Posted by Sukanya Shaji
A young woman was recently found dead at her parents’ home in Kollam, a southern district in Kerala, after her husband allegedly unleashed a poisonous snake on her. The woman was recovering from a former snake bite when the second, a fatal one, took her life. Subsequently, it has come to light that her husband Sooraj allegedly purchased both the snakes, hid them in his custody and released them on his wife at opportune moments, expecting to kill her and make the murder seem like a natural death.
At the time of the marriage, the woman’s family gave Sooraj 3 acres of land, a car and also decked the woman up with almost 100 sovereigns of gold. His sister’s education and his father’s expenses were being catered to by them. Apart from this, Sooraj had been constantly demanding money from his in-laws, which they had been dutifully paying. They believe that the murder was for financial gains and for Sooraj to be able to re-marry without forfeiting the assets that he acquired through the marriage. The involvement of his family in planning and abetting the murder is now coming to light as the investigation progresses. The woman’s parents informed the police that there were problems in her married life which they were aware of. They also mentioned that the first snake bite aroused suspicion in them, but they did not want to pursue their doubts and create imbalances in her marriage.
Being an unmarried woman of ‘marriageable age’, this is a detail that shakes me at my core. What is the price women around me pay for staying married? Moreover, why does society constantly try to ensure that women get and stay married?
Determining The Social Legitimacy of a Woman’s Existence
In most parts of India, there is immense pressure on women to get married from all fronts once they step into adulthood. Marriage looms over their lives like an inevitable destiny. This is not to say that all women who marry do it out of coercion, but the element of social and psychological pressure that nudges them to take the plunge is undeniable. There is absolutely no problem with a woman considering marriage as the next thing she wishes to materialise in her life at any given point in adulthood. But the choice must rightfully be independent, and free from the compulsive nudge of the society and her family.
Are women socially free to stay unmarried until they want to? How easy is it for women to break out of dysfunctional marriages without having to laboriously justify themselves and having suffered the worst? What is it about marital status that adds social legitimacy to a woman’s existence?
In the case of the woman who was murdered in Kerala, her parents hushed down their suspicions despite the first snake bite. The justification is the fear of upsetting the woman’s in-laws with uncomfortable questions. It is a common thing for parents of married women to refrain from questioning the problematic tendencies of their sons-in-law. They do not wish to rile up the man’s ego and consequently have their daughters abandoned. The ultimate fear therefore, is that of the woman losing her marital status and being left alone without a ‘protector’ or ‘saviour’.
Marriage is considered necessary for a woman’s existence to be legitimised and women are encouraged to believe that it is their duty to protect their marriage, irrespective of the costs. Customs like “giving valuable gifts” to the groom are testimonies to how society tries to please a man for taking on the protection of a woman through marriage. Women are treated like property which needs to be owned, managed, protected and transferred. Parents are willing to pay, give everything, like in the case of the woman who was murdered in Kerala, to make sure the daughter stays married.
Though this is said to be capital for her own life, her assets are almost always held by the husband and disposed off according to the will and wishes of his family. Married women are not considered a part of their own families after marriage. Everything from their bodies, to their incomes and their surnames, belong to the husband. It is clear that this kind of surrender is definitely not indicative of a healthy companionship. Yet, this is how marriages largely function, making it evident that the primary reason the society wants women to stay married is not companionship, but having a man to account for her life and ‘protect’ her, depriving her of her rightful agency, choices and opportunities to make independent life choices.
Marriage – a Ticket to security?
While affordability plays a major role in marrying women off in families with lower incomes, or in other cases in homes that are financially well founded, women are fed with the fear of being unsafe on their own. Let us look into both these scenarios.
Money is important for survival. Raising children well requires money and families often depend on their children after a point to bring in financial contributions. Both educated women and men have opportunities for employment and earning. Despite that, families choose to marry women off to reduce their economic burden. This stems from the idea that a son is better than a daughter because even if he is married, he is still part of the family, whereas a daughter once married belongs to the husband’s family and hence, her financial contributions cannot be expected regularly. There could perhaps be nothing more inhuman that almost disowning a child by marrying her off, because centuries of conditioning has shamelessly validated the practice of treating a married woman like the property of her husband and in-laws, rendering her unable to take care of her own parents if the need arises.
In the second scenario, financial security is not an immediate pressure trigger for marriage. The fear is about how vulnerable a lone woman is. This is not an invalid fear because our society definitely is not yet a safe space for a woman to live alone. Physical violence, emotional alienation and moral surveillance make her existence extremely difficult. Every day is a battle with endless, intrusive questions that take up almost all of her mind space. Marriage is considered as an acceptable way of making this battle easier because the presence of a man legitimises the existence of a woman in the eyes of our society, making her safer.
In both cases therefore, the reason why women are repeatedly coerced and cajoled into marriage is patriarchy. We as a society are not willing to let a woman be, to let her make independent choices and to leave her alone with them. Our toxic, unchecked, escalating rape culture has made it extremely scary for women to be on their own. We constantly want to tame women and make sure that they do not upset the convenience and privileges that patriarchy has been enabling for centuries. Marriage serves as a tool to ensure that women ‘stay in line’. If not, they will be stripped off their social legitimacy and physical safety.
There is also very little effective government intervention for women who walk out of marriages and have no familial or financial back up, to find suitable rehabilitation avenues. This is why women are told to adjust, be patient and tolerate various kinds of abuse in their marriage. The society is okay with a woman living her life, provided she is married and has the approval of her husband. Everybody despises a woman who is unmarried, or chooses to get a divorce. We assassinate the woman’s character, dilute her problems and collectively make her life a living hell. Hence, many women suffer endlessly in marriages until they die like the woman in Kerala.
We consider families as units of the society that are vital in many ways. We go to great lengths to preserve and protect their perpetual continuity through marriage. However, we fail to ensure that families function as spaces of trust, respect and love. Relying on each other for financial support in tough times and leaning on each other’s families for backup is all human and natural. But demanding that a woman brings in money at the time of marriage and normalising the idea that a woman’s family is bound to account for all of it to keep her marital status intact, is vile.
Even after the legal prohibition of dowry, men are paid in gold and other assets in the name of “culture” and “social norms”. This might look voluntary from the woman’s family, but it is hard to believe that families would opt for loans and exhaust their life’s savings to organise these ‘gifts’ if not for social pressure and the fear of the woman not having enough value in her marital home without considerable assets. It is like putting a price tag on love, reducing a marriage to a bank transaction, and a woman to her gold.
In effect, we consider marriage as the solution for our failure as a society to create a safe and equal space for women. If it is companionship that one truly seeks through matrimony, this pressure of decking the woman up or marrying within a particular time frame should logically not exist. Marriage is not the solution to making sure that women live free, happy lives. A woman is ready when she feels ready, not when everyone around her wants to hand over responsibility to someone else. Until then, she must be able to work, live and thrive without being cornered or threatened with invasions on her mind and body.
An unmarried or divorced woman is not an anomaly or a national crisis. Her life is not an invitation to pass judgments about her inability to be lovable or to vilify her moral integrity. She is as much an independent, valid stakeholder in the society as anyone else. There is no need to assume that a single woman is unhappy or waiting to be ‘completed’ by a spouse. It is not anybody’s right to expect her to marry or stay married for their own sake. She is just another individual who lives a choice she has made. We must let her be.
Sukanya is a freelance writer, poet and lawyer. She can be found on Instagram.
Featured Image Source: Reddit