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But women’s agency in premarital sexual relationships extends well beyond their capacity to negotiate the interconnections between sexual access and economic support in their favor. It also extends to the realms of love, emotion, and sexual fidelity, and to relationships that are less overtly economic and more likely to be precursors to marriage. Most young women expected fidelity on the part of romantic lovers in a way they obviously could not with sugar daddies, and they could enforce these expectations firmly using methods that, arguably, a married woman cannot. Fundamentally, this is a consequence of the fact that in a premarital relationship a woman can opt out with few consequences. Igbo society does not see a boyfriend as having any rights to a woman’s sexuality, and, unlike in marriage, if a woman opts out, she faces little or no social or symbolic penalty. As a result, young Igbo women commonly leave unfaithful lovers, and use the threat of doing so to curtail their boyfriends’ potential unfaithfulness. While I know of no quantitative data that can support the claim, it is my observation that men who were courting potential wives were more likely to be faithful, or at least to be concerned about the appearance of fidelity, than typical married men. Part of this may be attributable to unmarried men’s different life position and a real commitment that many feel to their prospective spouses. But I am suggesting that their behavior is also partly the result of unmarried women’s agency in these relationships. Single women can much more easily punish a philandering man than a married woman can—simply by opting out.
Women’s premarital experiences prepare them for the negotiations over love, money, and fidelity that will unfold in their relationships with their husbands. But the gendered division of labor (both economic and emotional) undergoes transformations after marriage, and with it, the dynamics among love, money, and infidelity are also altered. More and more Nigerian women marry for love, but of course not only for love. They expect their husbands to be good providers, responsible fathers, and socially competent men who represent their marriages positively to the wider community. While a man’s infidelity undermines a woman’s hopes that romantic love is the enduring foundation of their marriage, women must navigate a number of intersecting goals, values, and social expectations in crafting their responses to a cheating husband.
As I have suggested, in Nigeria, as across Africa, evidence indicates that people are increasingly likely to select marriage partners based, at least in part, on whether they are “in love” (Obiechina 1973, Okonjo 1992, Smith 2001). But the emergence of romantic love as a criterion in mate selection and the increasing importance of a couple’s personal and emotional relationship in marriage should not be interpreted to mean that romantic love itself has only recently emerged in Nigeria. When I asked elderly Igbos about their betrothals, about their marriages, and about love, I was told numerous personal stories and popular fables that indicated a long tradition of romantic love. A number of older men and women confessed that they would have married a person other than their spouse had they been allowed to “follow the heart.” Scholars have documented the existence of romantic love in Africa long before it became a widely accepted criterion for marriage (Bell 1995; Plotnicov 1995; Riesman 1972, 1981). Uchendu (1965b) confirms the existence of passionate love in his study of concubinage in traditional Igbo society. Interestingly, both men and women were reportedly accorded significant socially acceptable extramarital sexual freedom. As Obiechina notes: “The question is not whether love and sexual attraction as normal human traits exist within Western and African societies, but how they are woven into the fabric of life” (1973:34).
Exactly when Nigerians in general and Igbos in particular began to conceptualize marriage choices in more individualistic terms, privileging romantic love as a criterion in the selection of a spouse, is hard to pinpoint. In some parts of Igboland and in many parts of Nigeria, the social acceptance of individual choice in mate selection is still just beginning. Certainly these changes occurred first in urban areas among relatively educated and elite populations (Marris 1962, Little and Price 1973). Obiechina’s (1973) study of Onitsha pamphlet literature indicates that popular Nigerian literature about love, romance, and modern marriage began to emerge just after World War II. Historical accounts suggest that elements of modern marriage began even earlier in the twentieth century (Mann 1985). By the 1970s, a number of monographs about changing marriage in West Africa had been produced (e.g., Oppong 1974, Harrell-Bond 1975). Most of these accounts focused on relatively elite, urban, and educated populations.
In contemporary Igboland, the ideal that marriage should be based on romantic love has spread well beyond urban elites. Young people across a wide range of socio-economic statuses increasingly value choosing their own spouses, and individual choice is widely associated with the notion that marriage should be based on love. It is of course important to recognize that ideas about what constitutes love are culturally inflected and individually variable. But in southeastern Nigeria, it is fair to say that when people talk about the importance of love for marriage they are generally signaling the value accorded to the personal and emotional quality of the conjugal relationship. People recognize that strong bonds can develop in more traditional marriages not premised on romantic love, but when people talk about marrying for love—as they frequently do—they mean a kind of love that is associated with an increased emphasis on a couple’s personal and emotional relationship.
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