Qui va vouloir te marier?
When I was sixteen, I told my closest cousin that I did not want to get married. I wanted children, but not marriage. She, two years my junior, immediately got offended. In her eyes, I was a disgrace to my culture, religion, and my kids were destined to be bastards. “Tu me dégoûte,” she said. We don’t really speak, anymore.
Over the years, my attitude on marriage has remained the same. I want no part in it. Whatever value it has does not outweigh its detriments; and seeing as how easily marriages fail, I have no incentive to change my mind. That being said, marriage can be wonderful and for many is a defining step in their lives. It marks the progression of adulthood. It’s like a rising note, just about to hit life’s most anticipated crescendo, childbearing. I enjoy viewing marriages from afar, but never care to involve myself in the practice. This is unlikely to change.
What interests me, however, is how we as women, specifically African women, are reared to value marriage as the end all and be all of life. How did my cousin, at fourteen, grow to view an unwed mother with such disdain? Was it culture or religion? Perhaps a mixture of the two. At its core, it boils down to how we value human beings. We are constantly reminded that much of our value as people is dependent on how “marriageable” we are. While I’ve known this for some time, I hadn’t realized how imbedded this viewpoint is in the elevation of young girls, until I spent time with my half sister, a few summers ago.
Eloise, my half-sister, who at the time of my visit was four, is a whiz. She is raw, fiery energy personified. The first time I met her, I was astounded at how I could be related to a girl so beautiful and so outspoken. When I was growing up, being a girl meant wearing a mask of demureness at all times. Your voice should be low. Your actions deliberate. It was a mask that never quite fit on me, and evidently neither on my sister. Like many four-year-olds, Eloise never stops talking, she never stops moving, and she has an unlimited line of questions ready for every conversation. She has a big personality, at times too big for even the most patient person. But what makes her untamed and rowdy to some is not solely due to her actions, but because she is a girl. All day, phrases about her marriageability are thrown her way. “If you don’t stop talking, you’ll drive your husband crazy.” “Who’s going to marry you if you keep acting this way.” “Ton mari va souffrir.”(You’ll make your husband suffer). The last one was a favorite and each time I heard it, a wave of disappointment ran through me. Eloise was four. Four year olds should only have to think about toys and crayons, or whatever it is kids are naturally into. They should not have to worry about some imaginary man, getting down on his imaginary knee, to propose an imaginary marriage.
Marriage is important. I must make that clear. It is a tangible bond between people. It allows for people to feel committed, to feel connected. Its importance in history has brought families together, as much as its torn them apart. But it is not a pre-requisite for happiness or fulfillment. It is not required to have children. It does not make someone more than or less than. While it has been described as transformational for some, it is not on its own merit transforming much. It is what it is. I wish that could be the message we give young girls. I wish more young girls knew that it is they who determine their value. A man can never and should never be at its center. I wish more young girls, especially African girls, could get stronger messages of that. And while, this is changing, I see how much these ideas of marriageability linger on. Let kids be kids. Let them exist in their fullness, in their rowdiness or timidity, without falling prey to systems which suppress them. Because, suppression is not a cultural attribute, no matter how you dress it.
The way Eloise was treated, how suppressed her outspokenness was, in preparation for a marriage yet to come reminds me of the article written by Tressie McMillan Cottom, titled How We Make Black Girls Grow Up Too Fast. The article was written in response to the recent accusations of R.Kelly’s pedophelia and the response by so many of his fans, excusing his behavior rather than rallying to support the young black girls he allegedly preys upon. So many of us fail to see how we, through our words and actions, tell girls that they are women before their time. We allow for them to be objects of sexual pleasure before we allow them to be children. Even though I personally hated being a kid, I look back now and wish the world could have allowed me to be one for as long as possible. Childhood innocence is invaluable. It is something that is bound to be taken, one way or another. Having girls worry about how they can be valued as wives before how they can be valued as people is a problem. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it best in her popular Ted-Talk We Should All Be Feminists,
Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important…We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don’t teach boys to care about being likable. We spend too much time telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or tough, which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons. All over the world, there are so many magazine articles and books telling women what to do, how to be and not to be, in order to attract or please men. There are far fewer guides for men about pleasing women.
Whenever I criticize the institution of marriage, and how for centuries it has been used to oppress and suppress women (this is a fact), I get pushback. I try not to get into these conversations about marriage with people from back home. If I do, however, find myself sharing my views, I am immediately seen as too Westernized. America, to them, has made me lose my values. I was once on a seven-hour flight to Kinshasa, sitting next to a man who, in between relentless and unwanted sexual advances, made sure to tell me how Congolese girls who go to America lose their morals. “They become sluts,” he said. Meanwhile, the girls from back home were better. They got married. Did not have children out of wedlock, like American girls do. Why he felt comfortable enough to say that to me, I am still unsure. I suppose, he had marked me as one of the good ones. He did, however, prove to me how much women are expected to live and behave beneath the male gaze. The cruel words he had for women who refused to do so, struck me. They hurt. They reminded me of my cousin’s words which hurt much the same. To that man, and to my cousin, and countless others, I have lost my culture, I am too American, (or must be gay, which is another issue on its own), and that is why, I will never get married.