<< From the AltMuslimah Archives >> I sat cross-legged on the thick carpet in my parents’ bedroom making my way through a bowl of watermelon slices. Creases had formed on my embroidered tea pink shalwar, and had my mother or great aunt walked into the room, they would have reproached me for lounging on the floor and ruining the crisp, freshly ironed lines of my outfit. As it were though, they, along with my father, sat downstairs in the formal living room meeting with a potential suitor for me.
I could make out the faint voices, some familiar and others foreign, as the two families carried on polite, stilted conversation.
My insouciance came in part from having been through this “dance” a few times before, but more from dismissing this match as likely ill-fitting. After all, he was half Pakistani, a quarter Italian and a quarter Irish. As a Pakistani American girl, I had one foot firmly planted in the East, and I imagined this mixed race Muslim turned up his nose at chicken curry, regarded the traditional shalwar kamis as having the appearance of a shapeless, billowing tent, and exhausted his bank of Urdu vocabulary five seconds into the conversation.
I was not foolish enough to shelve this match as entirely unpromising; cultural differences, while inconvenient, were trivial in the grand scheme of marriage; shared religious and family values were the benchmarks against which to measure the worth of a potential suitor. A mutual physical attraction was also necessary, as I didn’t think this was something that a person could learn or force, but common interests and cultural backgrounds were simply an added bonus, I thought.
So there I sat, nibbling at the oversized watermelon piece I had speared with my fork, curious but calm. I thought with wry amusement that, contrary to the stereotype in the minds of most Americans, the majority of young American Muslim women who sit reservedly in modest clothing in their living rooms, while their parents size up potential suitors, are not submissive, uneducated girls, but rather intelligent and assertive personalities with college degrees in law, medicine or finance. Whether they don a head scarf or not, most are committed to their faith and hope to strike a delicate balance between the qualities they desire in a future husband and the criteria their parents’ have laid out.
My parents and I had agreed that while the ultimate decision about who I would marry sat with me (as was my right as a Muslim female), they would first investigate the potential suitor to their satisfaction, and if they caught a glaring offense—i.e. he behaved disrespectfully towards them, he was unemployed, he was being pressured into marriage by overbearing parents—I would not insist on the union. Belonging to a different race certainly didn’t constitute an offense, but having never before been introduced to someone who wasn’t of the same ethnic origin, I prematurely assumed he and I would likely refuse one another. Half an hour after our guests’ arrival, my great aunt came upstairs to call me to join everyone for tea in the dining room. Her hushed voice carried an undertone of excitement and urgency I had not heard before. “Come, come!” she beckoned to me. “But first put on some high heels. He’s very tall and those flats won’t do!”
At 23, I had not yet encountered the anxiety that comes with reaching one’s late 20s and not yet having found “the one,” but I could feel it lurking around the corner. As time passes, the pressure on a Muslim female to settle down with, and settle for a husband steadily mounts, and all the while prospects dwindle. Relatives and family friends reproach the girl for being fussy, demanding or stubborn, and can become unrelenting in their insistence that the woman marry the next young man who comes calling.
Ironically, the longer a female remains single, the more time she has devoted to her academic and career aspirations, yet the stronger her professional resume, the weaker her appeal as a marriage candidate (although it should be noted that this phenomenon is not unique to the Muslim community). Her intellectual and professional prowess becomes a liability, rather than an asset, in the marriage market. One of my friends, an Ivy League graduate with a PhD under her belt, confided in me that when potential suitors visited her home, her parents cautioned her to sit quietly and demurely; speaking up on complex or emotionally charged issues, such as politics or religion, would give the interested party the impression that she was too bold, opinionated or dominating, and may drive them away. I confidently reassured my friend that candor mixed with prudence is the best policy, and advised her against downplaying her intelligence. In truth however, as a single American Muslim female, I was as confused about courtship as she.
“I really liked the boy and the family,” said my father as he shut the front door behind our guests. He turned to me inquiringly, “What did you think of him?” I paused, trying to collect my thoughts, but the smile forming at the corners of my mouth belied any attempt to appear nonchalant. My mother took one look at me and returned my smile with her own knowing one. “She likes him!”
Two months to the day of our first meeting, after a half a dozen phone conversations, one family dinner, and one afternoon meeting at a local coffee shop, we became engaged. Six weeks later in the fall of 2006 we happily exchanged our vows at the local mosque.
Zehra Rizavi is Managing Editor of altMuslimah.