It is understandably difficult to marry the idea of feminism and the concept of marriages because of the institution’s historical role in the oppression of women. Historically, married women had few autonomous rights by law and were, for the most part, considered secondary persons, attached to their husbands. To date, it is commonplace for women to take on the bulk of domestic work and caretaking in their homes while routinely getting paid less than men for work outside the home. So is it truly impossible to have “feminist marriages”?
‘White weddings’ have become commonplace even among non-Christians around the world. The symbolism of characteristic white wedding practices is rife with sexist imagery. The father gives the daughter away, the requirement of chastity and purity (virginity) for the bride as symbolised by the white dress and veil, the admonition to the wife to submit to her husband and the often deeply sexist sermon. But even that is changing and some parts are getting replaced with more liberal traditions. Can these subtle changes white-wash a fundamentally sexist ceremony?
Beyond the symbolism of marriage, the institution is often oppressive to women and in its centring of heterosexuality; it is oppressive to non-heterosexual couples who are pointedly excluded from marriage laws or outrightly denied marriage rights. The institution of marriage projects an image of a heterosexual couple, till death do them part. Unmarried and divorced women, homosexual couples and generally, those who fall short of that image are often rejected by society.
Marriage reinforces the idea that the monogamous, heterosexual union is the only valid form of relationship. After all, it is essentially a state-sanctioned relationship that confers certain rights that are inaccessible to unmarried people.
Marriage also furthers the division of labour along gender lines. Women are expected to oversee domestic activities in addition to working full-time jobs (where they are probably overexploited and underpaid) simply because they are women. Domestic work and caretaking are highly feminised labour. According to the International Labour Organisation, women make up 70.2% of domestic workers. When men partake in these activities within the home, it is called “helping out” and they are either praised for it (where women hardly even receive acknowledgement) or mocked. This system continues to exploit women in marriage.
Domestic violence and all forms of marital abuse may be exacerbated and justified by marital concepts of ownership and entitlement as reinforced by bride price culture and the characteristic surname change. Some countries (like Nigeria) do not acknowledge marital rape in their laws, seeing the wife’s body as the husband’s entitlement. Essentially, there is a requirement that women surrender their identity while men don’t.
Women are told all their lives that marriage and childbearing are the pinnacles of their achievements in life and that everything else is secondary, inadequate and incomplete if, as a woman, you are not married by a certain age. This message is reinforced throughout society, from the family to entertainment. We’ve probably all heard “is that how you’ll behave in your husband’s house? and that sexist Kizz Daniel song.
The patriarchal nature and history of the institution of marriage make it oppressive to anyone who is not a heterosexual man, even if said man is a stellar husband who treats his wife well. It is beyond individual marriages but centres on marriage as a whole.
This is not to say that women should not get married altogether. It is possible to partner with someone who doesn’t expect to be your overlord. Also, in certain countries around the world, non-heterosexual couples can now marry. Seemingly small ripples like this can inspire larger change and maybe these feminist marriages can change what marriage represents altogether.
Good marriages exist but the institution in itself is harmful and in need of change. Egalitarian marriages today are more a product of individual effort than institutional structure. If marriage must continue to subsist, it must be structured to fit our current realities.
For further reading: Marriage is an Inherently Unfeminist Institution