Five ways we can reform the “traditional desi marriage” process

I am fascinated by the depth of emotion and expression of diverse perspectives evoked by the Love InshAllah blogpost “How I met my son’s mother” by Mezba Mahtab. Women and men, married and unmarried, single by choice and by chance, spoke up, and, in light of their personal stories, explained why the piece was based on ill-founded notions and this approach to marriage is detrimental to our communities.

The online community may be up in arms over the issue, but the truth is, this “buyer’s market” (as Aisha Saeed aptly called it in her response) isn’t going anywhere.

It is, for now, the most socially accepted means for getting married in South Asian communities. Furthermore, it is the only option for those who do not want to look for a spouse themselves or engage in a courtship process (a choice that is perfectly sound, in Islamic terms). Hence I cannot help but think that the system would be better off no by being dismantled, but being reformed.

I propose that this reformation take place with the following changes:

1. Families should support and stick up for their women.

The only reason I would feel threatened by men with attitudes like Mezba’s is that they are empowered to act on their values. Parents roll out the red carpet for men who have vetted their daughters on the basis of looks and height. They defend the “right” of men to have these standards. That is what is meant by male privilege. Their standards dominate the narrative to the extent that no one questions it.

Absurdly simple as it sounds, parents and matchmakers should not roll out that red carpet, at least not right away. They should be wary of “window shoppers”—those who uphold the proverbial “No harm in looking,” as Aisha put it.

They should also love, respect, and defend they daughters as they are. In many ways of thinking that I have been around, it is all right for a woman to wear sleeveless dresses if her husband prefers it. In addition, when a girl is “presented” to a prospective suitor, she should dress up or modestly, depending on how conservative the suitor in question is. These “quick” wins are disastrous to women’s sense of identity and self-worth. What will help, on the other hand, is saying things such as:

“She does hijab and she’s not about to change that for anyone. I’m shocked that you would even bring up that possibility.”

“Yes, she’s so-and-so height; you did catch the part about her doctorate degree, didn’t you?”

“What are you bringing to the table?”

Perhaps wanting our parents to make such remarks is wishful thinking. But if even if they implied such things, that would put the “shoppers” in their place.

2. Men should put women at ease.

I usually have no problem being friendly and initiating conversations with suitors who visit me. I have been told, however, that this works against me because my family may appear “over eager.” Instead, I am told, I should let the man take the lead, and follow suit.

So here I am, telling you: men, please take the lead.

The only couple of suitors who have come my way by means of this “market” that I took seriously were those who made an earnest attempt to get to know me. The first awkward meeting may have started with my handing them a cup of tea, but they took that opportunity to ask about my job or my interests. Every encounter is a chance to connect and learn from another human being. Hence, even when those prospects didn’t work out, I was still thankful for learning what I did from talking to them.

Men should know that such things make a world of difference to the women in these settings. If they put their male privilege to use in situations like these, they can significantly help humanize such situations. I recognize that they must be under pressure to not appear “over eager” as well, but since the man calls the shots, the onus is on him. Sacrificing a little ego can go a long way.

3. Women and their families should start taking the first step.

A Turkish family friend of ours was startled to learn that in Pakistani society, the man’s family is always the first in expressing interest in a possible match. “This isn’t Islamic,” she said to my mother, rightfully concerned about how this limitation might be curtailing my options. My parents agree with her in theory, but they feel entrenched in the norm and feel too paralyzed to do anything. And I don’t blame them. What are they supposed to do? Try to be the initiators, only to be ridiculed as the family that “acted desperately”?

One way to address this is to initiate a match with a (gasp) non-Pakistani Muslim male. This requires socializing and being “in the know” about the non-desi members of your community (which should be a given, but it isn’t).

Another way to address is would be to have imams and other community leaders remind us that this “one-way street” is a cultural, not an Islamic, practice. They should remind their congregations that the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace and blessings be upon him) first marriage came about because Khadija took the lead.

4. We need matchmakers with the right perspective and attitude.

There is no shortage of “rishtaa aunties” (matronly South Asian matchmakers) who offer both paid and pro-bono services. Unfortunately, the quality of their services rarely measure up to the thickness of their bio data files. In many instances, matchmakers have insisted that my mother should not take offence at how a groom’s family scrutinizes me. More often than not, they are terrible gatekeepers and have let one too many permanent resident card seekers (I’m Canadian, remember) prance through our living room.

And then they wonder why business isn’t good.

While people like myself flee from rishtaa aunties, I would pay good money to one who does not surrender to prevailing sexist attitudes and knows me as more than a page of biodata. They should see the unique beauty in all men and women and be able to speak to their professional and personal achievements with genuine pride.

Again, this might be wishful thinking, but putting the idea out there is a start.

5. The “right” men need to join in.

If my experience is any indication, the truly “good” guys—the normal, decent Muslim men who see women as equal partners—are missing from this “marriage market.” None of the men I have had respectful (both platonic and non-platonic) relationships with ever visited a woman’s family for this purpose. They found the process degrading and awkward, and simply opted out.

These men need to know that the kind of women they are seeking may not have the luxury of that choice. Since women are on the receiving end and don’t have as much power over the matter, they have a harder time saying no.

It’s one thing if such men are just not interested in marriage—that’s a separate issue. If they are interested, however, they should approach the “rishtaa aunties” in their community and at least test the waters; with the caveat that they do so in the dignified, genuine way I described above.

The pervading undertone in this debate is that “old” ways of doing things are degrading to women and hence need to be scrapped altogether. Sometimes, completely eliminating a system has its merits. In this case, however, I can see several moral reasons why people would want their parents to find their matches for them.

If there is any chance that the system can be made better through conscious effort, let’s pursue it. The conversation has begun; we are now at the stage to form a plan of action.
Sarah Farrukh is an editor at Altmuslimah and writes on faith and books at A Muslimah Writes. She continues to be “inspected” every now and then. However, she has made peace with it, for she believes that misogynistic narratives only hold power over her if Allah lets it be.

(Photo Credit: Tela Chhe)


1 Comment

  • S K says:

    It is unfortunate that women are subject to scrutiny of their appearance and homemaking abilities. Two comments, though:
    1. Women are guilty of judging on appearances and income, as well. This is especially true when browsing online profiles or receiving pictures through ‘rishtaa aunties’.
    2. Alhamdulillah my marriage is a result of a connection through one of these aunties, whose job is to make the connection. That was my preference, as in my opinion, connections made when families are involved are more likely to result in better longterm relationships between the families. Plus, I valued my family’s opinion and instincts about a guy and his family.

    Finding a spouse is difficult and emotionally painful for everyone. Be careful not to paint a picture that is one-sided. Can’t just blame guys’ mothers for not paying attention to a woman’s number of degrees when women can be just as superficial about a less than fashionable beard, less prestigious job, or less shiny car. Or even about his not being as ‘romantic’ as expected. I say this as a doctor, myself who found it quite easy to judge people unfairly. We have to look deeper, too, and expand our expectation of ‘ideal’.

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