Saturday, May 26, 2012

Unequal unions

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 27, 2012

Taking the plunge: Wishes fulfilled? AFP PHOTO
Taking the plunge: Wishes fulfilled? AFP PHOTO
Why should women obliterate their personalities, their lives, once they get married?
Last week, a young man, 24 years old and a graduate, introduced me to his new bride. He comes from a tradition-bound Maharashtrian family. The couple had completed their round of temples in the city. And I was told that after a month, the bride, a girl born and brought up in Mumbai like the bridegroom, would be dispatched to a village in the Konkan to help his mother with the housework.
The young man introduced his wife as Tapasya. I asked the young woman her name. She said it was Usha. “But ‘they' have changed my name”, she said. And both seemed to accept this unquestioningly. As if it was the most natural thing to do. So the girl loses not just her last name but also her first name. In other words, she becomes a new person, apparently with no connection with her past.
This name-changing custom, followed only in some parts of India, is at the extreme end of the continuum that ordains that a woman's identity and independence ends the day she takes her marital vows.

The change of name might seem a minor issue. But it is what it represents that needs to be questioned. Why? We need to ask that. Is it essential? Will it make a difference to the quality of the marriage? Will it make a difference to the lives of the young people entering into matrimony? And why only the girl? Perhaps both ought to change their names so that they start their lives on a completely clean slate!

First in France

A stark contrast is France where the new woman in the Presidential Palace in France, is the first unmarried woman to live there alongside the man elected as President. On May 6, France voted in Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party as President. With him came his “First Lady”, Valerie Trierweiler. The two are not married and as of now have no plans to do so.

Ms. Trierweiler has been married twice, divorced twice and has three children. Mr. Hollande has four children from a previous relationship. And the French do not think this relationship is worth even a comment.

What is interesting about this is not just the non-marital arrangement. Or the ease with which the French seem to accept it, but the fact that Ms. Trierweiler, a 47-year-old political journalist with two decades of experience, has chosen to continue in her profession. She says she has no plans to be financially dependent on her live-in partner. “I haven't been raised to serve a husband. I built my entire life on the idea of independence,” she is quoted as saying in the New York Times.

The idea here is not to advocate an end to the institution of marriage or to debate whether live-in relationships are ideal. But the example of the independent Ms. Trierweiler is interesting not just because she is with the President of France, but because their relationship and her attitude towards it highlights an important question on women and marriage.

Is it essential for a woman to obliterate her personality, her life, once she gets married, or when she enters into a publicly-acknowledged relationship with a man? Does she not have the right to remain her own person?

Is there something sacrosanct about women subsuming their lives in that of the men they marry or live with?

Surely this is one of the reasons girls count for so little in our society.

In India, we are not encouraged to ask such questions. In fact, questioning in general about anything is actively discouraged. Children are firmly told not to be pesky if they question. Girls are put in their place if they do — or called “Maoists” as a Kolkata student was branded by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during a recent television talk show.

In our educational institutions, “note-taking” is the norm, not argument and questioning. As a result, there are scores of so-called customs that continue unquestioned by most people except a few who are inevitably called “rebels”. But women's status within marriage is most certainly an issue that needs constant questioning.

Expected sacrifices

Some of this is changing as more girls get educated and follow careers. Many customs have been questioned and have been modified. Yet, the expectation that the woman will automatically and willingly “sacrifice” her independence, her career, her personality, and even her given name at the altar of marriage somehow remains sacrosanct.

What is even more perplexing is how, despite a so-called “modern” education, the majority of girls continue to accept without question that their years of freedom, or independence, are limited to the time they get married.

Some edifices are too solid, too difficult to bring down. But perhaps we can begin by training our young people to ask: Why?

(To read the original, click here )

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