‘In marriage are martyrs and saints’

December 29, 2019

I was told marriage was never about love, it was about commitment and respectability

Growing up I knew only two kinds of people – those who were married and those who were waiting to get married. There was a distant relative who had failed to achieve a husband, and for a long time I thought her name was Bichari because that’s how people referred to her.

I also was raised to believe that a girl entered her husband’s house in a doli and exited it in a coffin. My literal imagination played out images of men carting around women reclining in coffins as they went about to do their groceries – but later, I realised it meant that a marriage was forever. I was in class 7 when I heard about a divorce, in my Islamiat class. It was something men gave to women, and that it was a bad thing. When I asked my mum about it, she said it was undesirable and it happened to other people, not us.

So you may imagine the consternation and horror of my family when I left my [brief] marriage and filed for divorce. I was told again and again that my decision to leave my [then] husband was an act of irresponsibility, carelessness and stupidity. I was told all marriages were hell for about three to five years. Then something magical happened and everything settled down. (Usually, the woman is broken in by then, but no one quite puts it like that.) I was also told that pregnancy ‘fixes’ everything – from a discontent husband to abusive in-laws. Finally, when I remained adamant about not going back, I was told marriage was never about love, it was about commitment and respectability. A divorce was only for the loose and licentious. I was now in that category.

Enablers were everywhere – married women who had gone through hell and who reacted to my desire for love and respect with outrage – who was I, a mere chit of a girl, to ask for the rights and dignity that had taken them years of living through abuse and torture to achieve. One relative in particular pointed out my arrogance in demanding equality in my marriage. She had never received money from her husband; she had been turned out of the house many times, had been tortured by her in-laws and had borne all this with patience and fortitude. She, unlike me, had stayed married because she was a survivor.

Marriage, it seemed, was martyrdom and there were saints everywhere.

These were lessons in patriarchy: as long as a man earned good money and didn’t hit you, he was generally allowed to get away with bad behaviour. A woman, however, had to live through a trial by fire and continuously prove her worth before being treated well, usually after she had lived most of her life in the narrow confines of domesticity and obedience.

For those who think that divorce is a decision that women take lightly – I say this: divorce is worse than death. I know because my father died, and I left my marriage all in the same year. My father’s death was an act of God and my helplessness in the face of it made that easier to accept. Divorce is an act of will, a knowing amputation without anaesthesia. Death is the loss of a life, but divorce is the loss of a dream and you are left with all this love that no one wants, or worse, no one values. And in your suffering, you are judged brutally and continuously.

There is no one blanket statement that is true for divorce, because every person’s situation is different. My middle-class experience was and is very different from that someone who has children, or no money or nowhere to go, or all three. I had a home to go to, experience enough to find a job that paid well and continued to lead a generally protected life. Therefore, I am very wary of making blanket statements that glorify what was a terrible tragedy.

And yet, I was inordinately lucky that I expected love and when I didn’t get it, I walked out after ten months. I had been climbing the proverbial ladder of birth, study, marriage but before I could get to children and old age, I had fallen off and found myself outside the margins.

But outside the margins was a place of limitless possibilities. It was unsettling and scary but the world was my oyster because I no longer had to prove myself to anyone since I was already a consummate failure.

Divorce became a blessing because it started me on a journey to independence. I was on my own and I had to take my life where I wanted it to go, rather than where other people expected it to go. I wrote two novels, edited, thought, spoke and taught and found time for creative pursuits that had been subsumed in my marriage with domestic chores and difficult people. My teaching career took off, probably because employers felt that I had more time and dedication to give to work because I ‘didn’t have an outside life’ as one so diplomatically put it.

I became self-reliant in most things – travelling alone; choosing what I wanted to wear and how I wanted to spend my days; paying for my life rather than looking to my widowed mother to fund my existence. It is ironic that it took me so long to grow up, but in a way of life where you are routinely denied agency in order to fit the narrow confines of respectability, I only became an individual when I rejected the scheme of arranged things.

There is no neat conclusion to be offered here – it would be careless to advocate divorce as an anecdote to every unhappy marriage – sometimes, sticking it out is the answer if both husband and wife are committed. Divorce doesn’t result in a happily ever after and in my five years of singledom post-marriage – there were times when I was terribly lonely but at the same time, deeply fulfilled and content. At the end of the day, I go back to my core belief that we all, men and women, have been sent to this world to be the best versions of ourselves. For me, divorce afforded me the freedom to achieve this and I am pleased to report that in the process, I also found much happiness.

The writer is the author of ‘How It Happened’ – a satire on arranged marriages. Her second book, ‘A Firefly in the Dark’ won the Children’s Peekaboo Prize in India and is being adapted for a television series. She is currently working on her third novel about marriage and divorce

Divorce and Pakistani culture: ‘In marriage are martyrs and saints’