My afrifem sisters on twitter and I have been discussing the institution of marriage in Nigeria for a while now. In the face of increased reports of spousal abuse, exploitation, domestic violence and related mortality the question ‘why do women want to get married’ has taken on a heightened urgency.
Why despite the many risks and the lack of protection from abuse do women, most frequently the victims, continue to make finding and keeping a husband such a lifetime priority over and above dignity, happiness, health and frequently even over and above their life. I don’t know why. And I really can’t speak for anybody but myself.
Why would I want to be married and answer a Mrs. Somebody. Okay I really don’t want to be married. Primarily because the institution is stacked so heavily to benefit one party, the man but if I did want to be married why would I?
What are the advantages of being married in Nigeria?
1. Access to capital through your own personal work horse. Chinweizu has already said it so eloquently. It can be a cushy role sometimes being a Mrs. Somebody. You get to play with children all day or pursue ill advised pet projects while someone else (the Man) hustles for your bread and butter.
Of course this is not every woman’s reality. A lot of women have to hustle for their own and their children’s bread and butter too. Increasingly in my family law practice I see women doing all the hustling while their abusive husbands pretend to lead the leisurely life of a kept bum with expensive taste.
There are as many men out there looking for ‘made women’ to marry and exploit as there are women looking for ‘made men’ to marry and exploit. Why am I surprised? I remember growing up hearing my male peers declare they will marry working women for their extra income. Why didn’t we see it coming?
In the rural areas access to farming land rights, the difference between life and death in an agrarian subsistence economy, is given through men. Certain cash crops are also monopolised by men. So if you want to survive you must have a man, get a husband. Wives are conditioned to be territorial and can make it hell for any sister in law to depend on her male relatives.
Women with access to capital are less likely to stay in unhealthy abusive relationships. Its cliche. Daughters of the rich and powerful are quicker to step when a relationship goes bad. (Advise to men if you marry a rich man’s daughter forget bending her to your will to make her ‘submit’. She’s daddys spoilt princess. Treat her like one.)
Would I marry a really super duper rich man for his money? Only if we had a prior contractual agreement! I’m too self absorbed. I’m not sure I could maintain a fawning adulation indefinitely. Self made rich men are powerful men. Frequently driven controlling alpha males.
As Jane Fonda found out its cool getting a ranch, million dollar stock options and flawless diamonds for birthday presents but her life wasn’t her own any longer. She walked away happy anyway. Who wouldn’t? If you get real desperate it might be worth investing a few years or your life.
Marrying the super duper rich scion of a self made rich man on the other hand could work. He has a trust fund, probably never had to work and hustle a day in his life. Saw his mother brow beaten by an over bearing father. Over compensates by spending his fortune indulging his working class wife who he was attracted to because she was so unlike his mother. Just saying.
He could also be a junkie, a spoilt brat, a sadist or a sociopath. You never know where the apple is going to fall. Still there have been a couple successful models. Cindy Crawford comes to mind. And the senior Mrs. Hilton mother to Paris and Nikky. I can think of no African model. The male scions of the African elite class are usually bastards with an overwhelming sense of entitlement and their own privilege.
So the choice is Dangote or his son. Now imagine the sort of Machiavellian project meeting, seducing and keeping either of them would be. A life sentence. Surely getting a loan from the bank and making my own fortune is easier. And more satisfying fun. For me.
2. Access to richer, high social status networks.
Women are stereotyped for using marriage to scale the social class ladder. You can go from working class to middle class or even aristocracy literally with the stroke of a pen on that certificate. Sign on the dotted line Kate. Thank you Duchess. Neat trick. Everyone else has to work real hard for it and sometimes for many generations. Ask Fayad.
Of course women aren’t the only ones that use marriage to fast track up the social ladder. Men do it too. Again ask Fayad. If his son Dodi had been successful the family could have cut short what will be a few more generations of social climbing. Imagine that, they could have been related by blood to the English monarch.
I wouldn’t mind marrying a prince. It may not be a guarantee for happiness but marriage never was anyway. Since there are so few princes available and the really important ones rarely marry outside their race we’ll scratch that as never going to happen. And I really don’t want some small village prince. Or even a big village prince. He would have to be at least a prince of a recognized nation. (What can I say? I have big eye!)
Even after a divorce women retain their acquired social status especially when the marriage was long term . Ask Ivana Trump. Or Kimora Lee Simmons. Or Jennifer Oyakhilome. They flourished post divorce. Riding the wave of their ex husbands social capital mostly. Not to say they didn’t do a lot of hard work themselves but seriously the contacts and networks built up during the marriage helped.
3. Access to shelter.
In both urban and rural settings accommodation and housing is inadequate. In urban centers like Abuja its also bloody expensive. A few years ago I heard of the ‘Abuja Marriage’. Basically a woman moved in with a man that had a house whether rented or owned and they proceeded to play ‘house’ , have children and answer Mr. & Mrs for all intents and purposes.
Except neither party knew the others family or ever been to the village homestead, a key criteria of a stable marriage in Nigeria. Sometimes the lacuna was deliberate and malicious. Some men treated the woman as a glorified sex slave and housekeeper and abandoned her and their children for a family approved ‘wife’ when the time came. Which is when the women finally came to see us lawyer people.
Of course the female victims of the ‘Abuja Marriage’ were no less fucked than the runs babes that pick up a different guy every night because they need a place to crash. What’s the alternative? Sleep under the bridge? Surely virginity, if some paedophile didn’t take that years ago, isn’t that important. Or very safe under the bridge anyway.
Would I want to give up my autonomy and independence through a marriage for a roof over my head? Let’s look at it differently. Would I give up the insecurity and trauma of being homeless in exchange for being a wife? Go figure. I’m glad I can earn an income and rent or buy my own house.
Of course I know a lot of financially independent women who have been socialized to believe its ‘wrong’ and ‘bad’ for a young single woman to own or rent a decent home and who choose to stay in bedsits or B.Qs instead. Or squat with relatives. Till they’re married. And Mister will get them a home.
Now these advantages to be married sum up to ‘security’. A lot of women are looking for security when getting married. Security from the storms of life. In a world that still gives the majority of its women too little opportunity to find financial security outside marriage. Ironically many women don’t find it in marriage either. Especially Nigerian women where a man can divorce and impoverish his wife and the mother of his children with legal and social support and connivance.
Other possible advantages of marriage could be companionship and love. Why do I mention these last when most writers would cite them as most important advantages of marriage? Well because I’m an Igbo-Nigerian woman who has lived her entire adult life in Nigeria. Love and companionship always come up later in a conversation about marriage
If I were to tell my Igbo-Nigerian grand mother I wanted to marry someone her first question would be what does he do for a living? Come to think of it that would be my Russian grandmothers first question too. My Nne-ukwu would go on to ask about his family pedigree. She would never ask me about love. Babushka would. Eventually. And love would win the day in her case.
Nne-ukwu would dismiss me if I based my decision on ‘ifunanya’ which is Igbo for ‘love’ but really means ‘attraction’. Literally it means ‘I see you eye’. You don’t marry for love she would say (though it sure does lead to a lot of quicky marriages.) Marriage is a practical choice, not an emotional one she would insist. Its the rest of your life. How can you plan the rest of your life on a fleeting ‘attraction’. She would say.
She would also call me irresponsible if I said I didn’t want to marry unless I had a plan to be responsible which to her means nurturing a family. Luckily in Igbo-Nigeria women had those options. We could marry and be a ‘female husbands’. Except the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill criminalised it. Maybe I can sue for violation of my constitutionally protected cultural rights?
Only after verifying whether my choice was capable of sustaining a family in a decent if not opulent manner and came from an acceptable pedigree would she enquire if he was considerate, responsible and attentive. Those would be her top 3 criteria for a suitable life long companion. Love will come later she would say, after a life time building a family side by side like it did with her and grandfather.
I’m not going to even consider the frequently quoted cliches and subjective arguments about the ‘social status’ of a married woman in Nigeria. Its hog-wash. All I can say is being a ‘Mrs’ won’t protect you from poverty, sickness, death, disrespect, dismissal, sexual exploitation, victimisation, harassment or violence. So what ‘social status’ does it confer?
So have I convinced myself that I want to be married? No. I can get all of the above without being married. Might be harder to do but hey I’m the mountain goat, remember? And I can be married and still have none of the above. That might make me a sucker.
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