Just yesterday, I silently observed a mundane conversation between two ‘aunties’ (vernacular for any adult woman). A few minutes into it, I realized that the conversation was anything BUT mundane; in fact, the contents of their kitty-party talk depicted some of the most entrenched ideas about societal acceptance of women. In other words, ‘what does it take for a woman to be considered complete’ and ‘what do we really mean by a respectable woman’? Loaded question, I’ll say. But evidently Lankans have come up with a clear and concise criterion of our very own “Phantom of Delight” (apologies, Wordsworth). Here’s a snippet of the conversation:
Auntie Simmy: I have some good news for you dear. Soma’s daughter Dimpie is finally getting married!
Auntie Pammy: Oh my, that’s wonderful news. It’s about time Dimpie relieves her poor old mother of the burden.
Auntie Simmy: So true. That poor woman was so worried about her 40-year old unmarried daughter that it gave her diabetes and high cholesterol! (commentary: I bet Dimpie is the one at the receiving end of diabetes and high cholesterol now that she’s about to enter the wonderful world Sri Lankan nuptial bliss, ha!)
Auntie Pammy: Well, at least Soma is able to get her married off. Now she can face people without shame. Poor thing men…I used to feel so bad when people asked her – “any good news about Dimpie”- at parties.
Auntie Simmy: But Dimpie is 40 men…not like she’s going to be having children at this age. Nowadays children have no regard for their parents Pammy. Dimpie took her own sweet time and my goodness, was she picky about prospective husbands! Doesn’t she feel bad for putting her mother through such worry for all this while? 40 is too late and she’s depriving her mother of a grandchild…I tell you. By the way, what does the boy do?
Auntie Pammy: The boy (note: the term “boy” is used loosely in Sri Lanka…anyone ranging from age five to fifty-five may be referred to as “boy” here), is a telecommunications engineer and works in Korea. Good no? Dimpie is so lucky to be married to such a fine gentleman and she gets to move to Korea.
Auntie Simmy: Good for Dimpie. I mean, which man would want to marry an average looking 40-year old woman without the prospect of having children? But at least she’s lucky enough to be getting married to a decent boy.
Even though the conversation carried on for a while, and got more and more ludicrous, I had enough material to analyze after the first five minutes.
Point #1: It appears that having an unmarried daughter poses a burden to parents. In the case of Dimpie, I am not quite sure what type of a ‘burden’ she is; she’s neither physically nor mentally challenged in a way that requires parental supervision and support at all times. Rather, Dimpie is an independent, educated professional in her own right and assists her mother financially and otherwise. More importantly, what does this say about our priorities? It says that getting a solid education, being independent, or being a conscientious citizen is irrelevant; rather, marriage carries the penultimate weight on the scale of self-worth for women of this country.
Marriage is not considered a choice here; rather, it is an expectation. The same way that being born with less than ten fingers is considered a physical handicap, the Sri Lankan society (not all, but the vast majority) quickly slaps on the “socially disabled” tag on any unmarried woman. The situation is worse for divorced women who are considered outcasts and are subtly removed from the social fabric. And God forbid if you’re homosexual…you are deprived of your human right to marry the person of your choice! No one thinks about marriage here. They just do it. I propose (not jokingly) that we do a survey asking the following questions: What does marriage mean to me? Is it for me? Will it necessarily improve the quality of my life? Will I be happier? Am I happier now that I’m married? Does being married make me a better person? I bet we’d find fascinating results from all corners of society. Even if we ask such questions at some point in our lives, the social pressure to conform to the norm is likely to overpower our self-reflection and doubts that may be produced by such critical thinking.
Point #2: Being a woman isn’t enough; being educated isn’t enough; being married isn’t enough; what completes a woman in Sri Lanka is motherhood. One scores big for bearing and rearing patriotic offspring of this country. The expectation of motherhood is so strong that women without children (by choice or not) are often referred to as “unlucky and barren”; the ultimate marker of a woman’s prosperity is her motherhood. Again, the idea that motherhood is a choice is alien to most people in Sri Lanka. Biological determinism is deeply embedded in the psyche of men and women of this patriarchal society. So, the existence of a womb in our bodies automatically makes us baby-making machines. In case you are one that stops to think about whether motherhood is for you…you are automatically a miserable misfit. “Grow up; get married; have babies” seems to be the mantra that guides most girls from a very young age.
Socialization (of girls and boys) into patriarchal power structures (driven by the foundation of biological determinism) delineates clear gender roles that shape the opportunities and limitations for men and women in the economy and in politics. Even though women’s literacy and educational attainment levels are higher than their male counterparts, and girls are encouraged to obtain a strong education from a young age, none of this can measure up to the big-ticket items. So, the average girl grows up thinking that marriage and motherhood are her ultimate achievements that make her complete, and makes important life decisions to facilitate the requirements and demands of each ‘line-item’. They succumb (often unconsciously) to the patriarchal order and refrain from non-traditional forms of occupation (even though they might be incredibly talented in these fields), male-dominated fields (i.e. politics, business) and often become strong supporters of public policies that reinforce traditional gender roles that in turn harm women’s economic, political, and social empowerment (i.e. women against the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 2005; women against female migrant workers with young children, etc.).
If you’re not one to delve and dissect the patriarchal underpinnings of our society, that’s fine. But please be sensitive to your own biases about the acceptance of women (and men) the next time you come across an unmarried, divorced, homosexual, and/or childless individual. By measuring the worth of another human being based on socially constructed standards and assigning a value judgment of their life, you automatically become part of the problem. Dear aunties (uncles, and the rest of you), it would be nice if you could stop saying “you’re next” repetitively to an unmarried girl at a wedding (unless you want someone to sneak up on you and say the same at a funeral, ha!) or tormenting a mother of an unmarried child. Marriage and motherhood are choices we make and no one has a right to question the decisions we make. Leave aside the obsession about someone else’s marriage, children, the kind of car they drive, where they built their house, the schools of their children, their monthly income because none of these gives us a clue about the essence of another person. Also, please don’t assume that everyone wants the same thing (or should want) from life. Human beings are diverse and that’s the beauty of life. Don’t try to fit us all into your narrow and superficial box. Think outside the box; exercise your brain muscle. Live and let live.