By Saanya Gulati:
There is a ‘coming of age’ in Indian society at which every girl is asked the uncomfortable question, ‘when are you getting married?’ by her relatives and friends. If you so much as attend a wedding after the age of 22, you can be sure that someone will crack the classic ‘your turn is next’ joke. While I am aware that this phenomenon applies to Indian boys and girls alike, I speak for the latter, as I write from experience. Moreover, this story is about marriage in an Indian girl’s life.
Let me clarify that I have nothing against the idea or institution of marriage. Like most desi-girls, I have fantasized about having a ‘big fat Indian wedding,’ which we are socialized into believing is the most important event in our life. But my real problem is the patriarchal norms that this attitude toward marriage perpetuates in the Indian society.
Consider this conversation, with a well-educated and well-to-do friend of mine, about my future plans. I tell her that after completing a Masters degree in the next year or two, I am considering a law degree, as it is related to my interest in public policy. A ticking time bomb suddenly explodes at the back of her mind. ‘That’s another five years! How much are you going to study? Don’t you want to get married?’ Apparently, it is absurd for me to think that I can pursue my academic or professional goals, and get married. I assure her that I will try to fulfill both tasks in the next five-years. But she’s still unconvinced. ‘Don’t wait too long. All the good guys will be gone by then.’ So, now the logic is that you either compromise on your ambitions, or you lose out on marrying a ‘good guy.’ Needless to say, I do not want to know what the definition of a ‘good guy’ entails.
I have had variations of the above conversation with several people in the past. The emphasis that our society places on marriage creates an artificial pressure on families to start hunting for that ‘good guy’ sooner than later. This is because the expiry-date on a girl’s marriageability is much earlier than it is for guys. If a guy decides to give marriage a thought at the age of 29, chances are he will find tons of eligible bachelorettes, because marrying someone even five to ten years younger is socially acceptable.
Unfortunately, the same is not true for girls. This also leads to the typecasting of Indian women as being ‘marriage’ or ‘career’ oriented. If a girl doesn’t believe that there is an ‘expiry-date’ to her marriageability, then she is the career-type, because she is not putting enough energy into finding that ‘good guy.’ This is a remark I heard in reference to a girl who had recently broken off a serious relationship: ‘but she’s the career-type, so it’s okay!’
This same typecasting is not applicable to Indian men, because they are the breadwinners. Convention dictates that they can and must do both, career and marriage, which gives them more leeway to focus on the former before the latter. The stereotype that ‘women are better at multitasking,’ of course, does nothing to change this.
Growing up with a mother who works full time, and is as dedicated to her career and family, I never saw marriage and career as mutually exclusive goals. But I realize that this is the exception and not the norm for a large segment of India’s urban middle and upper classes today. Sadly, this mindset is reflective of the undying patriarchal beliefs and structures in our society.
Marriage is supposed to represent the beginning of a beautiful journey, but our society has successfully turned it into a race, in which no girl wants to be left behind. The pressure to fulfill societal expectations often causes one to obsess over marriage, rather than allowing it to happen in its natural course of time. While there is nothing wrong with a girl wanting to prioritize her marital pursuits over her professional goals and ambitions, we need to stop stigmatizing those who do not. More importantly, our society needs to stop categorizing girls as being marriage or career focused, and recognize that they too can be both.