South Asians in America are one of the fastest growing groups in the country, growing by a hundred percent between 1990-2000, and even faster since then.
What can the United States—where freedom to choose is everything—learn from South Asians’ approach to marriage and, more specifically, arranged marriages? And what do South Asians learn from the culture of the place where they’ve chosen to make a home? Latitude News spoke to three South Asian women living in the U.S. with different experiences with arranged marriages.
In truth, “arranged marriages,” which are common for both Hindus and Muslims, are no weirder than the relationships formed by online dating site algorithms. In fact, much less weird since the people doing the arranging have known you since birth and likely will have better results.
Of course, the news media seeks out what’s sensational—try typing “arranged marriage” into Google news. It’s grim reading. Woeful tales of forced marriage and protecting family honor pop up, to name but one, a recent ABC news headline read “Wife Sues In-Laws, Says Arranged Marriage Turned to Slavery. “
At the other end of the spectrum are New York Times articles that make arranged marriages seem ideal: “Our marriage, arranged with other considerations in mind, took us from acquaintance to love and kept us together.”
Latitude News was interested in stories that fell in the wide spectrum between these two camps, and so we spoke to three South Asian women – all of them Muslim and all with different experiences with arranged marriages.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way
Omi Iqbal, a Pakistani American, grew up in a suburb just outside of Atlanta. She was 16 when she got engaged to a man 12 years older, and was married at 18. This is uncommon for immigrants in the U.S., but young marriages do happen in some conservative Pakistani Muslim families.
The assumption is that the couple will learn to love each other as they grow up. That didn’t happen for Omi. She’s 35, recently divorced and caring for three children.
“I was hoping I’d find Prince Charming on my own,” she says. “But my parents always told me I’d have an arranged marriage. I accepted that, because that’s what I was told. The concept of having a choice was alien to me.”
She says her parents had their reasons. They were of sending her to college, and were worried she would meet someone on their own and become pregnant. “But I can’t help but think,” she says, “weren’t they really scared to give their daughter to a stranger at such a young age?”
Her mother met Omi’s future husband on a visit to Pakistan. After vetting him and his family, preparations for the engagement started.
Omi didn’t meet her husband until the day of her engagement and then she saw him again the day of her wedding. “I remember right before I walked into the wedding hall, my parents sat me down, looked me in the eye and told me that the entire family’s [reputation] was on my shoulders. I was terrified.”
When she saw the groom, and how old he was, Omi immediately considered running away. But she succumbed to the pressure to stay together; she didn’t want to upset her parents’ expectations. She says in the beginning, her husband was understanding of her trepidations. “I made him sleep on the floor, I didn’t want him to touch me. And he took it,” she says.
But the marriage went downhill after a couple years. Omi says her husband was controlling, inconsiderate, and abusive to her son. “I didn’t tell my parents – they would just think I was the problem – not him,” she says. “So I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone, except one friend of mine who was in a similar situation.”
“I never had freedom,” she says. “And when you don’t have it, it breaks your will. You lose confidence in yourself and it’s hard to motivate yourself to do anything.”
She finally separated from her husband, but it hasn’t been easy. Her family has offered little support, blaming her for breaking up the marriage. Since she married instead of going to college, she now has to figure out how to support her three children.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Omi won’t be looking to set her daughters up. “First and foremost, they need to respect themselves and be happy first,” she says, “because no man is as important as that.”
Please do arrange it!
On the other side of the spectrum, some women expect their families to arrange a marriage for them—and then feel lost when it doesn’t happen.
That’s the situation for Farah Khan (not her real name). She’s a 29 year-old law student living in Minnesota, and her family is from a small Gujrati Muslim community living in East Africa. In that culture, most girls are married off in their late teens or early twenties.
But Farah’s parents failed to find a match for her. And she felt betrayed. “I was like, ‘what’s wrong with me?’ ” she said. “The system was created for a reason and it failed me.”
Farah is political and outspoken, advocating for women’s participation at her mosque, and she thinks this may have been the problem. “It was after 9/11, and I was getting more politically active,” she says. “I was very vocal about things going on in the mosque that I didn’t agree with. I wonder if me not receiving a proposal was a result of that.”
Farah decided to take matters into her own hands- she joined an online matrimonial site for Shia Muslims called shiamatch.com. From there ensued a two-year, mostly online relationship with a Texas man from her ethnic community. “I felt like I was dating and I didn’t necessarily like it,” she says. “I thought it was too much work. There was a lack of structure, no boundaries. It was exhausting.”
Because of the stigma around having relationships before marriage or extended courtships, Farah kept the relationship hidden from her Muslim friends and had to rely on her non-Muslim friends for support. “I had so much in common with them,” she says. “Just because you are a Muslim woman doesn’t mean you don’t struggle with issues like, why doesn’t he call me, is he the right person?”
The pressure on the relationship eased after the engagement, “After I got engaged, I could finally turn to my family and lean back on them to talk to them about problems or issues that were coming up in my relationship,” she says.
For Farah, the isolation that came from her non-arranged relationship was the hardest part, “For my younger sister- I hope that whether she chooses an arranged marriage or finding a partner on her own- that she can talk to me about it,” she says.
Now that the stress of the courtship is over, she feels like it did have advantages. “The arranged marriage system has a lot of barriers to getting to know someone, since the families are so involved,” she says. “I was lucky that the comfort level with my husband was higher since I had gotten to know him over the years.”
Mom, I’m looking for an artist
Resisting an arranged marriage can be difficult for a young Pakistani American, after all the mantra is that “all good Pakistani girls have arranged marriages.”
But Afshan Bokhari fought the pressure after attending her brother’s arranged marriage. “As I was attending the events with my mother, I realized that the bride and groom had a total lack of control over the entire thing,” she remembers. “It seemed artificial that everything was so calculated.”
Still, her parents introduced her to men, and she dutifully met with them. They were all South Asian professionals, mostly doctors and engineers. Afshan’s passion was arts and culture- and she rejected each proposal. “I wanted to be with someone who went to museums, who appreciated culture—all the things that were not cultivated in me, but that I cultivated on my own,” she said. “I just wanted someone to share that with me.”
Now Afshan is a professor of Art History at Suffolk University, and is married to Scott Chisolm, a white American with whom she has three sons. When I ask her how they got together she says with almost a laugh, “We fell in love.”
They met while they were both working for an architecture firm in New York. “It was very controversial,” she says. “Being the eldest of three daughters, I had to fight the situation at home and really grapple with what was expected of me and what I really wanted.”
Looking back, Afshan says part of what her parents worried about was true. “As an immigrant, there’s a fear of losing what you came here with, and losing our true selves,” she says.
After two decades of marriage with Scott, Afshan says she does struggle to hold onto some of her traditions. For example, her son read the entire Quran in Arabic . “My oldest son just finished and I wanted to have a traditional ceremony for him,” she says. “It’s a ritual that I went through that I think will bring my son closer to me. My husband doesn’t understand the importance of it. It’s hard to explain to someone the value of a traditional religious custom if they haven’t grown up with it. A value cannot be valued if you don’t actually have the experience of it.”
Her advice? Don’t marry if you’re under 27 and have an open mind about love and marriage. And have at least 1-2 close relationships before getting married.