Freedom to Marry?

Posted on September 11th, 2008 by Katherine Franke

After a teaching gig in Cairo last spring where I met several scholars who are researching the impact of reforms to Egyptian marriage law I started to work in this area myself. It’s gotten me to think about marriage and citizenship. In the US right now, the lesbian and gay rights movement has explicitly and implicitly linked the ability to marry to a concept of full citizenship – if we can’t marry we are relegated to second-class citizenship. “The legal and civil rights enjoyed in the United States by ALL Americans are presently denied to us… Aren’t we American?” – so wrote Carmen and Anisia Machado on the Freedom to Marry website. Some aspects of this argument I agree with. Yet after looking at the role of marriage in women’s (and men’s ) lives in Egypt I was forced to think more deeply about linking these two concepts so closely.

Particularly for women, an unmarried adult life is less viable, if not viable at all – that is to say, to the extent that citizenship status is available to women, it is available to married women. For never married, divorced or widowed women, economic, legal and social life is rendered fragile, if not desperate, outside the structure of marriage. The outside of marriage is by every dimension that matters, the domain of non-citizenship.

So, while women in Egypt face a “marriage imperative” – their families expect them to marry, and to marry well, and their adult lives do not really begin until they marry, in the US some members of the LGBT community make an argument that unwittingly assumes a similar privileging of the married life: “Marriage is the epitome of how you start the family. By way of marriage, Jeanne becomes a sister-in-law and daughter-in-law to my family members. It’s a basic building block of family.” – said Jennifer Lin about why the right to marry is so important to her. And in her dissent to the New York Court of Appeals decision finding no right for same-sex couples to marry, Justice Judith Kaye wrote: “For most of us, leading a full life includes establishing a family. Indeed, most New Yorkers can look back on, or forward to, their wedding as among the most significant events of their lives. They, like plaintiffs, grew up hoping to find that one person with whom they would share their future, eager to express their mutual lifetime pledge through civil marriage.”

All of us who care about gender and sexuality-based justice have a stake in expanding freedom both inside and outside of marriage, and of working hard to develop strategies where the inequalities inside marriage are not solved at the expense of punishing, constraining or rendering less thinkable life on its outside.

The struggles to expand the freedom to marry must always keep in view the freedom not to.

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