Women in Marriage and the Workforce
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It’s always with great surprise that I listen to people defending patriarchy. Even though most women would object to being denied access to professional spheres and having their opinions shut down because of their gender, most still happily go along with the idea that women, because of our physiological, psychological, or ‘God given’ differences with men, are the inferior gender.
There are a lot of day to day conversations that I can bring up to explain my point, but it’s unnecessary. Whether you’re a feminist or a neutral, girl or woman, you know what I’m talking about. Being a woman is fraught with emotional and maybe even physical obstacles. Some days, when the dominance of men over your own gender is being continuously shoved down your throat, resistance feels like an exercise in futility.
For the sake of brevity, I’d like to bring up only one instance in my Introduction to Sociology class where this lose-lose situation women face was illustrated clearly. In our discussions, a boy from across the room talked about young people getting married. He refuted the idea that pressure is placed on young people to get married because ultimately, society will be judgmental and critical towards a young married couple. It’s not surprising that he had the wrong idea. Men do not have the same experiences as women.
Even now, as an 18 year old, I am constantly teased and nudged towards marriage, that great stretch of life when I can finally ‘settle down’. It is a heteronormative, male-privileged culture, where from day one, women are taught to take up the responsibilities of domestic life. Most of my friends understand my experiences with my extended family. When I come face to face with them, I am bombarded with advice to snatch up a man as soon as possible. Most of my friends also understand how I feel when I discuss marriage with my parents, or more specifically, how I’m not sure if I’ll ever want get married. When I admit to these things, I’m faced with derision and condescension, a round of ‘you’ll understand when you grow older,’ and ‘you’ll change your mind later.’
This is not specific to my culture and society alone. Older women in many countries are seen as having passed their prime, again reinforcing the idea that women are mere objects with a use-by date. Families and society are still strong institutions that pressure women into marriage as young as possible (although, fortunately, marriage in teenhood has fallen out of fashion), and they heckle and ostracize women whose ambitions do not include getting married to a man.
Maybe the society I live in looks down on young married couples. It is fact that when these marriages fail, they attribute it in part to the couples’ rushed choices. But do they also not blame it on the husband and wife themself for failing to do what countless other couples before them have done? In other words, criticism will be lobbed at the couple for being unprepared and immature, but that will invariably take on a form that attacks the couple as an individual, isolated case. The failure of the marriage is the failure of not just the husband and wife, but their moralities and their upbringing. After all, we have yet to leave the times when women got married at 13 in such a distant past as to have altogether forgotten and scrubbed it off in our culture completely.
So there’s no winning for women, who are expected to be grown up and mature from a young age (as opposed to men, who even in their adulthood are excused of their immaturity), women upon whom the onus of domestic responsibility lies, who have to get married as soon as they take off their graduation caps and are expected to maintain that marriage while also struggling through the instabilities of early post-graduate life. That’s the reality in Malaysia.
The struggle is amplified through the allowance of women into the professional sphere. Nowadays, we’re expected to put to use that degree or diploma or high school certificate we’ve obtained, but at the same time, we’re expected to start a family. You’re judged for leaving your family to the care of strangers in order to contribute to a household’s income, and you’re judged for not being educated or motivated enough to have a job. Another lose-lose situation for working women, although in certain stratums of societies, women are judged less harshly for choosing to be a housewife. Participation of women in the workforce in Malaysia is, after all, still low compared to neighbouring countries.
It sounds contradictory and confusing, but even though women are aggressively entering tertiary education and the workforce, many people would still give it all up to fulfil the traditional roles of mother and homemaker. No matter how much progress we think we’ve made with regards to women’s economic roles, social pressures and our upbringing will catch up with us.
Read about the ‘missing’ women workers in Malaysia in this article.
I’ve also further discussed this issue on my personal blog, specifically the issue of the marriage contract and a materialist feminist perspective on social reproduction. I’d appreciate it if readers would take the time to check those posts out and leave a comment.