A Woman Like Mum: 2. Gender equality in Marriage! How possible?

A wife married, is like a pony bought, I’ll ride her and whip her as I like”  (Chinese proverb). Then, how do we talk of equality in marriage?

Do husband and wife really stand on the same platform in marriage?

Mixed reactions about equality in marriage

Can there be gender equality in marriage? This is the question that was posed to the women for discussion in class. It is a question mostly directed at marriage in a traditional Zambian society. A resounding “No!” was the answer of the majority. What was important at this stage was not the correct answer, whether yes or no, but the reasons for the answer, which would be quite informative as regards how women viewed themselves in marriage relative to men. The following are some of the reasons given for “no”.

Man is man! And a woman cannot become man. No matter what a woman tries to do she cannot take the place of a man. He is not only the head of the family –the boss. He is the one who founds the home, therefore he is the owner; how can in that case a woman, just brought in, dare claim equality with him?

Some women argued also from a religious point of view that commanded a good bit of authority as all women were Christians though from different denominations. A woman was created from man’s own rib; a woman is a bone from his bone so the Bible says. Who can say or act against what is written in the Bible? Who can reconcile herself to the foolish claim of equality with her benefactor?

Who is a respected woman, if not the one who has a house –meaning a married one? That was another argument. Every girl aspires to have a house and so be respected. She is fulfilled when she is happily married. A man fulfils a woman’s dream, her aspiration. A woman looks forward to be taken by some man who makes her realise her dream. What equality then can we talk about if it is the man who so crowns a woman?

Is it not the man who marries the woman, pays for her and brings her into his house; what would be the basis of her claim for equality? This reasoning of women is similar to the Hindu tradition. Parents have to work hard to find money in order to lure a man for their daughter. How can one be equal with her little god? A woman has no existence outside that of her man. And her devotion to the service of her husband is so important that at times she is even exempted from some religious obligations. What equality can one advance in this case?

From these ways of looking at a man, what else is to be expected then if not a woman’s humble service and submission to her husband?  This is logically correct, depending on a people’s conception of marriage. Well, this is not the only way everybody looks at it. Some people live it differently and that can perhaps inspire a different answer. If we take some distance from marriage as a mere social or political alliance, a search for someone to bear children for some man, someone to care for some man’s home, marriage between two clans or families; but when marriage is seen as a love relationship between a man and a woman who have the pleasure to spend life together as friends, certainly, all repressing, discriminatory, selfish and adulterated concepts of marriage begin to melt and fall to pieces.

Who marries who?

In the first place, it is no longer the man who marries the woman but they marry each other; both are active and the initiative is theirs. It is not the business of one person’s control neither is it only one person playing a vital role. Both take an essential part without which marriage will not be there. Hence, marriage becomes a relationship in which both feel responsible and have a sense of ownership and security. They are both in charge. And as a consequence to that a woman is not merely shoved on the man’s wagon. Together they found a home that belongs to the two, neither to man nor to his family alone. In this case, a woman is at home with a backbone to challenge the man in the relationship without insecurity of being shown a red card.

Marriage is no longer a limiting factor; neither is it man’s act of charity to a woman who has to pay for it with servitude. It is a union in which the two fulfil each other mutually for one simple reason: love creates. It is creative. What one chooses to do or not to do is no longer dictated by one’s position or gender in the marriage but is freely chosen according to one’s ability, commitment and responsibility to that relationship. That gives a complete different mentality even to aspects like who is the head of the family.  The head of the family is no longer like the boss of a company who has a claim for higher remuneration, place of  honour, the one with the voice to command and all others dance; but a responsible person sensitive to the needs of all others. This means also at times having to sacrifice oneself for the others. With this understanding of headship as service in the love relationship there is no longer a problem as who must or should be the head.

Besides, even for those to whom a “woman as created from man’s rib” is a literal biblical truth, still, there is another way of looking at it. Man and woman are of the same flesh, therefore, there is a good reason for equality –they share the same nature. Even should a man be selfish still for the love of his body, from which he thinks a woman came, would just be another motivation for respecting and treating her well. You do not abuse, oppress, discriminate what is so intimately you or yours.

Why would marriage be a gender issue? Marriage, a beautiful institution of love, has been hijacked. Instead of being creative and life giving it has been in many cases repressive, talent killing. In many traditions it has been arranged for the glory of a man. The consequence of such deliberate paternalistic understanding is the false impression that things have to be like that and no place for equality between man and woman in marriage.

How to arrive at equality in marriage?

There is need to rediscover marriage, to have a better understanding of it both on the religious and the human plane. This demands being open to the truth of who we are as human beings. Speaking about marriage with reference to only one person, no matter how powerful he might be, is simply nonsense. It requires two persons, each one equally important as an indispensable part. Marriage is not a mere social construction aimed at meeting societal needs but a fruit of existential hunger or thirst of persons. That of course, can also be channelled to some social good or utility but as secondary. Hence, if the relationship of marriage is a fruit and expression of whom we are, our very nature; then it helps us to express ourselves. It fulfils and recreates us and therefore perfects our nature. Then if death, repression, agony, is what women often yield from such a relationship it is not only a contradiction, it in fact defeats the very human hunger, attraction that leads to such relationship. It simply can no longer be termed marriage. In this sense, speaking about gender equality in marriage is no longer just a battle in favour of women but an attempt to restore sanity, the true meaning of marriage for the betterment of our existential self-fulfilment.

Yes, we can talk about gender equality in marriage. First, a woman ought to reclaim her rightful place in marriage that by no means is supposed to be subordinate to that of man. Marriage is not to be at the service of one person but a mutual relationship, neither should one be master over the other. The fact that in most of the traditional marriages there is no balance of power between couples and that women have a very active, servile life but hushed voice then the marriage is certainly a field for people addressing gender discrimination. Marriage is indeed a field for gender conscientisation and activism.