Saturday 29 April 2017

'Please sir, may I marry your daughter?' - is parental permission an outdated concept?

Robert Deniro and Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents: Little Fockers
Robert Deniro and Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents: Little Fockers

It’s 2017 and you’re an intelligent, independent woman — so does your other half need to ask your father’s permission to propose to you? Here two writers debate whether it’s a sweet tradition, or disrespectful and outdated…

Yes - Chrissie Russell

Some of my favourite customs no longer serve their original function. Take afternoon tea for example — there’s no real need for tea and traybakes in today’s culinary day, but God, I love it. Nor do I need a Christmas tree to ward off evil spirits. I don’t believe that the smoke of my birthday candles will carry my prayers to heaven, that pulling the bones of a dead chicken will make my wises come true, or that chucking salt over my shoulder will ward off bad luck. But I still do all those things.

There’s a familiarity and cosy sentimentality to lots of traditions that cause us to embrace them even when you no longer subscribe to their original function. Asking a father’s permission for his daughter’s hand in marriage is one of them.

I would have been disappointed if, my now husband, hadn’t broached the matter of his proposed proposal with my father first. It would have felt like leaving out one of the rites of passage associated with marriage, I’d have felt its absence as much as if there had been no white dress, no rings, and no vows.

Yes, yes, I’m aware that many weddings exist without any of those trappings. Participants can wear what they want, say what they want, and opt to exchange trees, tattoos and even T-shirts instead of rings. Brides can walk down the aisle with their brother, their mum or without anyone at all. Who needs a man to give them away? Who needs a man to say you can be proposed to? Bloody patriarchy dictating the terms of my wedding…

But it’s not about need. In asking my dad — actually, I may as well be up front, my husband first broached the subject of nuptials with my mum (he knows the power hierarchy in my family) and was then directed towards my father — my fiancée-to-be was acknowledging my parents’ place in my life. I’m very family orientated and a gesture which shows respect for my parents matters to me.

I also feel that marriage is something that shouldn’t be entered into lightly. To paraphrase Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he who finds the grail must face the final challenge. Before winning a wife, what better way to prove your devotion to the cause of marriage than having to go and discuss affairs of the heart with your girlfriend’s father? It adds a certain weightiness to the event, an appreciation that you’re joining a family, not just one individual.

And it would have broken my father’s heart not to be asked.

The way I see it is that there are plenty of warm sentiments associated with the reasons why I wanted my husband to ask my dad for my hand in marriage. It has nothing to do with ownership or deferring to their will — both gents will vehemently testify to this — I would have made up my own mind regardless of dad’s reply. It’s an old tradition with distasteful roots, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be turned into something positive.

I don’t look down at my wedding rings and feel I’m enslaved to my husband, even though they’re traditionally a sign of ownership; I just see a symbol of shared love, and a nice piece of bling. I had no qualms wearing a white dress, despite not fulfilling the original credentials for doing so.

Getting married is about taking a template and assessing what the different aspects of it mean to you. I made my own speech at the reception and I kept my name, but being ‘given away’ didn’t feel like a feminist issue to me. It felt like a rite of passage, a symbolic transition from one leading man in my life to another.

Life isn’t just about functionality, common sense, and moving with the times. The reasons why we do certain things might change, but in keeping the traditions alive you’re saying you’re part of a ceremony and institution that’s larger than just the two individuals saying ‘I do’. I don’t think we can chuck away customs purely because they’re no longer relevant. Do that and what are you left with?

A world without afternoon tea,

Christmas trees, birthday candles and silly customs like asking for a daughter’s hand in marriage. It’s nice to hold on to something a bit daft and pointless, it’s what makes life interesting.

No - Linnea Dunne

I’m not sure what my dad would say if someone asked his permission to marry me, but his words from a conversation about wedding ceremonies years ago, when the subject of fathers walking their daughters up the aisle came up, probably serve as a pretty good indication: “Why would I do that? She’s not mine to give away.”

My father may be the exception that proves the rule, but asking a man for his daughter’s hand in marriage is said to be a foolproof way to set the stage for a wonderful relationship between a man and his future parents-in-law; it’s a respectful tradition, it’s good etiquette and, after all, it’s just symbolic.

But symbolic for what? I’m not averse to honouring traditions — I am an atheist who celebrates Christmas, after all — but when a ritual comes steeped in patriarchal values, perhaps it’s worth at least asking whom said tradition is actually respectful of. As it happens, the whole asking a man for his daughter’s hand in marriage lark is believed to date back to Ancient Rome, when it wasn’t the act of asking that was symbolic as much as the coin a man would place in the palm of his future father-in-law. Suggesting that the woman was treated as a piece of property, purchased off one man by another, does not seem far-fetched. 

But say, for the sake of argument, that your partner’s father is not like mine and that your future wife likes a good old ritual — I’ll still be awkward and argue that this particular tradition is disrespectful to the woman whose autonomy is being stripped, not to mention the fact that it is presumptuous in the extreme. If a woman wants to propose, who will give her permission? If a man proposes to a man, is it still the future father-in-law he should court? What about a divorcee, will her second marriage be consented to by her ex, or how many permissions does a father have to give? Finally, are you genuinely going to accept it if the answer is no?

From asking a man for his blessing rather than permission, to speaking to both the bride’s parents, I’ve heard of so many tweaks to the tradition at this point that I’m starting to think that those in favour of it will compromise on just about anything as long as they get to hand over control of the bride-to-be to someone else.

Worst of all is the view of a mysteriously special relationship between fathers and daughters, which reeks of Facebook memes listing the things fathers will do to their daughters’ future boyfriends, joking about ‘locking up your daughters’. Call me hypersensitive, but I think the symbolism is starting to get a bit scary. There’s a thesis about bodily autonomy in here.

I get it: it’s a tradition, and everyone loves a gentleman. But it’s 2017, and jokes about women as property don’t wash anymore. Unless you believe a woman is someone else’s to give, don’t ask them if you can have her.

Graham Clifford recounts the nerve-wracking moment that he asked his intended’s father for her hand in marriage.

My right hand was shaking ever so slightly. I spotted the movement in my coffee cup as the hot brew quivered inside. A quick look at the watch and through the window of Sainsbury’s café in Chiswick, West London I spot my girlfriend’s father approaching. He’s bang on time and I feel my heart beating.

I greet him with a manly handshake, and a yawn I can’t disguise. You see just a fortnight earlier I’d become a father for the first time myself. Catherine, my other half, had given birth to a bouncing baby girl we named Molly, and during those early days we survived on very little sleep and lots of coffee.

David, Catherine’s father, was overjoyed from the moment he discovered he was to be a granddad, and since that day in 2006 has filled his grandchildren’s lives with fun, friendship, love and laughter. And, of course, I didn’t expect him to say no when I asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

The cart had been put well and truly before the horse. The odds of a thumbs down from David had tumbled once Molly turned up. Good one Molly! But still the little devil on my shoulder whispered into my ear. Perhaps I’d be in for the shock of my life.

We chit-chatted for a few minutes — first about baby Molly and then of football — he’s an avid Arsenal supporter, I’m a proud Liverpool FC man. His knowledge of and love for the game is immense, you could listen to him for hours. And, of course, as we dissect and analyse our respective clubs’ health, I forget why I’d asked David to meet me.

When my focus returns I take a deep breath and utter the words “Now David I’m sure you know why I asked you here…”, but he looks back at me blankly. I think I can make out the slightest hint of a smile on his face.

But he’s not going to make this easy. My coffee quivers more forcibly. “You see…” I continue in clumsy fashion, “the thing is, you know, I wanted to ask if it was okay for me, like… to ask Catherine to marry me.”

There’s a short pause. The silence filled by the sound of a coffee machine in full swing and trolley pushers on their way from the supermarket. I’m half exhausted and worry, in the moment, that the words I heard myself say weren’t the actual words I said.

But David’s reassuring face breaks into a smile and he laughs saying “Oh thank God, I thought you were going to ask me for a loan!” And his outstretched hand confirms the blessing had been given.

In the end, I bottled it, and got Molly to ask Catherine if she’d marry me instead. I got the words ‘Please Marry Daddy’ printed on a white baby grow in colourful letters.

Catherine was glued to the women’s singles final of Wimbledon on television that year — between Amélie Mauresmo of France and Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne, an insignificant detail I’ll never forget.

It was a month to the day since Molly had been born. Mid-way through the match our little girl had a call of nature, so I insisted on changing her. On her change table Molly and I conspired, and after a speedy baby grow change, Catherine was presented with her baby and that question. I produced a ring and got on bended knee.

She said yes. Game, set and match.

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