Recently I have found myself in the midst of many discussions about marriage. I find marriage to be an institution that is patriarchal and hinged on manoeuvring power at very many levels. In some respects, it really does seem like survival of the fittest. At times, partners are so busy tearing each other apart it ceases to represent a space of companionship. At other times, husband and wife have managed to understand each other so well that they are polite and pretend.
In any marriage, truth be told, there are aspects of power that women mostly find themselves dealing with. But a new aspect of marriage I recently shared with a sister, is the whole notion of women marrying for strategic reasons.
I know a sister who had just completed her O’ Level education and was in a relationship with her lover. She visited him and he did not allow her to return to her home where she lived with her parents as they explored all manner of fun. When she returned home, her parents chased her away and told her to return to where she had been. She begged her parents and even requested that they arrange a virginity test for her as that was their worst fear: she had deprived them of their future ‘proper’ dowry price as they assumed no man would want to get married to someone who was no longer a virgin. Like really???
Well, to cut a long story short, she ended up married to her then-boyfriend to buffer herself against the harsh realities of the backlash of African traditional society that values virginity above all else for a young bride. Was this marriage real? Was it for love?
Another sister I know had a one-night-stand and got pregnant. Her boyfriend then denied anything to do with her and the baby. She suffered a lot of humiliation, pain, trauma and all sorts of odd realities as a result of becoming a single mum in her early thirties and also for becoming a mum for the second time in her life with a different man. After a three-year absence, her partner returned. They eventually got married to avoid having children with so many different totems. Was this a marriage of convenience or was it love?
A woman from a different part of Africa left her country of origin to follow her partner who had vast political connections. She has since become a renowned consultant in the field of politics and has openly acknowledged that her marriage was one to gain access to strategic networks.
How about a lesbian sister marrying to buffer herself from the realities of the social backlash of being single and in your early thirties? Is this marriage for strategic reasons? Indeed, of course!
So why am I sharing these familiar realities for women? It is because I want us to understand that at some point in our relationship or marriage journey we may come to realise that marriage is not just about love.
People marry for different reasons. We should not as women be stuck in narrow-minded thinking that every woman marries for love.
Even in traditional Africa societies, marriage could be for convenience, trade reasons, appeasement, cultural reparations and so on. Did this mean that the people in this marriage were experiencing bliss? Well, sometimes. But other times, women learnt to deal with what was thrust at them. Marriage is a space for the contestation of power and women have to come to the realisation that there is more to marriage than what meets the eye.
Dealing with pain differently
I am sure each of us has a horrific story about a sister we know who has suffered, still suffers and will suffer violation at the hands of her lover. However, most of these women have chosen to stay with their partners of all sorts and despite their realities are doing what they can to keep afloat. The truth is that at some point in a marriage, they decide how to deal with their pain. Others may chose to leave, some to stay and fight from within. Others exchange an eye for an eye. Others still, simply manoeuvre their way to contentment. The truth is, many women choose to experience their pain on their terms.
Do you know a sister who constantly complains about her partner and threatens to leave with each dramatic episode but always stays in the end? We watch and observe with great judgment, saying she is weak and should just get up and go. But marriage by nature is a complex space that only the woman who is in it understands fully what she is experiencing. Of course, there are instances when some intervention is required, but most times women own and understand their realities. An effective support structure that forces a woman to deal with her reality in as far as she comprehends it, is the best way out of her situation. So we need not be judges, but sisters who stand in solidarity with other sisters as they experience their pain, making their way and living their choices.
Doing what works
As sisters, we need to understand that marriage is not the ultimate in life. There is actually more to one’s life than aiming to be married. To those who actually consider it as an achievement, that is also fine. The truth however is that marriage is a layer of complexities that we need to begin to unpack for ourselves as women. Let us not let society do the defining of our realities. Instead, we as women stand up for what we each believe and take time to sit with ourselves to grapple with the many realities of our views on marriage.
Understanding that it is mostly about power contestation and how that power is accessed, played out, shared and how this power actually defines and determines our realities would be an interesting exploration for each of us whether married or not. Above all, let us remember that marriage is not just about love. Sisters marry for different reasons and that should not escape us. How they then choose to ‘survive’ in their marriage is critical, personal and hopefully worth their while. What should also be clear is that life is a journey and manifests itself differently to each one of us. Although we are all women, we are not a homogenous group. We will not allow ourselves to be boxed-in and forced to take up traditional definitions that cause us more harm than good.
So sisters, pray if you have to, breathe, meditate, make love, stall or do whatever it is you need to do to define your own reality so that when you come to the very end of your life’s journey and marriage is part of that journey, you are not bitter but are filled with pride as a brilliant hero who made a choice that works for you.