Marriage, children, divorce and motherhood [Archives:2006/938/Reportage]

April 17 2006

There are some women to whom marriage does not appear lustrous. Growing difficulties within marriage, messiness of divorces and the consequent challenges are deterrents to hopeful feelings about marriage. In our societies where women, in general, do not seek procreation outside marriage, the desire to have a child pushes a few of them towards the institution of marriage. Some are pushed into it to gain social or family approval. Being a single woman out of choice is not really encouraged by our kith and kin. It is considered a family shame, and it is sniggered upon by the neighbourhood and condemned by the learned leaders. In the socialist Yemen, there was some tolerance of single women. But nowadays, against the background of culture, tradition, religious revivalism and increasing socio-political instability, the trend towards marriage as a socio-religious obligation is gaining ground. At the same time, the wish to have a stereotypical life of a woman confined to the kitchen and reproduction is declining. Expectations of some women from their spouse are undergoing change. But it is not only some women who have different expectations from their husbands. Some men too have begun expecting their wives to help meet the costs of consumer and leisure time compulsions, and bear the financial burden of children while at the same time the wish to have a devoted wife committed to sweep and swab, cook and clean, care and nurture, and give birth year after year remains intact.

The idea of freedom of choice within marriage does not exist for the majority of women. It does not exist when a young girl is expected to say yes to a marriage proposal or marriage because she knows she has nowhere to go or she feels like a burden on her family. It does not exist at the time of marriage when fathers sign the marriage contract in place of their daughters and it does not exist when it comes to deciding the number of children and spacing between children a married woman would like to have. The freedom of choice does not exist for unemployed women who do not have a well off or supportive parental family. It is said that men these days have greater readiness to take on some of the housework. But the freedom of choice does not exist for women who cannot work outside the home or realize their potentials because men's contribution in the household chores has hardly increased and childcare institutions remain non-existent.

Marriage and family are considered to provide the best possible environment for bringing up children. But these institutions have hardly undergone any transformation with regard to its attitudes towards the ways of bringing up and treating children. There is hardly any eagerness to do justice to a child's needs, especially girls' needs. Children have no escape from abusive, authoritarian, and violent behaviour of their parents, particularly fathers. Reason? Since marriage and family are sanctimonious and fathers head these sanctimonious institutions, they are always thought to act in the interest of their children; no thought is spared to the fact that not all marriages, families and fathers' behaviour is conducive to the children's interests. Women might be developing a better understanding of longer periods of breast-feeding to develop greater immunity from diseases in their children but their capacity to protect children from abusive fathers remains in a state of doldrums. There are discussions about 'active fatherhood' or fathers taking active role in caring and nurturing their infants and children. The idea of men coming forward to share joys and pains of looking after infant and children is indeed laudable. But how many fathers are willing to give up qat and spend time with their children, look after them, and help them grow up?

A decision regarding marriage should take into account the risk factors in case it does not work out. More number of men nowadays know about bonding emotionally with their children but in divorce settlements their reactionary biologistic bonding ideologies propel them to treat the children as assets that they must continue to own. Since our societies are patriarchal and patrilineal, it is easier for them to claim the right to their own flesh and blood over women's emotional bonding and desire to care for their children. Divorces usually degenerates into a power-struggle over custody of the child – it often becomes a battle of bloodhood and continuity of father's lineage versus motherhood and a mother seeking her own security in the old age through her children. In the course of this, if the child is out of infancy and is of the age when intensive care is not required, biological fatherhood takes precedence over a mothers emotional and social security claims. In other words, in a marriage on brinks, motherhood is treated as nothing more than a nursing job with a glorified tag of motherhood. Motherhood is considered important to care for and to bring up children to the age when they can take care of their personal health and hygiene needs. Once children reach this age, mothers can be thrown out of the job.

Married women engaged in paid work have to struggle with the unpaid household chores and care and nurturing responsibilities. Even when fathers are a little more involved in their families, their role is more of a companion of children in doing fun activities. Changing nappies, caring for the babies, staying awake in the night to care for children whenever needed, sweeping and swabbing, washing and cleaning, cooking and so on are the kind of chores husbands would not engage in. Women in paid work have less time for themselves, for recreation and to participate in public activities.

And if all these are not enough, men hold a trump card. If women are not satisfied with mere talks of a marriage being a partnership and responsibilities being shared equally, and having the opportunity to do paid work, their husbands can show them the red traffic signal any time. Husbands in Yemen have the law with them to control their wives mobility. Women must take permission from their husbands to go out of the home and to travel alone. If they dare defy any orders or expect fewer responsibilities at home, their husbands can order them to stay at home. Women might achieve laurels with their determination and ability to cope with unjust share of work and expectations yet within marriage they remain hostage to the husband's commands. If marriage as an institution has to do justice to both spouses, it requires overhauling of responsibilities and attitudes and not just compromises and sacrifices by women.

Nisha is an Indian activist working in development and gender. She is a campaign and advocacy expert and has published many research papers around the world.