My problem with traditional desi marriagePosted: November 22, 2013
Update 11/26/13: Congratulations to writer Aisha Saeed on this post being chosen by the editors of WordPress for Freshly Pressed, highlighting the best posts on WordPress. In an email to LoveinshAllah.com, WordPress said: “Aisha Saeed’s response to your guest post about arranged marriages was a really powerful and articulate call for fairness and equality. She delivers her points with a great balance of passion and reason, which makes this piece engaging even for those who aren’t intimate with the debate surrounding marriage in south Asian communities. It’s a great post that deserves a wider audience.”
There’s a befuddling conundrum afoot in the desi (South Asian) community. You must first understand a few things:
a) For whatever reason desis typically marry other desis; and
b) While the numbers may be dwindling, many desis (or their parents, on their behalf) wish to find spouses through the culturally traditional arranged marriage process. (If you are unfamiliar with this please read about it here first.)
I’m not saying this is how it should be, I’m just explaining a reality prevalent within many of our insular communities where Jane Austen novels are played out in a different tongue on a daily basis.
But back to the befuddling phenomenon affecting the desi community: there appear to be more marriageable females than males. How can it be? The numbers must be somewhat equal. Why is this not the case? While there are most certainly exceptions to the rule, the issues most cited anecdotally are:
#1 Desi men have more options.
a) A desi man can marry a fellow ABCD
b) Marry outside his culture and not face too much flack – though his sister could risk getting disowned for doing the same. While more women are marrying outside their culture, the harsher judgments on women (especially if the man does not convert) are far from a thing of the past.
c) Desi men can also hop on a plane to the motherland to find themselves a bride. There are a lot of men going back home to marry. Yet the same parents preferring this for their sons insist on boys from here for their daughters. Why the disparate treatment? Theoretically, a “traditional” Pakistani girl will make parathas, accept the superiority of her in-laws and adjust to the needs of her spouse. (Mind you this all might be false, she might not know her paratha from her pakora, but it is the expectation many men and their families have of their ‘motherland’ bride.) Though ABCD girls can compromise, the thinking is that we’ll have a harder time saying “as you wish” to his and his parent’s every wish. It’s hard to reconcile.
#2 It’s a buyer’s market and the man holds the purse strings. The job of the girl who wants to go through the traditional arranged marriage process is to wait. She waits to be asked, inspected, accepted. The man will go with his family to meet the girl and partake of a dinner prepared painstakingly for him. Some men (read: many men) travel cross-country, eating at homes of different families with hopeful girls, several times a month and then dismissing the girls for one hurtful reason or other. I’ve heard the remarks with my own ears, from people I expected more from, flicking a hand and saying oh their house was too small, or the house was too flashy or she seemed taller in the picture or she seemed shorter in the picture. I know more than a few aunties traveling with their sons to the homes of hopeful girls with zero intent on marriage insisting “dekhne me tho nahin hurj” (no harm in looking). Oh auntie, but there is harm – in turning a girl, a woman like you, into a slab of meat.
#3 Superficiality reigns supreme. Men can be vocal about looks. No one blinks when they say they want a girl of a certain height, or weight, or eye color, but a woman is typically admonished for such thoughts and blacklisted as picky. Pictures of women are sent to men and routinely rejected for any myriad of reasons from smiling too much or smiling too little, and most vexing, if her skin color is not in line with their expectations. Maybe it’s because I’d make a pretty unconvincing Snow White, but the hardest thing for me to stomach is how anyone can so unapologetically analyze and then dismiss a girl for how fair or dark she is (never you mind what shade the boy might be – he’s not the one on trial here!) I should be used to it by now but anytime a mother or a sister approaches me looking for a girl for her brother and asks me to vet for skin color, I have difficulty suppressing my complete and utter disappointment in women dragging each other down. I suppose if you’re shopping for “meat”, you may as well buy the best cut?
#4 The doctor expectation. Guys take a breath, I’m not blaming you here! Here, the blame lies with the parents of women who demand doctor sons-in-law as a value prized above all others. I’m so tired of the mothers of daughters telling me how desperate they are to find their daughters a good, decent husband and then add, humko doctor chahiyai (we want a doctor). It’s particularly frustrating when I know a perfectly good guy their daughter might like but because he doesn’t meet the doctor threshold, it’s a no-go right out of the gate. Some aunties have defended this by saying they’re really seeking stability for their daughters in seeking a doctor. I’d like to know why they think everyone beside doctors live under bridges and forage for food? It’s the prestige, auntie. Let’s keep it real.
#5 God forbid she be intelligent or make more bling. For every doctor-hunting aunty, there are as many men who don’t want a doctor as a wife particularly if they themselves are not doctors. This prejudice applies to other highly educated women and women who are more financially successful than the prospective groom. How many times have I mentioned a girl and heard “Bobullah doesn’t want her to make more money than him.” So a girl with financial success or striving towards her intellectual potential and trying to find a match in the traditional marriage process, is misfortunate indeed. (Side note: This issue is utterly befuddles my spouse who assures me, “Feel free to make all the bling you want, I’ll suffer the exotic vacations and villa in Fiji.” He’s selfless like that.)
#6 Desi men don’t have to conceal a past. It won’t be held against them. A girl with a past is considered used goods. A man with the same backstory? Boys will be boys. What is a ‘past’? Past is certainly in the eyes of the beholder, but can range from a broken engagement, or marriage, to dating a guy in high school, being seen in a nightclub, living away from home for college, or smiling too fondly at someone at the undergrad MSA. I’ve heard all of these used as reasons for why that girl has a past.
#7 Desi men can wait longer and then insist on a girl under a certain age. I have single friends in their 20’s and 30’s who are worried. Very worried. I know men in their 30’s not one bit flummoxed at their single status. A man at 22, a baby. A woman at 22, a soon-to-be spinster who must be wed off lest she own twenty cats at the bitter old age of 24. A man at 32 is an eligible bachelor who can marry a girl of any legal age, though he will likely be uninterested in one his own age or shall I dare say even a few months older than him! I still remember an auntie admonishing my mother at my single status and how she really needs to get the ball going because you know, I was that ripe old rocking chair age of. . . 20.
Finally, this post is not intended to be an attack on parental involvement in the marriage process. It works for some. It worked for me. But it is an attack on the sweeping assumption that persists in the desi community that the traditional arranged marriage process is the best way or the noble and more dignified way to find a partner. Yes, an arranged marriage is an acceptable way to find a spouse – but if done in a degrading manner towards women, then it is unacceptable.
There is nothing noble in treating women like cattle. It should be a source of shame and it is something we as a society must strive to change.
Author’s note: In 2007 Mezba Mahtab wrote a post about why men go back to the motherland to marry. It prompted a vigorous debate and inspired me to write my own perspective. Though the original post is nearly seven years old, I continue to receive comments on that post to this day. After reading Mezba’s controversial guest post on LoveinshAllah.com yesterday, I felt compelled to share a revised version of my original post because the topic is as vital and important as ever.
Aisha Saeed was born and raised in South Florida. She writes YA and is represented by Taylor Martindale of Full Circle Literary. You can read more of her writing here or follow along on Facebook or Twitter. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons.