A friend announced her engagement on Facebook with a gorgeous professional photograph and expressed surprise at the proposal. It is trite that social media is a curated portrayal of life which leaves out the messy and often most beautiful parts. Enter a message from my boyfriend: "did you see X's Facebook post? Another guy who thinks getting married was his idea..." We laughed about it, in the conspiratorial tone that develops between couples, as we often do about the tension between men and women's individual desires and the use of feminine wiles. I was conspiratorial when I should have said: "shhh, let people enjoy things".
Then it hit me. What other choice do women have? Society reveres marriage and tells us it is something we must do. The societal expectation from dating through to marriage is that women be passive: waiting to be chosen and that men are in the position of choosing. Men are always in the position of power over the decision and the timing.
This has psychological impact on both sexes. Men are expected to make the move and weather the possible rejection. Women who know what they want are expected to wait for fear of looking brazen or needy. It can create a pathological need for affirmation, which may overlook compatibility, shared values or any other sound metric for choosing a life partner; something we are not properly schooled in.
The modern woman is told to be driven in every aspect of her life and to smash education, career and property goals. Marriage is still set up as a goal but this is the one place in which – although her value is still measured against the ability to enter into a marriage - she must, at all costs, be passive. The romantic ideal of an on-the-knees-proposal is newer in black culture. You don't meet each other's families until it has been decided between you that it's time to start lobola negotiations. The decision is mutual and only thereafter do the malume's and fathers enter the fray.
Among Indians, marriages for love are a phenomenon of the last two or three generations. Then, parents accepted proposals on your behalf and your value was measured against your ability to make a good match based on caste, wealth, skin tone and education (just enough – not too much). In the era of love marriages; marriage was openly talked about and there wasn't really a proposal of the Hollywood kind. The couple knew where it was headed and then told their families.
Ironically the emancipated west clings to antiquities like asking a woman's father for her hand and surprise proposals. "Couple-level negotiations" are only now becoming the vogue whereas we've long embraced the idea that the couple, as adult equals discuss their aims for the relationship. Sadly by buying into the ideal of a surprise proposal we've regressed. It's reinforced through movies and social media that someone will whisk you off and pop the question. Every weekend away is cause for a manicure - just in case. Women remain passive participants in a major life decision.
"We teach girls to shrink themselves
To make themselves smaller
We say to girls
"You can have ambition
But not too much
Because I am female
I am expected to aspire to marriage
I am expected to make my life choices
Always keeping in mind that
Marriage is the most important
Now marriage can be a source of
Joy and love and mutual support
But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
And we don't teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments
Which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
In the way that boys are
Feminist: the person who believes in the social
Political, and economic equality of the sexes."
On reflection I told my boyfriend that women have no choice. If a woman has decided she wants to get married and that she's met the right person she is hemmed in on all sides by societal expectations to wait it out. She can vote, drive, become CEO, President, pilot a spacecraft, but the final frontier remains - she cannot propose. From this perspective dropping hints, machinations and leading the horse to water (while protecting him from emasculation) is actually an affirming act of agency in a system otherwise stacked against women to be perpetually in the mode of passivity.
My view is that societal expectations, when internalised and unexamined, do untold harm to men and women. Life has got to be more than a checklist. I won't do anything unless I am sure I have thoroughly examined the idea planted in my head by society and I have chosen it. I say this knowing that life outside of cookie-cutter beliefs can be lonely and that there is great comfort in established ideas on how to lead a good life.
If we want to be feminists – that is if we believe in a system of social, political and economic equality of the sexes - then we can't judge other women for getting what they want in a system which tells them they must be passive. We have to stop labelling women as manipulative or as using feminine wiles when being straightforward is not an option. We also have to push the boundaries of what we consider normal.
The conversation with my boyfriend ended thus: "I'll buck the trend and if I want to get married and I think I've found the right guy I'll propose and put a very accurate status on the internet". Similarly, if I'm single again I will start asking men out. Now, to fly him off to exotic locales and make him nervous every time I tie my shoelaces.