Something Borrowed, Something Hot PinkPosted: September 4, 2013
The first Muslim wedding I attended was my own.
When I was twenty-seven and working in New York City, I connected with a fellow Georgetown Law grad. He had a first name I’d never heard before, a Mustang I hated, and an apartment near the Long Island Sound where he took me the first time I visited. Standing in front of the salty sea, I was filled with the overwhelming conviction that I wanted to stay.
When we got engaged, I broke the news to my friends and family in ways intended to distract from his Muslim faith. I emphasized a beautiful diamond, his law degree from my alma mater, a man raised in this country.
I did not initially mention that I’d decided to convert.
To sell the forthcoming wedding to my family, I promised they wouldn’t have to pay for it. As a result, I’m sure they assumed it was customary in my husband’s culture for the groom’s family to host the ceremony and the reception. I rationalized that this was only fair, that of course people should not have to foot the bill for something so unfamiliar to them. Still, the irrational part of me wished that they’d insisted, that they’d said what was important about the wedding was not its form, but its substance.
On his side, we also trafficked in appeasement. I knew his marrying outside of his culture was no small thing. I wanted to be agreeable. I wanted to be liked. I found myself saying that yes, I would love to wear a hot pink gharara to my wedding. I willed my facial expression to suggest that I’d never wanted anything more.
Later, I mentally recycled the bridal magazines full of white dresses with fitted bodices and enormous skirts that I’d dreamed of wearing. We were getting married in a mosque. My arms and shoulders had to be covered. If I couldn’t have a strapless gown, I reasoned, was it really such a stretch to wear hot pink?
Before the pink, I wore yellow. A traditional shalwar kameez with a matching dupatta that would spend the entire evening of my henna ceremony slipping off of my hair. As I prepared to enter the hall full of waiting women, I smiled, filled with anticipation. It was short-lived. Someone grabbed my arm and said, “Not like that! Bow your head!” At that moment, the unfamiliar became uncomfortable. Somehow, I’d agreed not just to having a conservative Pakistani wedding, but to being a conservative Pakistani bride — somber, heartbroken to be leaving her family. I realized that my very feminist self was playing a role.
I performed so well that the evening ended with me crying in my mother’s hotel room.
I rebounded for the wedding the following day. Although I’d never worn a gharara, I said I’d get ready at my apartment with my friends and family. We worked it out. Determined not to spend another evening with a silk scarf sliding off my head, I safety pinned the pink dupatta to my hair. When I couldn’t get the gold tikka to stay in place on my forehead without it unattractively parting my hair, my best friend used spray and worked her magic. I emerged from the bedroom, and my teenage brother nearly fell out of his chair.
“I wasn’t expecting the pink,” he said.
My husband and I had the briefest of ceremonies. There was no talk, as I have since heard at many modern Muslim weddings, about the significance of marriage, no advice for a young couple. There was simply the terse reading and signing of a contract, and after, food.
We were saved by, of all things, a fight over shoes.
There is a tradition in Pakistani weddings where the bride’s family members steal the groom’s shoes. To get them back he must pay for them. At our wedding, this became a protracted, raucous affair, certainly pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior as my male cousins nearly wrestled with my husband’s female relatives for control of the shoes. For the first time that night, the tension eased. People laughed. Relatives and guests on both sides loosened up. I cut the cake. I tossed my bouquet. I focused on the adage that a bad wedding means a good marriage.
I have since been to dozens of Indian and Pakistani Muslim weddings. They are some of the most beautiful ceremonies I have witnessed. In contrast to the ubiquitous black at formal American weddings, female South Asian guests wear bright, vibrant colors. Often held at a hotel or hall and not a mosque, arms can be bared and music is allowed. Frequently, flower girls carry sweets and drop petals. Sometimes people dance. Imams speak warmly and reassuringly about the importance of love and compromise and commitment.
There are familiar things, and new traditions that have since become familiar.
I now realize that in trying to please our families and make marrying outside of our respective cultures more palatable, my husband and I gave away our wedding. We let it be for and about other people. It’s a kind thing, but it’s also a cowardly thing. In retrospect, I wish we’d worried less about what everyone thought and more about creating a ceremony that was meaningful to us, that honored both of our cultures and the young adults we’d become.
According to the Old English rhyme, a bride needs something borrowed, but it should not be the entire wedding.
Jennifer Zobair grew up in Iowa and attended Smith College and Georgetown Law School. She has practiced corporate and immigration law and, as a convert to Islam, is a strong advocate for Muslim women’s rights. Her debut novel, Painted Hands, about strong, successful Muslim women in Boston, was published by St. Martin’s Press in June. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus and The Huffington Post . Jennifer lives with her husband and three children outside of Boston. She can be found online at http://www.JenniferZobair.com
Read an interview with Jennifer about her debut novel at Writer’s Digest, here.