Today, I happened to glance at a review of “Girls,” a new TV series featuring several white, North American young women in their mid-twenties from fairly privileged backgrounds who are rather awkwardly making the transition from university student to full-time employment and independence. The reviewer commented that twenty-four is the age that people learn how to do things such as shoulder the mundane responsibilities involved in being an tenant and a dependable employee, as well as to learn about oneself and others through dating and relationships.
And I asked myself, “What was I doing at age twenty-four?”
That was so long ago. And anyway, I usually date things by the births of my kids, not by my own age. What was I doing when I was twenty-four?
Nothing that the young women on the show are doing, anyway. By the time I turned twenty-four, I had already been married for over four years, and I was a mother to boot. I had never lived independently–I went straight from my father’s house to my husband’s. While I had some paid work experience, I had never had a full-time “real” job. As for dating and relationships… nada. I had never done that. Instead, I had married a man that I barely knew. His idea, not mine–he had pushed hard for marriage within a month of meeting him, insisting that his religion (Islam) doesn’t allow dating.
We had an “Islamic marriage.” Looking back, I now realize that what it actually was was a so-called urfi marriage rather than a typical, run-of-the-mill Muslim marriage–but that’s a subject for another time. I will just note that this type of “marriage” is highly controversial among Muslims, and with good reason. But the point here is that as far as the conservative Muslims we would soon get to know were concerned, there were really only two controversial things about our marriage: the irregular nature of our (urfi) marriage, and the fact that I didn’t belong to the right race/ethnicity or religion at that time, having not yet converted to Islam. (We managed to rectify the first “problem” several years later, once we had scraped twenty dollars together in order to pay a marriage officer to marry us “Islamically,” complete with a written contract.) But none of these Muslims thought that I had been too young or immature to get married.
Early marriage, especially for girls, was strongly encouraged in the Muslim communities I was involved in during the ’80’s and ’90’s. There were several reasons for this.
Number one on the list was to prevent dating/fornication/sin/damage to family honour. (While these are presumably four different things, they were so interlinked that they were virtually interchangeable.) It was assumed that marriage would provide a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of sexual temptation, by channeling the couple’s sexual urges in an acceptable direction.
Number two was that the “proper Islamic role” of every woman was to be “a good wife and mother.” Education beyond high school for girls was rather controversial in the communities I was involved with, unless it was to enable a girl to enter a profession that was thought to suit her “womanly nature,” such as gynaecology or school teaching. But even in such a case, marriage and motherhood were supposed to take precedence over any plans to work outside the home. Part of the problem was that a girl’s marriageability was thought to sharply decline by the time she hit her mid-twenties, and remaining unmarried was seen as a tragedy rather than an acceptable option. Therefore, there was a lot of pressure on girls to get married in their late teens and early twenties.
Today, I think it’s ridiculous to refer to someone in her twenties as a “girl”–but that was the way we spoke and thought. A “woman” was a female who had had sex–which meant in our communities that she was, or had been married. Which is reason number three: in order to be recognized as a mature adult with a voice in community affairs, one pretty much had to be married. This was especially the case for females, but it also affected males. To be a Muslim man in the fullest sense of the word nearly always involved getting married. The brother who wasn’t married was seen as being in a transitional stage–he hadn’t yet settled down, perhaps because he hadn’t yet finished his education, or he didn’t have the financial wherewithal yet, or he was still looking for a suitably righteous girl to marry. Brothers could stay in that stage for a while, but if it went on too long, they would likely be gossiped about.
Looking back, I am amazed at the naivete about relationships and sexuality that predominated in the circles that I frequented. Getting married was seen as a good idea in almost every case (the exceptions being where one of the parties, especially the husband, was not Muslim, or marriage without the consent of a girl’s father, if he was Muslim). Marriage was thought to be the cure for just about everything–rebellious teens, loneliness, even (according to some inspirational pamphlets) poverty. Marriage was regarded as blanket protection from sexual temptations of all kinds.
Marriage was an innately virtuous deed. Provided that both the husband and wife were “good Muslims,” the marriage was expected to work out just fine. There was no need for an extended period in which the couple would get to know each other before marrying, nor was marriage counseling even considered in most cases. If one or both parties were a bit immature, that would not be a problem, because marriage would soon teach them how to behave as adults. And child-bearing without delay was also regarded as an unalloyed good. There was no reason to wait and see how the relationship would develop before deciding to bring children into it.
In this idealized and heteronormative view of marriage, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people did not exist. But then, abusive husbands (or abusive parents) hardly existed either. Nor for that matter did disabled or mentally ill people. Even the possibility that one’s spouse might turn out to be (or later become) an alcoholic or a drug addict was not acknowledged. This was a one-size-fits-all view of relationships, family and sexuality, which had little or nothing to offer anyone who couldn’t or didn’t fit into its narrow parameters.
How did marrying in my late teens affect me (and friends of mine who did the same)?
Basically, we did not have the opportunity to develop the skills that people who leave home, support themselves, make a range of friends and pursue a variety of relationships usually end up gaining. We had little work experience, no credit history, and no financial resources. I had never paid rent or bills, or had a credit card. We had little experience of the wider world, and little knowledge of how relationships work (beyond watching our parents, and vowing to never make their mistakes–famous last words….). We didn’t really have a conception of what abuse is, what it looks like, or what to do if it happens. We knew very little about sexuality beyond how babies are made.
For the perspective of the communities we were involved in, our vulnerability and inexperience was not a problem. On the contrary, early marriage had undoubtedly protected us from sin, so whatever its practical downsides might be, having gotten married must have been a good thing for us. That we were quite vulnerable, and had few resources to leave our marriages if things deteriorated was not seen as a bad thing, as abuse supposedly didn’t happen if both parties to the marriage were “good Muslims” who lived up to their “proper roles”–as of course “good Muslims” would.
And because we lacked life experience, we could not see the gaps in this idealistic vision. We took it at face value. And the results were predictable.