Colleen has a Master’s degree in English Literature and is an author of stories and articles focusing on the dynamics of human relationships
Wifehood Earned by Virginity
Often, apparent contrasts between societal demands are not as blatant as we might at first perceive. We read with horror of an Iranian bridegroom who, during the late 1970s, grew so enraged by his bride’s small amount of vaginal blood during their wedding night as to call in a doctor on the following morning.
Only after a medical examination was the bridegroom convinced of his wife’s chastity and agreed to continue their marriage. Any doubt would have justified his sending her back to her parents, all but unmarriageable within their culture.
Still, our seemingly enlightened societies have also, throughout centuries, viewed virginity in a wife as a crucial component. As recently as those same 1970s, an American male student from a university with a religious affiliation admitted he and his friends were happy to engage in intimacy with any willing girl, while they themselves would never consider marrying any girl or woman who’s hymen was not intact.
On an international scale, this insistence caused misery in the British royal family. The 1981 mismatch of Charles Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer was doomed before it begun. In addition to being a dozen years older, Charles diverging interests and continuing love for Camilla Parker-Bowles extinguished any true chance of connubial contentment. The reason Lady Diana was deemed acceptable was due to the fact that, at 18, she was one of the few virgins possessing the proper lineage.
Custom is the plague of wise men, and the idol of fools
— Thomas Fuller
Obsolete Ideas of Wifely Humility
Although largely patriarchal, Islamic modes of courtships and expectations of wifely roles are slowly growing more flexible. In her memoir "Escape from Tyranny", Zainab Salbi describes her hard-won freedom both from the Saddam Hussein regime and matrimonial bondage.
Having voiced bewilderment as to the catastrophic intimate side of her marriage, she was warned by an older woman of the danger caused by her lack of subservience. Each night, her adviser said, she must make herself alluring and lovely, her body fragrant, hair prettily styled, and face made enticing by kohl surrounding her eyes, along with other available facial enhancements.
Having done so, she must walk around their bed upon which her husband reclined, seven times in order to symbolize her compliance. So laughable was this advice as to alert Zainab of her need to find release from this untenable union. In time, this marriage foundered.
A More Liberal Form of Courtship And Marriage
The Shelina Zahra Janmohamed memoir “Love in a Headscarf” reflects the views of a more modern community. The potential fiancee and his parents were invited to the young woman’s home for a dinner in which the two marriage candidates were able to interact in a social but focused way.
Later, the couple were allowed to sit in a separate room by themselves in order to gain a sense as to whether spending the rest of their lives with each other seemed viable. Often, it took several such meetings; if one party opted out, this would be communicated with discretion to the other set of parents.
At times, couples who had met in this way were permitted to get together for coffee and further conversation. Still, as is true in most cultures even today, it was left to the male to choose to propose. Shelina’s most daring effort in this regard was to ask one such man, how he would feel if she liked him. To her chagrin, he replied that, having suffered through one painful rebuff by a girl he believed had loved him completely; he had become fully absorbed in his studies, and had no thoughts of anything beyond friendship.
Eventually, Shelina realized her clinging to cinematic fantasies was curtailing her matrimonial hopes. The proposal she accepted was from a man with whom she felt more compatibility than overpowering passion. Most crucially, their union was a mutual choice, with both partners implicitly respecting one another’s autonomy within an Islamic context.
The Nyinba And Fraternal Polyandry
Western societies tend to view Tibetan/Nepalese culture as intriguing and mystical. Indeed, the Dalai Lama is perceived overall as deserving respect and reverence. Less well-known is the exotic practice of fraternal polyandry, the marriage of several brothers to the same wife. Polyandry, meaning marriage to more than one man, is in itself far rarer than polygamy, where a man is allowed more than one wife.
The Nyinba of Nepal and Tibet are one of the few peoples where this custom is practiced. Its purpose is to limit dissension as to inheritance, and conserve resources by limiting the number of children produced by each family group. Agriculturally based, the Nyinba are dependent on farming. This makes it economically sound for a number of men, regarded as a unit, to plough one field, rather than dividing it into sections. This proves especially true in that the landscape is such as to render boundaries difficult to set forth and maintain.
In one anthropological study, the wife was 59, indicating wife-hood continues after a woman’s child-bearing years have ended. This communal wife is expected to treat each of her husbands with complete equality. Deviation from this is deemed a violation of both the marriage pact, and contrary to societal goals.
At present, Chinese intervention in the region has outlawed all polygamy along with changes to the economic environment, land and taxation law. This has rendered the traditional societal structure of the Nyinba almost obsolete and the practice of fraternal polyandry illegal, yet it may still be practiced De-facto.
Courtship in 19th-century Europe And America
We can learn a good deal regarding the conventions of 19th-century courtship from reading the works of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Hardy. Though fictional, they reflect the determination barely beneath the surface of elegance, for young women to find husbands.
Jane Austen, herself never married, may have mirrored the most detached view as to male/female strategies. Her "Pride and Prejudice" may well be the penultimate illustration. From the moment a youngish bachelor moves into a nearby manor, frenzy begins as to which young single woman will secure him as a spouse.
The many dances described in these novels are barely disguised mating dances. Chaperoned by vigilant parents and relatives, the number of times a young man asks a damsel to dance is calibrated as to the degree of his real or potential interest. In Tolstoy’s "Anna Karenina", a girl believes a noble Count by whom she is besotted will ask her to marry him during the dance “mazurka” at an upcoming ball.
George Eliot’s "Middlemarch" presents a scenario where a young doctor, new to the village, attempts to ignore the web being woven around him when he visits and flirts with an unmarried girl. Having withdrawn his attentions, the next time he inadvertently sees her, his affection combined with her tears results in his proposing. Ultimately, their sparse knowledge of one another leads to a union based on uneasy compromise rather than love in its genuine sense.
The Pitfalls of Being Perceived as a Cad
If a young man compromised a young woman, he was considered so despicable as to become a social pariah. This was due to the fear that he has damaged her chances of future matrimony. In Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”, Scarlett O'Hara is told early on that the enigmatically charming Rhett Butler is “not received” in polite society, due to his staying so long in a carriage with a young woman as to create an expectation of marriage. His failure in chivalry classified him as a cad, and a poor matrimonial prospect.
Money Played a Significant Part in the Marital Tapestry
Returning to Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, the heroine, Elizabeth, admits to her sister she first realized she loved her suitor, Mr. Darcy, when she saw his vast mansion. In fact, Austen was voicing the wretched reality that an unmarried woman, once her parents had died, would in all probability wind up as a governess or domestic drudge in the home of a relative, where nearly every candle she lit or food she ate might be begrudged as a needless expenditure.
Custom without reason is but an ancient error
— Thomas Fuller
Child Marriage in Afghanistan
While a student at Emerson College, I took a course with then assistant professor Catherine Krupnick. During one especially gripping lecture, she spoke of her experiences as an anthropologist in Afghanistan. Having lived among the people of Kabul, she developed a sisterly bond with a 15-year-old girl called Hania.
At one point, Hania came to her in tears, to tell her that, during the previous night, drumbeats informed her, village authorities had decreed she would be married, at least in name, to her 9-year-old cousin. For convenience, this cousin’s age had been raised to 15. Wretched as these tidings made her, Hania knew herself bound. Working beside her in the fields, Catherine heard her singing sad, poetic songs of her own making:
“I am a young tree, bent to the water.
I feel I am a green fruit, being plucked far too soon.”
During Catherine’s final weeks in Afghanistan, Hania would often plead, “Take me back to America with you.”
Catherine would answer, “I so wish I could.” Still, both knew this could never be.
Any such effort would raise familial and legal uproar. While girls as young as ten can be engaged, in legal terms, they cannot marry until age 16. However, the most common marriage ages are at 15 or 16. In addition, as in the above example, age can be arbitrarily changed as convenience dictates. Girls married underage frequently suffer greatly if intimacy occurs before their bodies are ready. If impregnated, both mother and consequent child tend to develop physical and/or emotional struggles.
Such marriages can be arranged for a number of reasons. One of these “Baad” is a form of dispute resolution where animosities have arisen. Other motives are mercenary: repayment of a loan or the acquisition of a bridal dowry. Fortunately, unlike with Hania, in more recent times, verbal contractual agreements have become more prevalent than a specified series of drumbeats.
It is customary for a Mullah, a religious figure, to serve as a mediator between representatives of the potential couple. The spokesman for the girl is generally her father or a trusted male relative. While both parties sit in separate rooms, this go-between walks from one room to the other, continuing to negotiate until an agreement is reached-the groom’s terms given pre-eminence.
Eventually, the Mullah asks the bride 3 times whether she accepts this marriage. After she has said “yes” 3 times, the couple are deemed married. The wedding can then begin, lasting from approx. 7 P.M. until 2 A.M.
Harem Life: Shielding While Suffocating
While countless histories have recorded facts about harem life the Fatima Mernissi memoir, “Dreams of Trespass”, is especially vivid, in that it recounts growing up in an era in French-owned Morocco when polygamy, (marriage by one man to several women ) was a part of her culture.
Early on, she describes the differences between imperial and domestic harems. Imperial harems, such as those of Ottoman emperors in bygone centuries exist now only in imagination. Exquisite women, lolling and languishing in splendor, kowtowed to by eunuchs, has enhanced the erotic allure of any number of cinematic extravaganzas.
Domestic harems, far less opulent, were households in which various generations shared a home in a circumspect way. The word “harem”, in this sense, meant a place of shelter and safety. Gradually, the term came to be viewed as it was during Fatima’s growing years, one man being allowed 4 wives, if he could support each of them in a reasonable manner.
Born in 1940, during Fatima’s childhood, there were rooms on the top floor of her home where her parents allowed divorced, aggrieved or abandoned wives to live with their children for as long as necessary. At times this was done strategically, in order to show a husband his wife had an option as to where she could live. When she returned, such a wife often found herself treated with far more respect and appreciation.
Others, however, divorced at the whim of a husband, were compelled to request permanent refuge. This was the case with Fatima’s most cherished aunt, who, divorced for no reason she knew by a husband she continued to love, was to spend much of her life. While a delightful storyteller, she cried a great deal. When the children were allowed to sit on a carpet brought out for the occasion, she would remind them not to soil it, as it was the only remnant she still possessed from her time as a happy wife.
If only I could go for a walk in the early morning when the streets are deserted. What is the color of the morning in the silent, deserted streets?
— Fatima Mernissi
The Bonds are Not Broken
According to this gripping but often sad memoir, few women were truly contented. Passionately in love with her husband, she still felt smothered and caged by the strictures placed upon her societal rules. Her question regarding the color of dawn was rhetorical in that she expected no answer. Apparently, harem women often asked such questions as a plea to the world for a freedom they knew they could never obtain.
Children could romp and play in the courtyard with their mothers’ permission, but those same mothers were forced to stay inside or near the large house. The depth of their quest to flee was expressed by their reaction to one story often told by the aunt with a gift for narrative. When hearing of people becoming birds, grown women ran about flapping their arms in a state of escapist ecstasy. Indeed, Fatima found comfort when an older cousin told her she herself had wings which would develop as she grew older.
Aside from being somewhat plagued by a meddlesome mother-in-law, Fatima’s mother’s life in a monogamous marriage was as serene as it could be, within her framework. Despite her mother-in-law’s reminders of her husband’s right to acquire 3 more wives, there was no true fear of his doing so.
Conversely, co-wives living in harems were prone to hierarchies and quarrels. Women from wealthy families had more control over their lives than did the less fortunate. One wealthy wife refused to take even the slightest part in household chores. While her co-wives grumbled, their husband did nothing to force her to do her share. Disputes and rivalries, while rife, tended to take subtle forms, as they were gravely frowned upon.
Ultimately, Fatima’s mother urged her to live a life of far greater independence than she herself could ever enjoy. Hence, while this memoir recounts delightful times and some laughter, it is permeated by a sense of almost unbearable claustrophobia.
An American Co-Wife in Saudi-Arabia
Given our western perspective, it is easy to feel convinced we could never accept a marriage which was not monogamous. A college friend, “Meg”, believed this as well; she and I would have soulful talks about the importance of fidelity and commitment.
Then, an interest in Islam drew her to a mosque and, after a good deal of thought and much reading, become converted. She also met a graduate student who would be returning to his home in Saudi Arabia in a few months, at the end of his student visa.
To their shared surprise, rapport soon turned to a love so profound as to render Meg willing to live in the Middle East if he asked her to marry him. As she had hoped, he did ask, but added that before she answer, he needed to make clear he already had a wife in his homeland; they had two children together and he would not divorce her.
Having overcome her shock and annoyance he had failed to let her know this before, she began serious thinking. Eventually, she concluded, if she did not at least make the effort, she might be saddened forever, and question the validity of her choice. Thus, she accepted with the proviso that, if she found this life overwhelming, he would understand her need to return to America.
Hence, she went with him. As was to be expected, there was some initial animosity between the original wife and herself. Still, her willingness to share child care and teach English soon smoothed away most of their tensions. Although she and I lost touch, I heard after being there four years, she had a baby, and had been hired to teach English in a respected school.
Thus, while remaining sure I could never have entered into such a union, Meg’s story shows what we believe is beyond our boundaries can sometimes change-there is no absolute form of marriage.
© 2015 Colleen Swan
Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on August 27, 2015:
Hi Larry, I am glad you enjoyed this hub and appreciate your input. I agree entirely about weddings. My sister had a extravagant one, and later wished she had invested the wedding expenses in a house. My husband and I had a basic wedding and were completely happy about it. Thank you for looking in Colleen
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on August 26, 2015:
Used to in most cultures it was a huge economical windfall to have a boy and the opposite to have a girl in regards to their future marriage.
First off, I think the insanely expensive wedding is stupid anyhow. I think the modern popular embodiment of the wedding and marriage, at least in the U.S.,is much better.
Always thought provoking and intelligent reads Colleen.
Ann Carr from SW England on August 26, 2015:
I agree. Hope all is well with you.
Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on August 26, 2015:
Hi Ann, My feeling about Charles and Diana is that their mismatch, tragic as it was, alerted the world as to the foolishness of insistence on the virginity of the bride to the heir to the throne. The description of the flapping arms of harem women and their desperation for wings I found especially frustrating. Thanks once again, Ann, for your input. Colleen
Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on August 26, 2015:
Hi DJ, I appreciate the time you always take to read and analyse my hubs. My wish is always to share the experiences and insights conveyed by quotes and anecdotes. My college friend Meg's experience enlightened me as to various forms of marriage and what some western women are willing to accept; as my article states, I could not be so flexible. Colleen
Ann Carr from SW England on August 26, 2015:
Informative hub, Colleen. It strikes us as something we would have a problem with and obviously some of those bound up in such practices do but I suppose if it's the 'norm' then many accept it. I can understand, though, how this would be a nightmare for someone who married without love. We have to respect others' practices but not when they are misused or make the women desperately unhappy.
You've created a well-researched and fascinating hub here, Colleen. It brings to light many unknown aspects of wedding customs.
Diana was unfortunate; while she expressed love for her husband, one could see from the beginning that she was completely out of her depth; no wonder she rebelled. Her fate was so sad. Charles being able to continue his 'relationship' with Camilla was a smack in the face for her - and so openly done too. I would not like them to become king and queen; indeed, I hope the title jumps to William though I can't see that happening!
DJ Anderson on August 26, 2015:
What an intriguing story of marriage in different countries and cultures.
Sadly, women rights have not evolved over time, and never will, while being kept subservient in many discriminant cultures.
I do so enjoy your quotes from famous writers. Their wit and aptitude for grasping truths leaves me in awe.
Thank you for this most informative article, leaving us with a better
understanding of the world around us.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on August 26, 2015:
Mmm, I think my wife is glad she only has one too. :)
Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on August 26, 2015:
Hi Jodah, Thank you for your comment. Yes, polyandry was a new one for me, it is amazing what we find when researching these topics. I'm glad I have only one husband.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on August 25, 2015:
What an informative hub Colleen. Learning about the "polyandry" in Tibet/Nepal was especially interesting. Thank you for sharing.