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Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Conversation on Marriage

I didn’t have high expectations of college. INTEC is a recently privatized branch off UiTM, a public university that, while not being an Islamic university technically, is still very much Islamized and culturally Malay-oriented. Given that the majority are government sponsored students, it operates manifestly as a government-run college, so I didn’t exactly expect feminist discourse to be something endorsed by the institution. 

Still, it’s a shock to hear a welcoming speech that included a very bald statement to the effect of, if a woman wears something provocative, God apparently excuses or lessens the punitive measures taken against the rapist. I guess I wasn’t being thrown in for a loop exactly, but it was still upsetting to hear. The following day, another one of the administrators spoke up, giving us tips on how to survive college. Using the complementarianism between him and his wife, he illustrated an analogy for the compromises students must make with their lecturers.

“Women must obey their husbands,” he said. He turned to the boys’ side of the hall (we were seated by gender), nodding for their input. With all the masculine energy they could muster, the boys all yelled out their approval. Then, he turned to the girls’ side. There was pin drop silence. I’ve learned my lesson about trying to educate a mass so uniformly lacking in fundamental understanding of a topic – there’s a place for that, and that day I was simply not in the right place – so I kept my mouth shut. But then piercing through the silence was a, “No,” and perhaps it was said somewhat jokingly, but there was still a bubbling murmur of assent.

Then there was a conversation I had with someone, which happened maybe a month or two into my stay at the college. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but I do remember that she admitted to being willing to quit her job – the job that requires of her this expensive (and I would say prestigious, since not everyone is afforded the luxury) degree she’s going to be devoting 5 years of her life to – if her husband asked it of her. Not even, if she had children and latterly felt that immediate attention and maternal care was needed. Just, if her husband asked it of her. If her husband asked her to jump, she would not even question why.

Later on, towards the middle of the semester, there was a discussion held in my Islamic Studies class. In that particular class I learned that the recitation a person reads to an animal before sembelih (killing for the purpose of eating) is similar to the recitation a husband reads to his wife for nikah. I’m not too sure of the specifics since that was the first I’ve heard of it and later, I was too horrified to further research the topic. Whether it’s grounded and supported unquestionably in my sect or religion is neither here nor there. The ustazah asked the class, “Why do you think this is so?” and a talking anus from the boys’ side of the auditorium replied, “Because boys are better [than girls].” Ustazah did not think this warranted any sort of response. No one did.

Those are three things that stand out to me when I think about the institution of marriage as it exists today in Malaysia. I’ll spare everyone personal details of the concrete marriages that hit closer to home. People who know me are aware of how my family is like, nuclear and extended alike, and since it’s all matters of the past, I don’t want to rehash it on a blog post where I talk about structural inequalities. Because what has personally affected me, while completely grounded and entangled in the political, is unnecessary to justify my problems with Marriage, capital M.

Similar to how I monitored the discussion on my Twitter, I’d like to preface that I’m not anti-marriage and I won’t ever oppose to the idea of two people who, for whatever reasons they both willfully consent to, want to get married. If my sister, for example, told me that she was going to get married, I'd probably throw a parade. Neither did I mention anything about questioning the ability of a woman to be happy in a relationship with a man. The question should be taken at face value: can a woman be happy in a Marriage?

Marriage is, as a technicality in Islam, a contract. That technicality is interpreted as a contract of sale with a buyer and a seller. You can sugar-coat this all you want but (from my understanding) there’s no escaping the fact that the 'good' in question is the woman. I don’t think there’s a way to view this in a pro-woman, positive light: it is, quite simple put, the contract of financial support and social protection in exchange for sexual availability. Of course, a man doesn’t own a woman, not in the sense that a master owns a slave or a farmer owns a cow. But when women are socially broken down to their sexual availability and domestic/caregiver capabilities, then yes, a man owns woman in entirety within such a marriage contract.

Undermining happiness in such a marriage is the psychological struggle of a woman who has to come to terms with the fact that the man she is in love with is superior to her and that, legally, he controls her (I’m adding in love as a factor even though it’s definitely not necessary for the success of a marriage by any standards, conventional or otherwise, but most of us are under the impression that love will be present in our marriage/s). In Malaysia, the husband has the support of the law, religious authorities, the state, his and her family, and society itself when he claims dominance over his wife. And when things are good in a marriage, this may not seem to be much of an issue. But a marriage is a relationship just like any other (with the added weight of sociocultural expectations and formalities) and relationships face rough patches. It’s in these rough patches that the wife comes face to face with the full extent of damage done by the marriage contract. Lack of support, together with the denial of autonomy and of recognition as an equally esteemed human being, cannot touch you without leaving a mark.

But I’m speaking as an 18 year old who has never been in a successful relationship, much less a marriage. I can only conclude from that which I have observed and read about. So I’ll take this back to that conversation I had, the one about how she would leave everything she's working for right now if her husband asked her to, and bring up another memorable instance that happened quite recently, this week in fact. During a speech made by one of my classmates (and here I’m not omitting the name – I honestly forgot who it was), she talked about how her father was the important person in her life. It was a touching speech, which she ended with a quote to the effect of, “Even if you’re not a queen to your husband, you’ll always be a princess to your dad.”

It actually doesn’t sound that bad on paper, but she said it with an insinuation of finality and resignation that didn’t sit well with me at the time until now. My classmates, the people I surround myself with at college, are MRSM students. I would say I consider them among the most conservative youths of Malaysia have to offer, except for maybe the apathetic. Yet, discomfort and disagreement with the idea of gender inequality exists in everyone on an individual level. The girls of my class whom I’ve talked to, they understand. Beyond displeasure at being denied access to professional careers, beyond having their views shut down on the basis of being women (I think both of these things would be conceded to even by hardline anti-feminists), they are against being viewed as the weaker gender, no matter what they say, and no matter what they think, even. I think it’s in all women to feel this, at some point in their lives. The reactions may vary, and denial seems to be a popular choice, but truth is a persistent thing.

Dominance is ownership. Women step into the public and her body is immediately property to be owned. What else, then, is street harassment and sexual violence, if not an expression of male dominance? And even in the privacy of our own homes, we still do not dominate, we are still subjugated and objectified. What else, then, is the marriage contract, if not a reminder to us women that in all arenas of life, we are powerless? 

In my Twitter discussion, I wrote about how the acceptance of strict gender roles in marriage is the resignation of an oppressed group, it is not complete and consenting willingness to their wifely duties. There are those who may think that it’s their God given responsibility to cook, clean, and raise children. They may even think so unquestionably and oppose any other model of marriage as deviant. However (and I’m speaking in an entirely Malaysian context because I’m unfamiliar with dynamics anywhere else), I don’t think there’s a single woman out there who has never felt the repercussions of male dominance with regards to marriage weighing down on them.

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