Is marriage the defining characteristic of Gambian womanhood?
If so, then why?
I have an aunt. She’s in her mid-thirties (I think, I don’t know when her birthday is. Keep your judgements to yourselves). She has a great career and is fiercely independent. She is fun, bubbly and has a penchant for pink dagits.
But, there is one huge flaw, which according to society makes her unworthy of happiness, diminishes her voice and importance in the community and is a constant source of shame: she is not married.
No matter how nicely she dresses, she can’t possibly look THAT good because there isn’t a husband there to admire her.
No matter how much she takes care of herself and her own affairs, wouldn’t it be much better if there was a man in her life to do that for her instead?
No matter how well she takes care of her mother and does everything in her capacity to please her, it isn’t real happiness because her mother’s ultimate joy lies in sharing her gurro amongst the community.
At the end of the day, the message is clear: Taaru jigeen, sey.
Who decided this?
When did they decide it?
Who gave them the power to do so?
When it comes to the matter of marriage, the issue is less about the importance accorded to it and more about the expectation that women’s whole lives should revolve around it. No matter what state you’re in, financially, emotionally, physically or psychologically, marriage is always seen as an upward move that will not only bring you someone that you now have to spend the rest of your life (or not) with, but will also increase your status within society. With the Mrs title comes respect, care and the ability to hold your head up high. More akin to a badge of honour than a life-long partnership.
Why are we so insistent on coercing women, through our stares, whispers, looks and hastehs, into situations they have not yet chosen for themselves when we only need to take one look around to realise that for a majority of the people in our society, marriage is pain after betrayal after regret? Do we believe that the pain of marriage is more respectable than the freedom of singledom? Or are we so engulfed by the patriarchy that we force ourselves to portray women’s suffering as a noble and necessary act?
Of course, not all marriages are sour. There are many married women who are happy and content and have found a partner who encompasses all they could wish for. In the same way, there are women who are content by themselves and choose to focus their lives (for now or permanently) on other things that bring them joy. Both are desirable. One must also note that the women who are bombarded with endless questions and showered with prayers of “yalnga am jekarr bu baah” at every opportunity may well wish with all their might to get married. But, the fact remains that it’s their lives and there is no space for outside judgement, criticism or ‘recommendation’. It happens when it happens.
One of my main concerns for my aunt and for the other women who choose or happen to be single is the portrayal and subsequently the stigma of singledom being put forward as a state of ‘unmarriage’. That rather than living life for yourself, by yourself, it is seen as a lack of. Something missing. A part lost. Replacement required. Anything that then happens in that woman’s life is not looked at though the prism of a person doing a thing but rather as a worthless blimp against the withered background of an unmarital life. The sadness, pain and shame that is attached to this socially-constructed status is often one that the observers and coercers bring forth as a result of their own internalised beliefs about how one embodies Gambian womanhood. The importance and significance accorded to marriage is no coincidence when one reflects on the patriarchy’s insistence on portraying women as dependants thereby bringing forth the need to entrench men’s role as guardians or heads of households. A single woman disrupts this notion as she shows the ability to exist on terms that divert from what has been prescribed.
Each time that my aunt brings up the ‘issue’ or communicates the sadness and lack she feels, it is always because of something that somebody else has said to her or about her, it is rarely ever her own authentic feelings about the ‘situation’ and I think that says a lot about how society amplifies anything that is seen as subversion (whether the person intended for it to be that or not). I doubt a lot of woman sit on their beds at 3am and decide to remain single as some sort of political activism. I say all this to say that these woman are just living. For themselves, for their purposes, or their families. Still, just living.
So why do we fell the need to interrupt their existences with our own anxieties. I believe that some married women in society shame those who are unmarried (even if their own marriages are falling apart) because it is difficult for them to imagine what it must be like to live in a way that is perceived as contrarian. We go through life with the tunnel of birth – education – marriage – children being portrayed as the ideal and correct path to follow and if any woman strays from that, whispers ensue.
To take things further, I have noticed that people treat a unmarried status like a big, grey cloud which not only looms over her head but also over that of her entire family. As the tune goes, in the midst of patriarchy, the women are the guardians of the family’s honour. Their looks, beliefs and lifestyle are used as a yardstick which the morality, goodness and respectability of the entire family is measured by. That being said, any form of dissent is automatically a source of shame. If I’m worth something as wife, then I’m worth everything as a single woman. The things that we build and cultivate and work hard for enrich our lives and add to our marriages (if we so enter them) and serve the same function outside of it too.
I always feel a bounce in my chest when I hear people blatantly comment that those whom are married and miserable are better off because “at least am nenj jekarr”. What a ridiculous and low standard we’ve set for ourselves. In this age where men add nothing to your life except stress spots and high BP we’re using them as a measure of women’s success? Of course, Gambians are majority Muslim and marriage is given importance in Islam. Nevertheless, we should not forget that Allah decrees everything and that all judgements should be left to Him. Why are we more concerned with what other’s are doing with their own lives than we are about the sins we’re racking up shaming and back-biting them?
It is important to note that women are not stupid. A lot of women are single because they had the audacity to be picky. To look a man square in the face and choose themselves over whatever flaw of his they felt was too big of a compromise for them. That is something that should be respected and left alone.
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