My experiences as a woman are mainly within Egyptian culture, but I think this observation crosses cultures. Many women romanticize heterosexual marriage – not just in the sense that it is a union with the one you fall deeply, madly in love with, but also as the necessary next step in life where you get to be treated as an adult. The control your parents exert over you, you believe will be lessened; you can finally assert your independence; and you get to make a life of your own, because up until that moment when you do get married, your life is not your own. Until then, you are a “bint” – a girl; a child; a virgin. You are not a woman, no matter what your age, accomplishments, economic independence, or intellect. And you are a loose thread, one that people cannot tuck neatly away as having been taken care of, no matter how well you take care of yourself. And certainly no matter how well you take care of others. This desire to be treated like a grown-up, to remove the shackles of virginal infant princess and finally become a queen is so strong. This is the real reason many of us get married.
There is a myriad of emotional and social needs we want met when we marry – status, security, companionship, love, sex. (Sex. You finally get to have sex. And you fantasize, and hope to God, that after all that waiting, it will be mind-blowing). You get to have your own home, pick out your own furniture, and unpack that trousseau of things you and your mother have been collecting over the years for your home. One of the worst cultural inventions of all time that identifies a woman with homemaking is the fucking trousseau. In Arabic the term for preparing your trousseau is tehadary (to prepare – feminine) nafsik (yourself – feminine), despite the fact that it prepares you for little of any real value in the real world, except being a consumer who likes to surround herself with nice things when all else in your life is total shit. Until then, everything is on hold. You are on hold.
The result is that many of us feel as though we’re not really living: that everything has to wait until our “coming of age.” (The coming is also on hold as most Egyptian women would balk at the mere mention of masturbation). We don’t get to assert ourselves as autonomous human beings. Further, we are constantly reminded that we have to be doing something to justify our existence and womanhood is only justified if it comes with marriage and then kids.
But few of us who romanticize marriage think of it this way. We think that our destiny will be different. We think that once we are able to break free of those virginal infant princess shackles, we will become the butterfly we’ve always imagined ourselves – we’ll have the freedom to express ourselves, to be creative, to stay out late, go out dancing, laugh out loud, travel the world, be sexy, get angry, and sometimes, secretly, be bad. Sure, we’ll be doing some of these things with our husbands. But sometimes we won’t, because we’ll have a husband who is more than happy for us to go off and do these things without him now and then. We’ll have a husband who wants us to be autonomous, who wants us to be joyful, and who has enough self-esteem not to feel as though his balls are shrinking every time he’s at home by himself and has to figure out how to feed himself.
The other thing we believe we will be able to do when we get married is put ourselves back together again. We believe we’ll get to salvage all the pieces chipped off ourselves that didn’t suit the people around us and piece them back together again – piece together our authenticity, uncompromised by the looming threat of being caste off as unworthy and unlovable. We also believe we’ll have husbands so compassionate and loving that they will help us do this. They will make us whole, with all our pieces, no matter how damaged some of them were from being chipped away. If the pieces are so badly damaged, our wonderful husbands will soothe the rough edges and make them miraculously disappear. But up until then, though we may be smiley, wonderful human beings who are always aiming to please, we are not ourselves. We are girls – stifled, frustrated, lonely, and stressed. But you can rarely tell. A little Maybelline, Zoloft and Oprah, and all is well.
Being a woman, an adult, means having distinct personal boundaries. You know when your family ends and where you begin. You are assertive. You don’t choose nice and likable when you feel your authenticity compromised. You don’t submerge your real identity and merge with a more dominant personality. You don’t hide your “negative” emotions and continue your life-long pattern of silence – and tears, and high-blood pressure, and passive-aggressive anguish. You have your own voice, and it tells people around you that love and acceptance are not tied to you fitting yourself to others’ needs and expectations. Love and acceptance are not tied to you being a girl until others allow you to become a woman. Women all over the world are terrible at this. Many of us don’t know how to say no, and allow our relationships with loved ones to define us. The way we were raised almost makes this inevitable, and ironic. We’ve waited so long to get married so we can grow up and be free of the definitions that bind us, but marriage is by definition (though to various degrees) binding. Our inner feminist wants us to finally be true to ourselves, but what we often don’t acknowledge is that she’s buying into every knight-in-shining-armor fantasy Disney has ever tried to (successfully) sell us.
And so the romance ends. Abruptly, with marriage. It becomes suddenly clear – we start off conforming to a life where we are treated like girls until we marry, but those same people chipping away at all our assertive parts never really want us to become women. Because all the things that are required for you to be an adult are not things that are liked in women.
I won’t speak for men, despite the fact that those who know me personally, accuse me of doing it all the time. I will admit that I don’t know all the demons that mess with their heads. I will acknowledge that they too have to chip off parts of their true selves to conform to expectations, though I doubt they have to as much as women do. I will say though, and I dare anyone to disagree with me, that a 30-year-old man, even a 20-year-old man, who has not married and has no children, is a man. He is not a boy. In fact, the sooner he expresses his manhood in his family of origin, the better. His mother will love him even more for it, and his father will be proud of it. And if we women marry anyone whom our parents remotely approve of, we can be sure of one thing – he will resist, not encourage, our autonomy. If he has conformed the way we have, he too has romanticized marriage and has tall order expectations of the woman who will be his wife. So the lack of an autonomous self only continues with the expected selflessness that comes with marriage and kids.
There is one more conundrum – women may be treated like children when they should be treated like adults, but good luck to a woman who acts like a child. In fact, child-like behavior is smacked out of little girls at a pretty early age. Good girls are girls who grow up fast. They learn to be careful and responsible, giving, caring and helpful, taking on and properly discharging responsibilities, without much help and without much fuss. In other words, they are expected to be mature, independent and autonomous, but only when it comes to the giving. Not the taking. More reasons to run away from home.
If women were not infantilized, there would only be a longing for that person you actually fall deeply, madly in love with. After you’ve fallen in love with him. Life would not be on hold and nothing would be “missing.” And men would lose the confidence they have to hold the threat of divorce over women’s heads. There may be only one thing that is worse than being unmarried and living in your parents’ home for the rest of your life, and that is being divorced, stripped of the status you thought you’d gained, and having to return to your parents’ home for the rest of your life.
Coming of age is like being an active member in a democracy – anathema to traditional patriarchal societies – and what is taking place in Egypt today is an exciting example. Long repressed and told to be quiet and leave it to male experts/elders/anyone already in authority, people are growing up and saying, “No! This country is mine. This democracy is mine. This life is mine. This body is mine. The future is mine.” Egyptian citizens are saying no to a state and religious figureheads that extract everything from their people, infantilizes them by saying they can’t “handle” democracy, and give them little more than a condescending pat on the shoulder, or the promise of a better life in heaven for all their suffering in return. Don’t get me started on the 72 virgins. As we all can see, the transition is painful, but powerful. Many don’t like it, and will resist, religious leaders especially, especially when it comes to women. But Egyptians are learning that no one will give them freedom. No one will give them democracy. No one will give them their rights. They must take them.
Some of us get lucky. Some of us do run from the suffocating grip of our parents into the loving arms of a compassionate husband. But some of us never marry. And why should we? Marriage is not our coming of age. If it is, it’s our escape – one fraught with peril, because we haven’t insisted on womanhood in our own right. We’ve waited and waited for it to be given to us. And many of us, despite marriage, are often still left waiting.