A Proposal I Never Thought I'd Consider
Sabaa Saleem, August 17, 2003

In spite of myself, I think I may agree to an arranged marriage.

Beginning next month, my parents will contact Muslim family friends around the world with a list of criteria for a husband: a twentysomething, classically handsome, Urdu-speaking Muslim man who is 6 feet tall, with an MD and MBA, as well as a PhD in something respectable like molecular toxicology. He must have a good sense of family and a financial portfolio fat enough to take care of the next 15 generations. My parents will screen the candidates, and after I graduate from college next spring, they will introduce me to the few they deem best. Ultimately, the lucky man will have to pass my own stringent test: Does he own every Radiohead album and listen to them regularly?

Like so many other young South Asians in America, I am the product of two cultures whose conflicting values pull at me with equal urgency. Never have I felt as torn between the two as I do about the question of marriage. I have been a Californian for all but the first year of my life, when my family lived in Britain, where I was born. I grew up in a small town in the Mojave Desert where conservative Republicans were as common as cacti. Inexplicably, I grew up liberal and a feminist.

My mother and father were born and raised in Pakistan, where religion is entrenched in the culture and the culture is explicitly unyielding. Though they left family and comfort decades ago for opportunity in the West, they brought strong religious faith and cultural expectations with them -- and tried to instill sobriety and respect in my two older brothers and me. They have more or less succeeded, but they have also endured nearly 30 years of our stubborn refusal to conform. They have grudgingly accepted that, while respectful, their children are also independent, maybe even eccentric -- qualities not admired by most traditional Pakistanis.

My parents would casually joke about my marriage while I was growing up. I was uneasy about it, but it seemed so far off that it was easy for me to laugh it off. "When pigs fly!" I'd say, and change the subject.

Now, almost everyone I know -- friends, teachers, co-workers -- expects me, as a child of the West, to reject the notion of arranged marriage, to proclaim my independence loudly. Sometimes, I still expect that, too. But as a young Muslim woman, I also expect myself to accept the obligations I have as my parents' daughter -- regardless of the emotional cost to me.

Pakistani culture and Islam beckon me with security, familiarity and ease. By agreeing to an arranged marriage, I could more easily satisfy my religious obligation to abstain from intimacy with the opposite sex until marriage -- not an easy feat, may I say. I would be participating in the ceremony of a culture 11,000 miles removed, a ceremony I've witnessed only twice. By doing so, I could spare my parents the stinging criticism they would face if their daughter chose her own path: barbs from three generations of extended family, all of whom accepted their own arranged marriages without argument -- and some of whom complain about them to this day.

At the same time, Pakistani culture repels me with its expectation that I adhere to a tradition that essentially advocates handing me over to a man for safekeeping. From the endless gossip of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, I know the courtship ritual well. I will briefly meet my parents' choices and pick those who interest me. With each man, after perhaps a month of chaperoned dating, phone calls, no physical contact and little understanding of whether we would mesh, I am supposed to decide whether to marry him.

In the end, the decision will be mine. My parents would never force me to marry a particular man. But they do expect me not to dawdle. Ideally, I should make a decision after no more than five or six meetings. I am supposed to pick a husband, accept my fate and hope the marriage is successful. Our engagement would likely last a year or two, during which we would get to know each other better -- and maybe even grow fond of each other. (Breaking it off at that point would be possible, but that would reflect badly on me and on my family and would represent time wasted.) Still, I worry that my filial piety could lead me down an empty road -- where independent minds and hearts are given up to the demands of a culture that I often find perplexing.

I am not alone in this struggle. My oldest brother and I have mulled over the marriage question for hours and hours. My other brother, the middle child and black sheep of the family, long ago informed our parents that there would be no arranged marriage for him -- in fact, there probably wouldn't be a marriage at all. My parents hope he'll come to his senses. And though their oldest child is 29 -- marrying age for men in Pakistan -- my parents accept his excuse that he's just not ready. Maybe they focus less on him because my father was 31 when he married. Whatever the reason, until I get married, my parents' eyes are on me. Their priorities for me are that I get a bachelor's degree and marry -- in that order. Thus, I decided to take an honors thesis class last year to postpone my graduation until next March, when UCLA will have to forcibly boot me out. I am searching for ways to extend my school days so that I can put off the marriage decision again. I have to admit, I'm beginning to feel a creeping sense of desperation because I was imbued with a sense of skepticism toward anything that is overly reliant on tradition rather than reason. But my skepticism is outweighed by an obligation to my mother and father, and to their happiness.

My parents are not evil people who have kept me in a box my whole life, bent on handing me over to a man who will do the same. They've always treated me with love and respect and showed trust in my judgment. And the rules they applied to me when I was younger have remained a part of me, even when I have not wanted them to. For example, my parents never allowed me to date and generally frowned any on male friendships. Dating leads to intimacy, which would be out of the question. In high school, I was far quieter than I am now, and a tight curfew ensured my good behavior.

But the coed dorms, parties and freedom of college have presented a moral dilemma for me. I did not want to disappoint my parents. So I developed a complex method of discouraging in myself behavior that they, and Islam, would consider deviant. When I thought someone was about to ask me out, I used the idea that I wasn't sure about my sexuality as a ruse to get him to keep his distance. Or I ran off, claiming an appointment. But after four years of these tactics -- which have not failed me yet -- I find it harder to convince others, and myself, that I'm not interested.

Then I think of my parents and their leniency over the years and I stop having the conversation with myself in which I have doubts. Despite their strict upbringing, my parents do not ask me to wear the Islamic head cover. They did not insist that I attend a local college and continue to live at home, as many Muslim girls do. They do not admonish me when I stay out late, and they only occasionally flare up at my decision to forgo medicine for journalism. They remind me to eat and sleep and worry less about grades and career, and, they encourage me to attend concerts and enjoy my youth.

My parents have given me every opportunity for happiness. And I know that their happiness depends on fulfilling their responsibilities as good Muslim parents. They must see their children married to other Muslims of whom they approve.

That took on a new urgency last January when my father, who has a bad heart, also had a stroke. A religious man, he now even more adamantly believes it is his duty to secure my spiritual well-being in whatever time he has left. If he succeeds in marrying me well, ideally to a Muslim from a good Pakistani family, then my soul will be at peace in the afterlife. Moreover, he will be enabling me to follow the rules set out by Islam -- to respect my parents' wishes, to start a family and to hand down my religious morals to my children.

That holds nearly as much weight as performing his five daily prayers. For him, my marriage would be the crowning achievement in a life nearly complete. I worry that, if his health deteriorates further and I am not married, I will be the cause of his having an incomplete life.

Similarly, my mother doesn't believe she can perform the pilgrimage to Mecca -- of paramount importance to even moderately devout Muslims -- with a clear conscience until I am married. If I refused to get married, my parents would be brokenhearted and confused. Like any child close to her parents, I could not watch them suffer.

And so I find myself defending arranged marriage against those who see it as absurd or even barbaric. Yet I'm disturbed by the doubt these critics instill in me. My fifth year of college buys me more time to resolve my career insecurities. But if I can't even decide between writing or editing, philanthropy or graduate school, how can I commit myself to a man I'll know so little about? Beyond my parents' requirements, there are traits I need in the man I marry that cannot be discerned from a few meetings. Will he be able to hold his own in a discussion with me? Will he calmly accept that I will be at least a half-hour late to any important event? Will he make fun of Bollywood films with me?

If we marry, it will no doubt be for life. Muslims accept divorce, but usually as a last resort, and many Pakistanis, including my extended family, see divorce as an escape for the weak-willed.

And is it selfish and idealistic to want "true love"? My American instincts tell me that love comes before marriage, not a few years after -- if I am lucky. Like a lot of South Asians raised in the United States, I hope for a "love-match" -- where parents accept the Muslim their child has met on her own and has decided to marry. My parents have said that this route would please them most, because it would be a compromise between their ideals and mine.

A month ago, I asked my mother about her determination to have me married soon, especially when her own marriage at 21 took her to London, away from the world she knew, preventing her from pursuing a career and establishing her independence. She said, "Do you think I want to you to leave us -- to have a man at the center of your life? Maybe even to go away? I want my daughter close to me always, but this is my duty; I don't have a choice -- I can't be selfish. I have to let you go."

That day, I decided I would have an arranged marriage.

But now, I marvel at how quickly the summer has passed. I feel like hyperventilating when I think how quickly spring will come, and engagement and marriage will follow. I fantasize about ways to scare off suitors (bringing sock puppets to our first meeting, perhaps?). Briefly, I resolve to put off marriage, for a few years at least.

But then I think of my parents' anguish if I refuse to honor their wishes -- I think of my father and the shadowy road ahead of him -- and of how empty I will feel. And I wonder, if I have one foot in each world, is it possible to keep from being torn apart?

Author's e-mail: saleems@washpost.com

Sabaa Saleem, a student at UCLA, is a summer intern working as a copy editor on The Post's Foreign desk.

Source: The Washington Post