By Abhishek Jha:
My first encounter with the idea and practice of early marriage was in the form of a short story I read as a child. It was a translation in Hindi of a story by Rabindranath Tagore. Even as a child, with my feelings about most things still inchoate , I felt a deep sense of injustice when the character of the groom- a college student- tried to burden the bride with his adult feelings and ideas. The bride, a rebellious tomboy, flouted her husband’s authority as much as she could. However, the husband being the only source of love and care nearby, she gradually had to accept her husband. The groom, too, traversed the plot in ambiguity, trying to rationalise his university education and conscience with social norms and the desires of the body.
While most of us urban youngsters may think of early marriage as a dead practice, it continues to be the brutal reality for a great number of children in India. The reasons most commonly cited today by parents for getting their children married early are proven unfounded. How then has the practice survived over the ages?
Poverty and lack of education seem to be the most ostensible reasons. But as one can see for oneself, the argument against the practice does not even require one to be literate. Nor does it seem reasonable that parents should put their children in the way of serious harm (which can mean death too) if they could avoid it. There is a likelihood of another layer of irrationality clouding the vision of the communities that are still mired in this old practice. Happening to know a few old and distant relatives to have been married in their early teens, I ask my parents for an explanation. The reason that guided the parents of those relatives is a mixture of those cited above. The groom happened to be a student of engineering, which meant that his prospects were good. However, as he wasn’t employed yet, not only would the dowry be reasonable but the parents of that unfortunate aunt would not have to explain the illiteracy of their daughter. The reason for her illiteracy, I am told, was the uselessness of education for a woman whose only work was doing the household chores.
One can clearly see how the status of women in society is responsible for their early betrothal. The root of such social practices and a pre-dominantly patriarchal society runs deeper. The myth that a woman must remain wedded to the household has a deeper story of veiled oppression behind it. Some may argue that even the groom happens to be a child in some cases of early marriage. This is true and it affects the male child as much. But one will agree that it is the parents of a girl child who are under the pressure of getting their daughter married at the ‘right age’. In addition, the girl even in those cases happens to be usually much younger than her spouse. While we fight against these orthodox practices by gender sensitisation and awareness about health risks, it would be useful to know where exactly in history these ideas took root in society.
Dr. Ambedkar, in his essay ‘The Rise and Fall of Hindu Women‘, offers a clue that might help one find the origin of the practice of early marriage in India. One learns that while Brahmins are said to have already observed most customs and practices that treat women as unequal to men, it is Manusmriti that instituted those practices with the force and sanction of a law. A text ascribed to Manu, the progenitor of mankind according to Hindu traditions, is a discourse on the right conduct (dharma)of a human being. A brief perusal of the relevant sections of the text immediately reveals that it is replete with laws that are blatantly misogynistic and oppressive of women. Women are portrayed as characterless, sex-hungry coquettes, threatened with diseases and born in “the womb of a jackal” after death, and denied any freedom or agency in their life. One almost feels like appropriating Dawkins’ famous accusation against the God of the Old Testament here. Manu indeed appears to be a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic and malevolent bully. (Source)
And, he advocates early marriage. Here is a translation of the verse (Manusmriti, IX, 95) given by G. Buhler: “A man, aged thirty years, shall marry a maiden of twelve who pleases him, or a man of twenty-four a girl eight years of age; if (the performance of) his duties would (otherwise) be impeded, (he must marry) sooner.” It is important that one understands the power enjoyed by the text. Religious practices and laws were sacrosanct and disobeying them could lead to one’s ouster from the society. It was important for Brahmins, who were the religious authority, that these laws had power. That is how they could remain powerful as a class and caste. While ancient India is believed to have had equal rights for women, which allowed them to undergo the same Vedic education as men, the advent of Manusmriti started a downward spiral. And since Brahmins were the authority in religious issues, these laws affected the backward castes more. A manifestation of the same can be seen in the still persistent Devadasi system that continues to force women of entire communities into prostitution. Earlier, the women dedicated to the temples were partaken as any other offering at the temple was. First, it was the priests and the rulers or the wealthy patron of the temple. As the woman grew older she couldn’t help but become a prey to everybody who could help her sustain her life.
Early marriages are not, however, only observed in Hindu traditions. Another myth that is incorrectly used to justify early marriages is that “Aisha was only 9 years old when Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) married her”. This myth has been debunked and proven historically inaccurate by scholars of Islam. And although it is difficult to establish whether it is the economic condition or religion which is responsible for the perpetuation of the practice, people who continue the practice are quick to use religious reasons as a shield. However, the ambiguity does not help Islamist scholars in refuting religion as a cause in debates when clerics continue to argue that the Indian laws against early marriage should not apply to Muslims.
Myths then appear to be what they are: apparitions. They have not only camouflaged the vile interests of classes but created a repressive structure that would not require force to put a system into place. By demonising women they have stopped them from exercising the freedom that is due to them. A society deeply entrenched in sexism uses all sorts of tools to fight against equality of the sexes. Early marriage happens to be one such tool. Mythological stories about the Goddess Yellamma continue to deceive many into believing that their life as a devadasi prostitute will bring good fortune to them and their family (Source). Forced prostitution of women of backward classes from early times has ensured that they live their life devoid of any education, unable to fight on an equal footing with their oppressor.
The myths that sustain such practices are not just scary tales of demons. The aunt who was forced into marriage as early as thirteen was not told anything about becoming a goddess or getting nearer to one. Those stories have resulted in deeply ingrained myths of superiority of sexes, classes and castes; fictions in themselves that do not need celestial powers to sustain them anymore. For a more just and equal society, each of these stories needs to be retold. The forces that have established these norms are powerful and the fight against them needs the power of your participation.