Rethinking marriage: Why is it okay to dislike the institution of marriage?

deciding on marriage

The earliest memory I have of the concept of marriage, was when I studied history in school; it was the marriage of Nepali princess Bhrikuti Devi with King Songtsan Gampo of Tibet. If you look into the pages of history, I doubt you will find anything else about her life than her marriage.

Sadly, it has not quite changed much even in the present day. For a girl, it is everything that she should aspire for, and what a milestone! “She has to get married eventually, right?”

Marriage in Nepali society

Nepali society is no fun for a young adult entering her twenties with strong opinions about marriage and partnership. Rather, it’s surmounting societal pressure to get married, find (a) partner (let alone the right one), and just settle down, conforming to the traditional norms. Women are treated like they become ticking bombs as they grow older, and they come with an expiration date for marriage. Our traditional norms and culture view marriage to be a woman’s ultimate life goal and women who take a stand for themselves against such norms, are deemed “unsuitable” or “faulty”.

So, how early do we begin to groom our girls for marriage? Could it be when she comes home from school, and we teach her to make khaja for the family or to dress clean, with neatly braided hair, not because it is a life skill but because she needs to be “marriage-ready”? Or is it once she hits puberty when we teach her to look and be modest at all times and monitor her socialization to ensure she does not hang out with boys and comes home by 5 pm.

As a girl myself, I have always felt that we are often sneakily stereotyped into predefined feminine gender roles; subtly indoctrinating us to become ideal housewives in our marital state. As a clumsy girl, I still remember being scolded as how after marriage, I would be “sent back” or “returned” to my parents if I did not do chores right. It is as though we are some product, and would be returned, if not useful or functional. Our culture quite literally demands our parents to give us away in the form of kanyadaan during the marriage ceremony. If we had product tags, would they say, “Handle with care”, or “Fragile: patriarchy-made?”

We are taught to be compromising, resilient, selfless, and expected to bear both the physical and emotional labour for everyone around us. We are “protected” all our lives; our mobility is restricted and monitored even in present times. We are expected to be gullible, naive, obedient, and dependent on our fathers and/or brothers before marriage and on our husbands after marriage.

When we reduce women’s potential within the household, relegating them to the title of a “housewife” these days termed as homemaker, the autonomy is more “theoretical than real” as aptly said by Aan Oakley, a renowned feminist sociologist. The expectation from women to devote themselves to marriage, juggling between numerous responsibilities within the household while portraying it as being “her boss” is exploiting them, just like glorifying mothers as superhuman, capable of accomplishing and enduring anything.

Marriage hindering dreams

Vacuum Cleaner. Photo: Freepik
Vacuum Cleaner. Photo: Freepik

Women’s aspirations in the marriage also take a backseat, with marriage and family obligations to be prioritized first, and should she dare to choose her work or personal fulfilment over these obligations, she is branded as selfish, self-centred, “asanskari” – overall unfit for her roles as a wife, daughter-in-law, or mother. Career aspirations take different meanings for a man and a woman; for a man, it is a necessity to raise a family and for a woman, it is dismissed as a mere hobby. As a married woman, she simply cannot dream of pursuing academic excellence, a great career or chasing her passion; she ought to aspire to create and maintain a family of her own and the one she is married into and no, not the one she was born into. Why? Because she is now “married”.

I have heard of women being subjected to guilt-tripping and harassment (both emotionally, verbally and in extreme cases physically) when they choose to take care of their parents over their spouse’s parents. From day one, women are expected to rearrange every small and big aspect of their life around the marriage, forcing them to adopt and adapt to the expectations of a “new” family. As said in “Rootless”, marriage is a “fascistic value system” that uproots and replaces the woman’s identity.

Research has long shown that women do not actively participate or engage in the labour force after marriage, especially after childbirth. The discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes reinforce their role as caregivers to the children and older family members.

Research in 2023 proved that the motherhood penalty affects women’s careers and economic opportunities with reduced work or no work for them. The workplace culture in itself is also not particularly encouraging for married women. They are hired less, paid less, and disproportionately laid off first during economic downturns which we all witnessed during the pandemic.

The women who retained their jobs during the crisis had to transition to remote work in an already busy home atmosphere. Balancing professional responsibilities with the demands of a full house including the additional care work for kids and elders needing more care than ever due to Covid risk- became the new reality for many. In a society that undervalues domestic and caregiving labour, women, especially married working women are often left having to carry the burden of multiple workloads, often with no recognition or appreciation, and it turned out to be an “exhaustive hobby” for sure!

At work, women face microaggressions, gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, and additional structural invisible barriers. The glass ceiling and glass cliff phenomena represent these barriers, posing significant hurdles in their career advancements. It is said that “a successful woman can either have a supportive partner or no partner at all.” So, what environment have we created to ensure women continue to achieve success and recognition in their lives no matter what their marital status is?

I am often questioned if my self-proclamation as a feminist is the reason why I “dislike” the institution of marriage so much. I say it is the time of the hour; it is high time we rethink it, question it with a critical lens, and is okay to dislike it. After all, it is one of the strongest patriarchal structures, that keeps women on the losing end, by simply being born as a female. I have not come across anyone who truly believes in gender equality and enjoys the conventional ways of marriage.

It is crucial to reimagine our current understanding of partnership that does not prioritise equality and individual freedom, especially for women. When and how are we going to build marriages to be fair partnerships for women, based on mutual respect, shared responsibilities, and equal decision-making?

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Shahi is a Gender studies student and a public health researcher in Kathmandu.

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