Marriage past a certain age and remarriage of those divorced or widowed is a challenge
Maheen*, 46, has lost two husbands. First, when she got divorced at 25 and the second at 38, when he passed away. The sole caretaker of her four children, Maheen has been told that the possibility of her finding another companion is next to zero, as she is now “beyond the marriageable age”. Her brothers want her to focus on “raising her kids” and just “lead a life of seclusion”. They tell her to wear dull colours and “to not laugh wholeheartedly”, because as a widow she should not “attract unwanted attention”.
But Maheen is too alive for that. She still wants to laugh when she pleases and she wants people to stop telling her that her life is as good as over, now that her husband is no more. “I still miss him”, she says, “but that does not mean that I should be denied the right to be happy ever again”.
In Pakistan, marriage for people who have passed a certain age and remarriage for men and women who are divorced or widowed does not come about easily. The fact is the proverbial elephant in the room – stark, almost maddening and not surprising. A society obsessed with marriage has little to offer for those who appear to challenge its standards of a “picture-perfect union”. These anomalies are expected to fade into the background.
Of course, gender disparity is a further complication.
“For women, the challenge begins right after the divorce,” says Zoya*, 38. “You realise that it’s simply not as easy for you to move on as perhaps it is for your former spouse, now a divorced man yet almost as desirable.” She says the divorce becomes a part of one’s identity as a woman. This wouldn’t be problematic, if it were not associated with an assumed social status, “a liability of sorts”.
For Zoya, the journey to find a match has not been easy. “The fact is that the society views you as an oddity. So you will be treated as such. You will be put in the beychari, or worse, pata naheen iska kya banayga category even when you are living a very normal life minus a husband.” This perception, she says, is so deep-rooted that even your prospective male partners look down upon you. “The bargaining starts with the woman making her peace with the fact that as a divorced woman she is pretty low on the desirability ladder and that she will have to “settle” for someone much older.” She says it’s not the older guy that is the problem. It is the social perception that divorced women have to face just because they’re “damaged goods”.
Bano, 37, agrees. “Divorced women of any age will be told to compromise,” she says. “Men on the other hand, are confident that they can “get” a much younger, never-been-married woman regardless of their own marital status.” She says that there are a couple of social factors at play here. “One, in our society there is this perception that after 30, female fertility starts declining, so that the younger your spouse is, the healthier your children will be. Case in point: rishta groups online where most 45-year-old men are looking for prospective spouses who’re no more than 32.”
Secondly, she says it is widely held that divorce is somehow a woman’s fault and that a woman who hasn’t been able to make it work once, is just not “good enough for marriage”.
“I once got this rishta from a very well-settled Sindhi landlord’s son,” says Bano. “He was around my age. Everything seemed fine but then his mother dropped the bomb.” The man was already married with children but his wife was “too simple” by his standards. He wanted to get married again to “someone who could move with him in the elite circles of the city.”
What Bano still can’t forget is the nonchalant manner in which the mother claimed that “her son could get anyone” but was “willing to go ahead with this rishta”, as her son thought of her as “presentable”.
Exceptions exist. Bano’s brother, 37, married a girl almost his age. “He said he didn’t want to marry a child. He wanted to be able to have conversations with his wife.” But even for him it wasn’t easy. “Everyone tried to discourage him. They said she’d be too mature for him and even tried to play the declining fertility card.” Her brother went ahead anyway. “They now have two kids and are one of the happiest couples I know.”
Ayesha Mirza, a sociology teacher and a single woman in her early thirties, is noticing a slight shift. “Most divorced/ widowed women that I know of are just not looking to remarry.” That said, she agrees that this is a very particular demographic. “The basic thing is that most divorced or widowed women in their 30s and 40s are either financially stable or they are not. The ones who are not, are looking to remarry mostly for the sake of greater financial security.”
According to Mirza, women who are financially secure are usually not looking to remarry for the sake of marriage. “If they do, they marry compatible men,” she says. She says this probably has a lot to do with not being willing to give up the independence that comes with having one’s own income. “They have also found that being divorced or widowed is better than the servitude or dissatisfaction of a loveless marriage.” Mirza says “gender roles/ identities are changing fast and men are still struggling to adapt and catch up.”
This sounds hopeful to Zoya and Bano. They agree, however, that exceptions aside, things are not likely to change any time soon.
“It’s been fourteen years since I got divorced,” says Bano, “and I have yet to find a single decent guy who wouldn’t want my parents to help him migrate to the US or buy him a house in exchange for marrying me.”
Nobody should be denied the right to exist. Not even those who are mostly invisible.
*Names have been changed to protect identity
The writer is a member of staff. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @wajihahyder