How marriage enables inequality | Pakistan Today

How marriage enables inequality

  • It’s not clear when marriage was invented

It’s imperative to acknowledge that a marriage is not a natural relationship among consenting adults. It’s an institution invented to determine the legitimacy of a relationship in the eyes of an authority; usually a church or a state.

The complex emotions and challenges involved in raising a challenge have little to do with a marriage certificate buried somewhere among a pile of property documents and educational degrees in one’s closet. Marriage, in simpler terms, isn’t about you and your relationship with your family. It’s about how society views this relationship.

Why must the authorities be invited to comment upon the validity of a private and highly intimate relationship among consenting adults? One could argue that it’s about reinforcing a family bond; ensuring that one’s responsibilities towards one’s wife or children are not mere social expectations, but legal requirements. If that is the case, where is the legal contract ‘binding’ you to take care of your mother when she’s unwell? Or any of the other social responsibilities that are expected to be taken seriously, but never legally enforced?

It’s not clear when marriage was first invented, but its significance appears to rise in conjunction with the establishment of private property. Among primitive societies, and in various tribal cultures today, children belong to the tribe. Bloodlines have little relevance when the tribe functions as a collective. “It takes a village to raise a child” is an undervalued proverb in modern world, but may have been sacred law in earlier societies.

With the introduction of private property, it became necessary to distinguish ‘your’ children from ‘my’ children to enable private inheritance. Spouses and children are ‘claimed’ the same way one would claim a piece of land. Under patriarchal conditions, this expectedly translated into the conflation of ‘wives’ as property. The institution of marriage became a way of marking a woman as ‘belonging’ to one particular man, and not others.

Marriage is an economic decision, and what’s worse is that we do not seem to care. We have surrendered fully to a late-stage capitalist order

This patriarchal nature of marriage is reflected clearly in modern wedding rituals as well. It’s the groom who brings the procession to the bride’s doorstep to take her away. It’s never the bride who rides in on a horse to take away the groom. It’s hardly surprising that misogynist practices like dowry or satti – the latter reducing a woman to a man’s property in the most literal of terms – managed to latch on so firmly to the institution of marriage.

While there is no single form of marriage and conventions vary, the institution in South Asia has been egregiously resistant to change. The rishta culture by its very design, is intended to reinforce boundaries. Rarely in Pakistani history has a marriage been arranged between a Shia woman and a Sunni man; a wealthy engineer and an impoverished seamstress; an Ahmadi and a Barelvi; Brahim and Dalit; cisgender and transgender.

Marriage guarantees that we stick to our predetermined lanes. This is particularly advantageous to those with economic or social power, as it prevents power from hemorrhaging to the ‘lower’ classes. Royal families through history have often used marriage to forge political alliances and double their influence.

Love does the opposite by ignoring boundaries. It tears holes through the walls, bringing together those whose union may be deemed improper by the established and usually oppressive order. Love and sexuality are rigorously demonised by the custodians of the established order, religious or secular, precisely because they are difficult to regulate. While artists through ages have embraced love as their undying source of inspiration, social establishments have always portrayed love as a form of ‘madness’ at best, if not sin or crime.

Sexual and romantic relationships are as old as humankind; predating not only courts and priests, but the very paper on which nikahnamas and marriage certificates are signed. By no stretch of the imagination can one conceive the world’s first pair of lovers wondering if they could enhance their relationship by adding paperwork to their romance. It was indubitably the invention of an imperialist bureaucrat attempting to tame that which is quintessentially wild and anarchic.

Marriage is an economic decision, and what’s worse is that we do not seem to care. We have surrendered fully to a late-stage capitalist order in which love –the greatest joy one can find in life – is at best a distraction. We exist to maximise material wealth and social influence, and produce offspring to whom we can pass these gains. It’s all well if love is artificially generated within an arranged marriage to allow adjustment, but love is not allowed to be at heart of our decisions. The notion of love as a human need, is good for selling movie tickets but never as a practical approach towards life. It’s a state that may require some serious reevaluation soon.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.