As far as antiquated marriage traditions I would still like to abide by go, I firmly stand by my desire to have my future husband ask my father for my hand in marriage. And no, it doesn’t make me any less a feminist.
When People reported that Ashton Kutcher had asked Mila Kunis’ father for permission to propose to the Ukrainian beauty, it instantly sparked the requisite feminist outcry regarding the fact that the once-chivalrous tradition essentially throws us back to an age in which women were property, and marriages were a way for a father to secure a fair amount of livestock in exchange for handing over his vestal virgins. Lifestyle blog The Gloss posted an eloquent takedown of the antiquated gesture as well, but really – does the gesture of asking for someone’s hand really set feminism back on its heels?
As a child of immigrant parents, my instant reaction to the backlash being thrown Kutcher’s way was “What’s the big deal?” It’s not that I agree that my honor and life choices are something that my father has final say over (or, if you ask him, any sort of say over at all), it’s that though I’m as modern as they come, there are still some old world traditions I would love to hang onto, simply for the sake of the gesture. To begin with, Indian weddings already come with a veritable army of traditions that don’t necessarily mean anything (Smear mashed chickpeas on your skin the day before the wedding so that you can be a fairer bride! Let your groom lead you around a wedding pyre seven times, while chained to you with an organza shawl that seems oddly leash-like, so that he can demonstrate how well he’ll lead you in life! Steal his shoes for reasons that once likely had a ritualistic purpose but now serve as a way to turn your wedding ceremony into a family versus family rugby match!), other than holding up some sort of cultural traditions in a rapidly modernizing world.
Were they originally conceived in a time when patriarchy was the rule of thumb? Sure. But recognizing the actual custom doesn’t automatically mean that you abide by the implications of its origins. I can’t make broad generalizations for all those born into ethnic families, but I can say with fair certainty that for many ethnic familes, especially those that leave their home land, maintaining some of those customs – even on a purely symbolic level – are an integral part of keeping their culture alive. To that end, it stands to reason that Kutcher, whose fianceé has made no secret of how important her heritage is to her, wanted to honor a tradition that might have resonated with her family, no matter how out of touch it may be in 2014.
Putting aside the immigrant quotient for a moment, there’s also an argument to be made for the fact that tradition and feminism can peacefully co-exist side by side. If it’s a gender politics issue that arises over a symbolic gesture of asking for a hand in marriage, then there are a hell of a lot more issues at hand with a wedding ceremony in general than just parental permission. Why have an engagement ring for the woman, that signals her as taken, while a man has to wear no such band in the months leading up to the wedding? Why wear a white dress, when it signifies the virginity of the bride, and yet make no such historical demands on the groom? Why have a father walk his daughter down the aisle?
While each couple can and should make their own modifications as they see fit, being a feminist doesn’t automatically mean that you have to shun the traditions that you want to indulge in simply for the sake of the greater good. I may not have any designations to take my husband’s last name, but damned if I don’t want an engagement ring to signify the committment I’m about to make. (Plus, my dad is a jeweler so that ring would cost a third of what it would from Tiffany’s, and the only thing I love more than finding my soulmate is a good deal, and that’s really something to celebrate.)
I have a very strong grasp on feminism, not just due to my angel working mother, or the fact that I’ve spent 26 years trying to be as smart and badass as my run-the-world sister, but largely due to my father, who was the first person to make it clear that there were no limitations on what I could accomplish for any reason – especially not the genetic deficiency of having two X chromosomes. But I’m also his baby daughter, and someone that he’s raised into the feminist who’s going to drive her future husband crazy for the foreseeable future. When asked if he’d want someone to come ask him for my hand, he made it clear that while it wasn’t at all necessary, it would also be a “mark of respect.” He then followed up on whether he still had to do my taxes for me, so there’s a 72 percent chance that the “May I ask your daughter to marry me?” conversation is really just a well-timed way to warn my future husband that marrying me comes with a healthy dose of financial irresponsibility on the side. Sure it’s a silly idea to think that anyone who wanted to marry me would need my permission, but if it makes the person who raised me to believe in myself happy, the indulgence isn’t setting back the gains of decades of feminism in any significant way.
Ultimately, I’m not anyone’s property, and my father knows that I’m not his to give away, but the empty gesture is still one I’d want my fiancé to indulge in, given that it makes everyone happy without disenfranchising any of our long-held beliefs. At the point that Ryan Gosling-incarnate is about to put a ring on it, I guarantee he already knows my family super well, mainly because the Shahs don’t understand boundaries, but also because the most important thing in my life is my family. That ceremonial conversation? Absolutely a formality. Does it make me any less a feminist because I still want it to take place? Not even a little bit.