexual marriage has always been such a contested topic precisely because it is the site where many women directly face gendered violence and discontent. Early feminists have even described it as a kind of “legal prostitution”; an economic transaction where the sexual access to her body is exchanged for financial stability. These days, women are thankfully more empowered to seek financial independence, which provides them more options for a stable life other than marrying a man, and limits the possibility of financial control and abuse.
It’s time to demystify the cult of marriage – the fact is that statistically, single women are more likely to be happier than married women. Married women tend to be unhappier than their partners, and are more likely to be the ones who initiate divorce. And honestly, is it surprising? The problem of course is not marriage per se. The problems were already there, it’s just that marriage can exacerbate the problem. The problem, of course, being patriarchy.
Consider the Popular Malay Drama. In these toxic popular dramas, women with superhuman patience endure crass, controlling, unkind men, and then end up being married to them, presumably to endure that behaviour for life. The stories may change, but the dynamic remains the same. The woman is expected to be subordinate, patient, and suffer forbearance even as the husband exhibits the emotional maturity of a troubled child. This is what women are told are the virtues of an honourable wife. I can only hope that not too many women internalise this call to withstand emotional and even physical abuse for the sake of “love.” Why is this romanticised?
What these dramas do reveal however, aside from the ideal qualities a woman should have if she is to be marriageable, is the fact that women shoulder the bulk of emotional labour in a marriage. Women also shoulder most of the undervalued, unpaid work of maintaining a house, therefore working more hours than their partners, and are more likely to make personal and career-related sacrifices for the family.
I need to think no further than of my own mother, who while she was pregnant with me worked as a nurse, went home to continue working on the chores, and even after I was born continued to shoulder the bulk of the household labours. The support she received from my father was minimal, and she was so exhausted and weakened that when she was pregnant with my sister, she realised that she had to quit her job in order to cope. This left her financially dependent on my father.
If I were to look around, I do not see many encouraging, loving marriages. Yet our female relatives in dissatisfying marriages often have no issue encouraging us to get married.. there is something sad about it. Of course I understand that they would want us to have a better marriage than they ever did. It’s probably why they would often bring a list of qualities we ought to value in a partner (“the love of god” being one of the most highly prized). Sometimes I wonder if they list qualities lacking in their own husbands.
I feel that it is important too to bring up the topic of marital rape.
One of the most fervent criticisms of marriage is the vulnerability women face in the bedroom. Marital rape is often dismissed, or even excused under the belief that it is a wife’s “duty” to have sex with her husband. Such harmful beliefs risk breeding a sense of entitlement in men and a complete disregard for the sexual rights of the wife.
As of now, marital rape is not a chargable offence in Singapore, and many women do not bring it up. How often does this crime (which isn’t acknowledged legally as a crime) occur? In an article by Melissa Zhu detailing marital rape in Singapore, a counselling supervisor estimated that he sees “an average of five married couples a year where one partner had forced sexual intercourse on the other.” No legal intervention was done or thought possible in all of these cases.
The issue of marital rape is one of the many ways in which the institution of marriage reveals the disproportionate amount of power and leeway that is given to the husband for gendered violence and abuses. It reveals how society has failed women when something as criminal as rape is not even considered a crime, and rarely punished.
The problem is, I suppose, that marriage is never simply about love. It has only been about love in recent modernity. For much of history, so many marriages were loveless, were based on political or familial convenience, and occurred while the female was still a child. Both my grandmothers were child brides, as many women of their generation were. Even today, in countries where there are laws that make child marriages illegal, 7.5 million girls are married illegally below the minimum age. For so long, marriage was simply another way that women’s autonomy and sexuality were controlled.
Change is not going to happen so soon, and they’re certainly not going to happen without some serious contestations of ideas. It will take some serious work to fully shake off the serious problems attached to the institution of marriage.
Maybe I am sound too critical, maybe marriage is about love; if fortifying love is what we truly care about, then I welcome the conversations we should have about how we can have a more respectful, loving relationship where both parties feel valued, and supported. Conversations on how we can ensure that abuses are not tolerated. Marriage courses would teach mutual respect and dignity within the context of a marriage and not perpetuate harmful beliefs on the “duties” of women. There would be some serious discussions on why polygamy is still allowed in Singapore despite the fact that it is a set back for women’s rights, and are barely done for noble reasons. (In a study by Sisters in Islam, 70% of men admitted they did it due to sexual attraction and 87% of children in polygamous marriages report negative and emotional psychological impact due to the experience.)
Look at any truly loving and respectful couple and you can see how a marriage is not necessarily a problem. Not if your partner is a kind person who won’t subject you to abuses. The problem is if the protections are not there and leave you vulnerable if your partner turns out to be pretty terrible. The problem is if we have yet to unlearn harmful social, gendered conditioning that gets in the way of a truly fulfilling experience of love.
I mentioned earlier that it’s time to demystify the cult of marriage. But when I say this I don’t mean to say that marriage is ipso facto terrible. That would be missing the point. It’s more about the larger problem revolving around the control of girls and women, the obsession over their sexuality, the great apathy to their gendered violence and discrimination that marriage can particularly exacerbate. The wool needs to be pulled from our eyes so that we don’t fall for the popular, unrealistic, and idealised narratives of marriage as a noble, wonderful goal to aspire to that will bring us happiness when reality is so different.
Continuing to perpetuate false expectations and idealised narratives on marriage, and refusing to have difficult conversations on its problems, will only leave more women unprepared for the challenges that may arise. It will deprive them of the knowledge of steps they can take should they face any serious issues. And to be honest, they are still a lot of serious issues tied to the institution of marriage. So let’s talk, and hopefully this will let us see clearer. Bring your husband along too.