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India is raising the minimum age for women to marry. What does that mean on the individual level (with your parents whispering in your ear)?
NEW DELHI — A few days ago, I got a call from my parents, who wanted to talk about the "ideal age to marry." This came after news about India raising the minimum age for women to marry to 21, to match the age for men. It's a laudable move, sure, but I even wonder if 21-year-olds will be able to fathom the expectations, responsibilities and limitations that come with such a socially-constrained institution.
I am not ready at 26, and won’t be even at 30.
So when my parents asked me to decide on a life partner and get married by next year, just the act of imagining what damage such hastiness could do added to my restlessness. “I feel that marriages could work better if society does not decide a particular age to settle down. One simply needs more time to understand themselves and their future partners,” I told my parents.
“Time is never enough to know someone,” my mother lamented.
“Yes, but at least the ambiguity between two individuals can be cleared if they spend more time together.”
Biological clocks or unhappy marriages?
I reminded her how society sells the idea of early marriage and settling down as the vision of wholesome life, even if one feels fragmented in their married life later.
“We have four to five divorces and innumerable failed marriages amongst our relatives as they rushed into it without knowing their partners well and were unaware of what they’re signing up for. Today, they are sulking in their bond, monotonously performing the sacrificial duties of family life just because they feel they have no choice because of a kid that has sealed the deal to permanency. Is progeny a boon of the existence of marriage if it is coming at the cost of one’s happiness, freedom, aspirations and passion?” I asked my parents.
They paused a while and said, “Biological clock of…”
I cut them off, “At least we have a solution for infertility in a happy marriage but do we have a solution for unhappiness in a marriage where one is pregnant at an ideal age?” They were completely stunned by the indirect suggestiveness of alternative birth measures in my tone.
Women want to work
The last time I checked into the average age of ten of my closest adult family members, it turned out that the women married at the age of around 22 and men around 27. Many of the women had to leave their education and careers to pursue a domestic life. As a result, the horrors of low self-esteem, pervasive loneliness and forgotten selfhood bit them hard in their 40s in the form of mid-life crises when their husbands left for work and their children for school.
One relative, a homemaker in her late 40s, got so affected that she had to be taken care of in a mental rehabilitation facility with a high dosage of antidepressants that did less to uplift her mental condition and pushed her hormones out of whack.
“I do not require treatment, I want a job,” my suffering relative once confided in me. It took her 20 years to realize how an early marriage at the expense of aspirations can diminish self-worth.
Many of the women had to leave careers to pursue a domestic life.
An early marriage made her a peculiar case of ‘female hysteria’, a topic that courted many infamous treatment methods, some of which worsened women’s condition post marriage. In the 1850s American physician, Silas Weir Mitchell treated ‘female hysteria’ as a nervous condition arising in females that can be treated with bed rest, complete isolation from the social world and low intellectual activity. His words to his patient and later turned famous novelist Charlotte Gilman were,
“Live as domestically as possible. Have your child with you all the time ... lie down an hour after each meal. Have only two hours of intellectual life daily and never touch a pen, pencil or brush for as long as you live.”
Gilman’s treatment left her in a harrowing state with no intellectual growth, socialisation and rather professionalism in domestic life – the reflections of which can be found in many women, including my relative, when they reach middle age.
A bride poses for a photo during the Mass Marriage Ceremony in India
What to do with stale breadwinners?
Deciding a certain age of marriage vexes men equally. Since society has conditioned them as the prime breadwinners of the family in order to be eligible bachelors, they take it upon themselves to quickly stabilise their careers, the inability of which makes them insecure and in worst cases pushes them towards chronic health issues arising from stress.
My father now takes over the call and says in a tone of victory, “This is exactly why we want you to marry a financially sound person and we have many suggested boys for that.”
I quipped, “By that logic, if you can send me in writing that ‘a financially sound marriage is guaranteed for success’ then I’ll marry whoever you suggest and whenever.” This makes him realize that many divorces in our family happened when the joint income of the couple was in crores.
Society has conditioned men as the prime breadwinners of the family
“Okay, we get your point. If your future partner is economically unstable and you also need time to know him better, at least keep other guys in mind,” my mother remarks unflinchingly.
“Isn’t this wheedling me into cheating on my present partner?” I look flustered now by the irrelevance of the entire conversation with them.
“But you don’t need to tell your partner. There’s nothing wrong in casually keeping other options in mind,” she says hesitantly now.
I repose for a while and murmur, “I’m fully convinced now that men and women need more time before they feel mentally prepared to marry than rush into it with premature advice that family and society hurls at them as freebies.”
The call gets disconnected.
Priyamvada Rana is an IIMC alumni who is currently working as a journalist.
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