Marriage Pressure Is Giving Rise To Unfavourable Dynamics For The Unmarried In Nigeria

In many parts of Nigeria, marriage is seen as the fabric that holds the society together, so how does the society treat the unmarried across all genders? The pressure is forcing people into unfavourable arrangements. 

The pressure to get married started pressing down Hadiza Bukar’s* neck as soon as she completed her undergraduate studies in Kano, North West Nigeria. She was 22.

Marriage is seen as the most important institution in many parts of Nigeria, and the establishment of a family is prioritised over the desires of the individual, leading to child marriage

Hadiza has younger brothers, and even though they are not of marriageable age, they are not told to jokingly ‘get wives’ as is said to young women around her. Before the pressure to get married, Hadiza was not expected to have a boyfriend, which was the irony, she says.

“My parents were kind of strict growing up. I wasn’t allowed to go out except to and from school, and there were restrictions on boyfriends and even the friends I had,” she said. 

According to the United Nations 2015 World Marriage Data, the required age of marriage is much higher for men in 231 countries globally. With men marrying years later than women in the same community, even when both genders are likely to postpone marriage. From 2000-2014, the average marital age for men is 26.5 years and 23.4 for women. 

The societal beliefs in the female biological clock, or that women in their early twenties are incomplete without a man, or the parents’ desire for grandchildren are some of the leading factors of marriage pressure. 

The idea of the female biological clock became popular in the 1970s after journalist Richard Cohen wrote a column pushing the narrative that women have a ticking clock that diminishes their fertility as they age; this became widely spread and became a tool to push women into more traditional gender roles such as motherhood and homemaking. Prior to that, the term was used by scientists to describe the process that tells our bodies when to sleep, eat, and rise. 

The biological clock theory is evidence that assumptions about gender and sexism can change the direction of scientific research and be used to enforce harmful gender roles.  The evidence on whether women’s fertility declines with age is unclear. However, research showing a decline in sperm count and sperm quality as men age, and research showing that children of older fathers are also at more risk of complications and conditions like autism are not commonly cited.

The escalation between her father’s strictness on not having boyfriends and his pressure on her to get married was very short.

It was this pressure that pushed the now 27-year-old into a transactional marriage arrangement in 2022.

A Marriage Arrangement 

Hadiza says she and her husband have no physical or sexual chemistry, but they made very good friends, and they were both being pressured to get married by their individual families even before they knew each other. 

“Our arrangement gives me peace of mind, and it helps we are no longer in the country.” Hadiza had always idealised marriage to be an amazing union in her head, but as she grew older, the thoughts kept fading away. 

If not for the pressure, Hadiza wouldn’t have ever gotten married, especially as she never wanted to have kids. However, her husband is interested in having children. It remains the only problem in their marriage. 

“We know at a point we will have to divorce. We are hoping that at least this marriage will make them put less pressure on us to remarry when we divorce because sometimes divorced people can actually escape some of the pressure.”  But until then, they stay loyal to each other and live their independent lives so as not to complicate things. 

An Unfavorable Match 

For Sadiya Jibril*, life as a first daughter had been a smooth ride; she knew she could always count on her father to take her side and protect her. 

But in 2021, a man she had been introduced to decided to reach out directly to her parents without her consent. She had yet to introduce him to the family officially. 

“There is this power that my parents have over me, and it seems they like this man. At that point, I just said they should marry me off if they want to,” she said. The man convinced her father to let him come for a formal introduction. “I didn’t even put in any effort to dress well [for the introduction],” she recalled. 

As things started to get more serious, Sadiya finally mustered the courage and told her parents she didn’t want to marry him. 

Illustration by Akila Jibrin/HumAngle. 

For the first time in her life, her father didn’t take her side and that broke her heart. “My parents said I could not put them to shame and I should just be patient and go ahead with it,” she remembered. She cried for days and refused to come out of her room unless when necessary. She stopped going to Islamic school and work. 

The difference between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage is that the prospective spouse has the final say in arranged marriages, but in forced marriages, there is use of psychological, physical, emotional or financial pressure to get the prospective spouse to agree to the marriage and this is seen as a form of violence against the person involved. 

Many guardians or parents can see themselves as protecting the future of their children or honouring long-term commitments, but these kinds of marriages make people vulnerable to abuse and lead to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders like Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act, forcing someone into a marriage attracts the punishment of 2 years imprisonment or a fine of N500,000 or both. 

Sadiya had a final talk with the man as a last try. She told him she felt upset and didn’t want their marriage to be filled with negative feelings. He did not take the honest feedback well.

“Due to this man’s issue, I blocked some of my family members from calling me, but they still found ways to contact me or my mother to talk to me about it,” she recalled. She felt dejected and trapped but got a little relief when he decided that he was no longer interested. The experience was traumatic. 

She thought that chapter of her life was closed, but two weeks later, he randomly called to inform her he was in her city. “He informed me that my grandfather told him to come and settle things with me,” she recalled. Destabilised by the news, Sadiya broke down crying. 

“I felt like all the work I had managed to put into moving on came undone. He came over to settle things, and I started to feel depressed…I didn’t believe he liked me; I think he just wanted to get married, and I happened to fit into his needs. I once told him that directly,” Sadiya said.

The psychological effects of this pressure were also putting a strain on her physical health. She started to lose weight, and even her skin got darker. As this persisted, her father started to get concerned, and the pressure stopped.

Thriving Amidst The Pressure

In 2021, Mardiyyah Bello* got into a residential fellowship she worked very hard for after her second try. But her excitement was cut short when family members tried to convince her father not to let an unmarried woman live out on her own and that she should be encouraged to get married instead. 

Fortunately for her, her father didn’t cave into the pressure, but it was enough to remind her of the many limitations she was facing as an unmarried woman. Marriage is largely used as a scale for measuring decency. 

Renting property and moving out as unmarried women is seen as controversial in many parts of the country, particularly the North. Women sometimes have to use their fathers or brothers as guarantors in order to rent properties. Some reasons for these obstacles are deeply rooted in misogyny and sexism. 

According to How Africa, some Nigerian women interviewed have been denied houses to rent due to the belief that they are prostitutes because they are single and living alone, or they had landlords demand they bring their partners and, in some cases, even asked to speak to their fathers before they rent the property to them to make sure they are okay with it. And sometimes, landlords assume that women are only dependent on the men in their lives. Hence, they may not be able to renew their lease. 

Mardiyyah couldn’t pinpoint when the marriage pressure started because it felt like it had always been there for her and the other women around her. 

“I feel like as long as you are born a woman, the only thing you are groomed for is marriage,” she said. Once, when she was 14, she struggled to to tie a wrapper during a family event, and family members said that was an indication that she wouldn’t make a good wife if it continued. That incident has stayed with her ever since. 

“You are taught to cook big meals in case you get married into a big family, and you end up being responsible for taking care of that family. Everything you do is examined through the lenses of marriage. You are told to sit properly and shouldn’t climb bikes or trees, etc,” she said. 

Even though these rules didn’t stop her from climbing trees and riding bikes, they cut deeply. The limitation on the kinds of activities girls should and should not do is strongly tied to purity culture, which reduces the value of women to their virginity whether it is lost consensually or not. 

At one point, the pressure to get married affected her self-esteem, and she found herself being desperate to be loved and chosen by men. 

“But the more I read, interact with people and introspect, the more I unlearn how I used to see my worth and stopped believing that the only way to be enough is by being a wife and being subservient because we have been sold plenty of lies,” she said. 

The pressure became more subtle when she started to speak up. Now, the pressure comes wrapped as a package of well-meaning advice instead of a requirement for existence or being accepted. 

Mardiyyah is now focused on living her best life and trying to do what’s best for her. 

According to Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, research shows that the traditional markers that are used to measure success, such as marriage and childbearing, do not correlate with happiness. 

Also citing evidence from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), which has compared levels of misery and pleasure in married, unmarried, widowed, separated, and divorced people, the professor said men showed more health benefits from marriage as they are more likely to take fewer risks, but unmarried women tend to have better health and live longer. 

The Male Experience 

For Namse Udosen, most of the pressure comes from people outside his family, such as colleagues, neighbours, and members of his church. “The pressure comes from people thinking they know what I need more than me. They assume they know what will make me happy,” he said. 

Once, he was rejected from renting a house because the landlord didn’t want to rent his property to unmarried people. “He said he doesn’t want different women coming to the house. I had to get somewhere different even though it wasn’t what I wanted,” he recalled. 

Even though single women are more likely to suffer discrimination, single men also sometimes suffer house rental discrimination.

Illustration by Akila Jibrin/HumAngle. 

According to a survey by the Guardian, a total of 42.4 per cent of the respondents experienced this discrimination because of their singleness – with 28.8 per cent experiencing it once and 33.8 per cent twice. This discrimination is more prevalent in Lagos, Kano, Abuja, Ogun, Ebonyi, Enugu, Ondo, and Niger.

The 40-year-old feels more need to get a better job than about getting married.

For  Rayyan Aliyu*, it started when he finished his service year. At one point, it affected his relationship with his father because he found it disrespectful that he rejected all the girls he recommended to him. 

“Maybe there is a manual somewhere that states people should get married at a particular age, but people should understand that we don’t all have the same realities and that reality dictates what they do, how they marry, who they marry, and what time they marry,” he said. But this experience is not particular to him alone; he has had conversations with friends who are also tired of the pressure from their friends or community. 

“For me, I don’t think there are consequences to not getting married apart from the pressure that may come from family and friends. I am at a position where I feel like if I can do without it, I can let it go,” he said. But because he has a lot of responsibilities to his family due to his background, the 29-year-old feels getting married will help him both in his personal life as well as in discharging his responsibilities to his family. 

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