Half the WorldThe web of subjugation [Archives:2005/895/Culture]

November 17 2005

By Nisha
“In the course of defending early marriage, you mentioned that women should not be allowed to study beyond a point

“Yes, yes”.

“But why not?”

“Women should not be educated beyond basic reading and writing skills. If they are educated further, they can't get married.”


“Men don't like to marry women who have secondary or higher education or are more educated than them”


“Such women cross the age of marriage.”

“Which is

“15-16 years”.

“So low! But men are usually in their 20s when they marry so why can't a man marry someone who has completed her education and is also in that age group”

“Men don't like to marry older women”

“Again, why?”

“Older women are difficult to deal with, they do not adjust easily to the new family, women have small brains so education makes them lose their mind, they forget where they belong, and there is higher chance that they may know men other than those from their family it is not approved in our culture”

I listened to this while my mind was busy visualizing a young woman being pulled back and down and tied with a rope so that she remains fixed to a particular point. Standing at that point, a man recited: “From darkness of the womb to darkness of this room to darkness of the grave is the path that you shall follow”.

This conversation with the head of a Local Council took place when we were walking out of the conference room where we debated early marriage as a problematic practice and sought ideas to prevent it. Not all conversations are as stark in explanation as this one. Perhaps, it wasn't in the original language, Arabic. Two of us were conversing with the help of a volunteer interpreter whose English vocabulary was good enough to get the words across but perhaps not so good to communicate subtleties.

Let's take the four arguments that emerge from this conversation:

– Men do not like to marry 'older women' (read older adolescents and women)

– 'Older women' do not easily adapt themselves to the marital family

– Biologically or mentally, women are not capable of much 'reasonable thinking'

– Young girls are preferable because they are less likely to have had encounters with the opposite sex

The pivotal point of the argument is that girls/women's lives must be dictated by the desires of men. The desires of men, minus some exceptional egalitarian men, include paid-unpaid division of labour with the one-sided assignment of unpaid work to women, and continuous regulation of women's lives through maintenance of repressive fears related to morality. These desires are critical if largely unjust nature of social and family order has to continue. These desires require acceptance and compliance. That is, they can be fulfilled only through objectification and subjugation of women. And what age is better for teaching acceptance of the given order and instilling a sense of biological and social inferiority but when the mind and body are still in a formative stage.

Marriage at a young age not only reduces the range of immediate choices open to them, it also has a long term impact on their ability to have control over their own mobility and lives. The sudden shift from childhood into adulthood through the practice of early marriage takes away the intermediary period of adolescence, which is a crucial stage for acquiring the capabilities and skills for transition into adulthood. Girls who are married early do not get the time or the environment that would encourage them to develop their vocational, creative and intellectual faculties. These girls enter adulthood without having the skills and resources which could help them share a decision-making role in the affairs of the family, community and the state.

Growing up married and secluded from choices, lacking knowledge of ways to have a more equitable and fulfilling life, and denied access to their basic rights except through a male member of family, many young girls cannot even imagine having a life other than the one they are already living. Marriage entails responsibilities which cut down the time a married adolescent girl would have to build social networks that could support her in the time of need and enhance the chances of say she would have in matters affecting her life or help her expand her life choices.

Fulfilment of desires seeking objectification and subjugation is dependent on social mechanisms such early marriage. Practices like early marriage put girls in the centre of a web woven with ideologies that make them undervalue their own worth compared to men and accept the life dictated by those ideologies as 'natural' or 'destined life of women'.

Despite the devastating impact the ideologies promoting early marriage have on the lives of nearly 50 percent Yemeni girls, early marriage has received scant attention from the lawmakers, policymakers and those designing and implementing development programmes. There has been virtually no attempt to scrutinize the practice as a violation of adolescent girls' rights to develop human potentials and protection from adult roles. The dominance of the ideologies promoting early marriage is visible in the Yemeni legislation as well, which fails to protect adolescent girls from this practice and does not give them the right to grow up unconstrained so that they could take full, free and informed decision about their lives, in particular marriage.