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In this article, I focus on young women’s experiences and management of the transition from premarital sexual relationships and courtship to marriage and parenthood in southeastern Nigeria. I examine how love as a relationship ideal changes after marriage and, specifically, how young married women’s lives are affected by the reality of a persistent gender double standard regarding the acceptability of extramarital sex. I argue that a significant transformation occurs in the nature of women’s agency and in the kinds of leverage they have with their men as their identities shift from single to married. In marriage, women are constrained in many ways they did not experience when they were single, even as they have new powers, having achieved a status that is highly valued. These changes, and the ways women adjust to them, highlight the complex and multivalent dimensions of gender dynamics in the context of contemporary Nigerian courtship and marriage.
The transition to marriage has always been characterized by noteworthy adjustments. Nearly every society marks the onset of marriage with rituals that signify and facilitate these transformations. Nevertheless, marriage in contemporary southeastern Nigeria seems to involve particularly dramatic adjustments for young women who have absorbed changing ideas about sexuality, marriage, and gender equality, and who have had active premarital sexual lives. As Nigeria becomes more urban and as most females attend secondary school, a significant majority of young women are exposed to these new ideas. Further, most women are sexually active before marriage. These young people face considerable challenges as they confront society’s expectations for married women. Underlying a more rigid structure of gender roles for women after marriage is the fact that, despite many changing ideas about sexuality, marriage, and gender relations, both men and women still view marriage and parenthood as the sine qua non of a life well lived (Fortes 1978, Smith 2001).
Integral to women’s experience of the transformation from unmarried to married is a significant ambivalence, especially in contexts where a relationship progresses to marriage based on the promise of love, and where women eventually realize that their husbands are being unfaithful. The ambivalence is multifaceted. Even without the suspicion or discovery of a man’s infidelity, many young Nigerian brides experience a reduction in numerous aspects of the autonomy they enjoyed as single young women, with regard to sexuality, mobility, and overall independence. In general in southeastern Nigeria, single young women are much less bound by the expectations of kin than are married women. A single woman certainly faces some social sanctions if she is seen as promiscuous, and a young woman’s movements are still monitored at a distance by her family. But the expansion of formal education and the economic reality that leads almost all families to encourage young adults to seek livelihoods to support themselves—and often their parents and siblings—have created a situation where large numbers of young women live independently of their kin. Although many young women face both social and economic pressure to have premarital sexual relationships, many also seem to experience their sexuality as a resource (and, of course, often a source of pleasure) that they control (Cornwall 2002, Smith 2002, Luke 2005).
In contrast, married women are made to feel—by their husbands, their families, and society—that as persons they are above all wives and mothers, and that their sexuality, their mobility, and their social and economic agency are circumscribed by the fact of their marriage. Indeed, in some respects (and certainly more so by some men than others), women are made to feel that their sexuality belongs to their husband and his patrilineage. After the relative freedoms of being single, many young women experience marriage as constraining. But it is imperative to recognize that women are trading some forms of independence for a status that they themselves value, perhaps above all else: namely, the identity and the experience of being a married woman and a mother. While southeastern Nigerian society has relatively strict expectations regarding the sexual behavior, mobility, and overall independence of married women compared to single women, the same society also richly rewards women socially and symbolically for being wives and mothers. It would be inaccurate to suggest that young Nigerian women are somehow forced to marry against their will, reluctantly giving up the freedom and autonomy of being single. To the contrary, the overwhelming majority of young women seek marriage and parenthood as the ultimate expression and fulfillment of their ambitions for themselves as persons.
But in the context of the rise of romantic love as a relationship ideal for marriage, in a time when global notions about gender equality circulate widely in Nigerian vernacular forms, and in a society where men (and to some extent women) still enforce a system of gender inequality that allows men much more autonomy after marriage—including a powerful double standard about infidelity—these issues have become the subject of significant personal and social preoccupation. As “ love marriage” has emerged as something to which most young women aspire and as more and more couples self-describe their marriages in these terms, the reality that men cheat highlights the complexity and contradictions of southeastern Nigeria’s evolving gender dynamics. Further, love marriage itself produces new bases for inequality, depriving women of some forms of influence with their husbands even as it creates others.
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