News of a fourteen year old girl, taken out of school and about to be sent overseas as part of a marriage arranged by her family hit the headlines this week. The Age and The Herald Sun both ran opinion pieces about the issue on Thursday, with the latter featuring ‘for and against’ arguments by two different authors.
The issue is not one of traditional versus western values as if they are on an equal footing. It’s simply about female oppression. It’s about decisions being made that affect a woman’s life about which she has little or no say…It’s not about getting along or finding common ground.
The issue of arranged marriages is often presented as a ‘traditional values versus modern values’ argument – with people on the side of tradition arguing that romantic love doesn’t necessarily lead to a happy, productive union between two people and parents are often better placed to make this very important decision on behalf of their children.
As a teenager, I was often reminded of the one union in my parents’ generation that was a result of romantic love and it was the most disastrous marriage in my extended family.
“You want to fall in love? Look at Marianthi. You want to end up like her? That’s what you get when you marry for love.” This was we would get if we ever indicated that we were not happy with the idea that our parents would choose our husband.
As adolescents our most pressing concern was our parents’ taste in men. We simply did not trust that the men they thought were handsome would appeal to us. We often considered the ‘leventes’ that were pointed out to us here and there as complete nerds that we wouldn’t look at twice.
But really the issue is not one of traditional versus western values as if they are on an equal footing and as if we are in a position to make this choice like deciding which cheese we choose to buy. Which is better, blue vein or camembert?
‘Traditional values’ sounds harmless enough and invokes images of a simpler more homely way of life. But on this issue it’s simply about female oppression. It’s about decisions being made that affect a woman’s life about which she has little or no say. It’s about the fact that suitability doesn’t rate a mention because it is understood that a woman is there to serve her husband and raise children. It’s not about getting along with someone or finding common ground with your spouse because the respective roles are understood and not questioned.
Then there was the ‘klepsimo’ phenomenon – the stealing or abduction of women which was prevalent in traditional Southern European cultures. In cases where the girl or the girl’s family did not agree to a request for marriage from a particular man, the man could always kidnap the object of his desire and ‘shame’ her into marrying him.
An Italian friend told me that his grandmother was kidnapped in 1924 in Sicily and kept in a house in the mountain for three days so that she was had no choice but to marry him since no one would want her after she had been ‘shamed’ in this way. My cousin’s mother in law was kidnapped at the age of thirteen after her parents rejected an offer of marriage on the basis that their daughter was still a child. If anyone reading this has any daughters that age, take a look at them. Can you imagine someone coming along and kidnapping them in order to force them into marriage? Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Think about the women in our parents’ generation that this happened to and it makes you consider their experiences in a new light. It makes their quaint and colourful, traditional ways look less appealing, doesn’t it?
A man I was dating when I was eighteen who was very keen to marry me, frustrated by my insistence that I wanted to study and my intention to finish university threatened to ‘abduct’ me if I continued to rebuff his advances. I remember being terrified at the thought and asking my father to put a lock on my bedroom window at the time.
Men do not live with these fears – that some girl who is in love with them will abduct them and thereby shame them into marrying her. Many of these ‘traditions’ that we may regard with sentimental fondness are nothing more than oppressive tools designed to keep women as chattels.
The case of the girl in the media this week is not about whether the state has the right to interfere in other cultures, to meddle with sacred traditions. Foot binding in China and women not having the vote was also part of our culture once. We don’t accept those any longer.
We must reject practices that restrict women and bound them into a life of unquestioning servitude where there is no consideration about their desires or needs. In my book, respect for multiculturalism does not extend to bowing before oppression. Of any kind.