Monday, 10 October 2016

Will you be my ... SLAVE? Women as marital objects and reflections on Haritha's story.

Lastnight I read a post on Humans of Amsterdam, about Haritha, an Indian woman, who had to do outrageous and dangerous things to escape an arranged marriage because her agency was taken away from her (Link Here). It was a highly triggering and brought up some intense, traumatic and non-trivial emotions surrounding the way women are treated in conservative, religious and patriarchal societies -be it Hindu, Muslim, isiZulu, isiXhosa, Indian, Coloured or African.

There was something about this post that is deeply real for me and so many women who have to live under the confines of extreme conservatism and patriarchy. It transported me back to a time when I myself was a young woman under the confines of a (still) extremely religious and patriarchal society. 

I remembered being about fourteen and feeling an intense frustration at the fact that it was expected of me to be flattered that men more than double my age were interested in marrying me then and there. I was angry at the women in my life that tried to convince my father - a single parent - that the best thing that could happen to me and the best way for me to secure a good future would be to marry the best suitor. I felt angry, trapped, afraid, unheard and more than anything disempowered.

For instance there was a point where an aunt via marriage arranged for her daughter to marry some relative, but when her daughter met a more eligible bachelor he was shoved my way. I had no say in this

Then at the age of fourteen I found myself at a marriage proposal - where I was the bride to be, and I was transported there under the pretense of having dinner with a friend of my father and uncle. The potential groom was in his mid thirties. And he looked at me like I was prey. When I left his mother slipped a R50 note into my hand... As if that would change my mind.   I didn't even know it was a marriage proposal until I realised that the focus was on me and I was being interrogated about my values and what I want out of life. 

I was angry at my father for entertaining this. While he never explicitly forced me into any kind of arrangement, from the time I started menstruating he began mentioning marriage. I don't know what he expected. If he expected me to just get married? To drop out of school? To have a child? He mentioned marrying cousins and the sons of strange men, rich men abroad or poor men who had a strong link to "our culture".

The situation was so precarious that I had to keep my plans to go to university secret for months for fear that they would be jeopardized. People in these communities are not there to help you succeed. They are there to ensure that you abide by the rules that define your worth as a woman. Which is - if you haven't gotten the gist - as a glorified slave , serving, cooking, sexing, in submission to some man, all in the name of god. Ugh.

Like Haritha I had no voice. Every womxn in my family would ask when I am going to get married from the time I hit puberty too.

You see in these communities you are worth nothing if you're not married. You are the property of your parents when before marriage and the property of your husband and his family after marriage. From the moment you're born your whole life is positioned to turn you into a commodity that can be sold off to the highest bidder. I.e: the best suitor, the  most prestigious man or the most esteemed (economically and politically) man. 

Women in these patriarchal and religious communities are the property of men.  All men. Any man. BEFORE you are your own property. Other women are complicit in this and buy into it too. If this is not slavery that lives and breathes then I don't know what it is.

It's easy to discount how far I've come because the success and independence have become second nature. What I don't realise is how lucky I am - I literally mean that I had good fortune - in all of this.  That every step was mammoth and held together by a string which at any point could have snapped. 

I realised what a close call I had. Just how much of the trauma coming from a community that strips you of your dignity and agency to be your own person stays with you. I could not sleep after reading Haritha's story. When I did I dreamt about trying to rescue her from her family in India and trying to find her a job in the Netherlands. Her story was so personal because I myself lived in the Netherlands... I got the opportunity to study there through a scholarship and felt the same sense of liberation that she speaks of when she got there. It was there that I dropped my heavy indoctrination and had the space to start the journey towards becoming the person I am today. 

What Haritha's story did was remind me that there is a whole community of people out to ensure that we don't live a liberated life just like this woman's direct family and her in-laws. For me it was a lack of support in believing I could study, an active discouragement from pursuing an education and earlier than that it was as if I would amount to nothing if I was not some man's wife. I was born and raised in South Africa and still this is what I faced. 

Like the author Ama Ata Aidoo shows so clearly in her book Changes: For women things like marital rape are par for the course and if a woman wants to leave a relationship just because it is not working for her she is "not allowed to" and will be met with resistance from those she loves the most. Men and women alike. Men will call her a whore and women will call her a failure. She will be shunned. Acid might be thrown in her face. She may be killed. 

Often being explicitly beat and battered means there is an excuse to leave. But more often this is also overlooked. And for most women in the world, in 2016, this is still their basic reality...

When will women have basic human rights? 

When will we shout from the rooftops unanimously: