I have just returned from New York, where my daughter married a wonderfully gentle young man in a beautiful ceremony at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.
My daughter is a very modern young woman and her new husband shares her egalitarian values. Their mutual desire to form a partnership that allowed both of them to grow as individuals while enhancing and supporting each other as a couple was beautifully reflected in their ceremonial readings, especially this one from Kahlil Gibran:
Then Almitra spoke again and said, “And what of Marriage, master?” And he answered saying: You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore. You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days. Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God. But let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each others’ cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each others’ keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each others’ shadow.
I was proud of my daughter for choosing to “walk down the aisle” (in truth, a long hike across misted grass in heels and a mermaid dress with a train) alone, rather than be given away by her father. Her dad was understandably hurt by this, but as I watched her coming toward us (looking stunningly beautiful, though a bit likely to topple over at any minute), I was struck with the importance of these small changes to traditional ritual.
In the rich nations, we love and marry at the culmination of a hundred year process, during which the institution of marriage became romanticized, thus fundamentally changing its nature. As the heart gained its right to choose a partner, what was once a purely economic institution controlled entirely by the fathers, became the tender contract between individuals we admire today.
In the poor nations, marriage is still economic and still a contract forced by the patriarchs. Where I have been working in rural Uganda, girls are regularly pulled out of school to be exchanged by their fathers in a marriage deal where their educational future and their sovereignty over their own body are traded for a cow or a pig. As in Ghana, Senegal, and elsewhere I have worked, the girls have no choice in the selection of the mate and can look forward to little but hard work, isolation, and multiple pregnancies. Community norms force the girl to conform on pain of violence or exclusion. The girl not only changes her name but her religion if she is not of the same faith as her new husband. Her individual identity is essentially wiped out. She leaves her family to become a member of his–and is often treated merely as an unpaid servant by her new in-laws. Too often, her husband views her as a replaceable, utterly expendable acquisition. I have been told too many times that the health of a wife is of no concern to her husband because if she dies he can always get a new one. These are the traditional conditions of marriage; they differ very little from slavery.
Against that comparison, this Brooklyn wedding was poignant in the way it moved so gracefully a step farther from the past. My daughter and her new husband also decided to forgo other unpleasant wedding traditions: no throwing the bouquet to bridesmaids demeaned by the assumption they are desperate spinsters, no taking off the garter in front of groomsmen demeaned by the assumption they are desperate lechers. Yet, the overall impression was of an elegant, traditional, and sweetly romantic wedding.
So, despite the mermaid dress and three-inch heels, my daughter’s wedding hit me as an extraordinary reminder of just how far we have come.
And may I say again that it was beautiful?