Saturday, 20 January 2007

4:3 Why marry at all?

In the past it was very difficult to stay single. The Yanomamo people of Venezuela always know when a man is a bachelor because he is dirty, his hair uncut, badly fed, often sick. Without a wife he is hardly a person. Likewise in many societies unmarried women after the age of twenty are barely conceivable; they are poverty stricken, unprotected, a shame to their family. Basically, in order to obtain the pleasures of life, including the blessing of children, people had to marry. Most people in the past saw no alternative to marriage, even if this often condemned women in particular in many societies to a life of drudgery, perpetual child-bearing and physical and verbal abuse.

England has long been exceptional in tolerating, even encouraging non-marriage. My forbears, four hundred years of Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge University, were not allowed to marry (on pain of losing their Fellowship) but were looked after by servants. Up to a quarter of men and women in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in England never married. Marriage was an option. For the English, on the whole, children’s marriage plans could be embarrassing, annoying, disappointing or heartening. Yet, in the end, it was up to them. It was their life.

Now there is a widespread move away from permanent relationships and marriage, particularly among women. In Japan, India, Europe, America, even China, many young women are reaching their thirties and forties without marrying or having children. They live comfortably, have good jobs and are quite affluent. They realize that marriage, child-bearing and subservience to a man would threaten this, it seems like a form of imprisonment or sacrifice. The question for many women nowadays is not why should one stay single, but why should one marry and have children. Even though most of us dream of that soul-mate who will love us above all the world, unless someone absolutely special comes along we are not prepared to settle for the second-best.

Many marriages of my parents’ generation and above occurred and were maintained under parental and wider social pressures. Better marriage than ostracism and a slight feeling of failure, of being the last ‘unbought tin on the shelf’. But it is different now. It is quite possible that, beautiful though you are, you will not move beyond boyfriends to a life-long partnership. In this you will be one of the wave of new, independent, ambitious women who stand alongside men as equal but somewhat alone in the world. Your motto may well be, ‘who needs a man’?

You may think that this is something new. Yet when we visited an ethnic group in south-western China recently we found a society which for some centuries had given up marriage entirely. The men were away for up to half the year carrying goods down to India. The women were left in charge.

Out of this arose a situation where marriage, if it had earlier existed, totally disappeared. When a boy reached puberty at between thirteen and sixteen he would be encouraged to find a female partner in another house. He would then start a pattern which would continue until old age whereby he went off in the evening to sleep in his partner’s house.

Each courtyard house was planned so that there was a main area where the older woman and the young children, that is all the children born of the women of the family, lived. Along another side were the animals, pigs and cows. The third side had enough bedrooms so that each adult female who was in a relationship with an outside visiting partner could have a room. They were visited at night by these partners, who left at dawn to return to their own female relatives’ house where they ate and worked.

There were no problems of property or inheritance since the land and house belonged to the whole female headed group and all children born within it. If a partnership ended, the children stayed with the women and the biological father was not expected to contribute to the child’s upbringing. There was no marriage ceremony, no word for marriage, no words for relatives through marriage like brother in law or sister in law.

Not very dissimilar are the west Indian and other patterns of mother-centred households found in the Caribbean and many parts of the world. Here the woman stays in a house and brings up the children, living temporarily with a succession of men who beget one or more children and then move on. Some have ascribed this to the weak economic position of unemployed men, others to the legacy of slavery or of an earlier African family system tracing relations through the women. Whatever the reason, the patterns of temporary unions and children who live together, though they do not share the same parents, is increasingly widespread.

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