In India, it seems, nothing is more important than marriage. Witness the extravagant, days-long weddings, the lavish gifts of saris and gold jewellery, the excitement across extended families, and the sprouting of shaadi websites. Watch any Bollywood romcom, and matrimony is almost always either the happily-ever-after or the theme. Marriage is a central institution in all societies, but in India, it the focus of almost all social effort, it would seem. Relatives, the relatives of relatives, parents, the friends of parents, and society at large—their principal purpose in life becomes getting their young ones hitched. At times, they talk with such passion on the topic that one gets the feeling that they were born only for this.
Sadly, in this 21st century, we are still reeling under the consensus that if one has attained marriageable age, it’s time to go ahead and get married. It is as if a woman reaches 26 and stays single, all hell will break loose. Worse still are the older women who go along with it and refuse to see its absurdity.
And it’s not just in India. Even in China, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan, the same norm is in operation. Their societies are also hard-wired to see wedlock as the only affirmation of self-worth. Regardless of how well-educated, self-sufficient or accomplished a woman may be, if she is unmarried, she is a failure in the eyes of the rest. That anyone can genuinely be happily unmarried is ludicrous for them.
But there is a silver lining to it for some Asian countries. Various reports indicate that that the tables have started to turn. Women are retreating from marriage as a life goal as they increasingly enter the workplace and achieve greater freedom. They are refusing to succumb to the pressure of tradition and paving a way for themselves. After all, for a woman anywhere in the world, being both employed and married is tough. In comparison with men, they have more sacrifices and compromises to make.
Yet, those who successfully defy the norm are few and far between. Large numbers still have to let go of their ambitions in opting for a marital life. This is seen as a criterion for success in itself. The woman’s education, achievements and aspirations are all pushed to the background and allowed to fade into obscurity.
It is not as if young men face no such pressure. They do. But let’s admit that it is far less on them then their female counterparts. They are not shunned by anyone for being unmarried. And this is a significant difference. It should also make us question ourselves as a society. Why is a woman who stays unmarried out of choice frowned upon? More disturbingly, why do her parents feel they have a liability upon their shoulders? What about equality and female empowerment?
Let there be choice and freedom. Every woman should be at liberty to choose when to marry—or not marry at all. India needs to change and end its hypocrisy on this. It may be difficult in a patriarchal set-up where traditional attitudes are slow in responding to modernity, but it is needed.
Marriage is no longer a necessity for a woman’s survival. It’s high time that we throw old prejudices out. All across the world, women leaders are in charge of the destinies of millions, and it is odd that so many people are stuck with outdated view of gender roles.
When the Prime Minister of India says, “Respect the dignity of women”, everyone should pay heed. That respect demands that they be allowed to breathe and live according to their choices. Marriage is a wonderful tradition, a blessing. But it needs the consent of two individuals in the right manner at the right time.