A Day at the
By Nausheen Zaidi
Envision this scene:
A young girl, trembling with uncertainty, carries
a tray of chai into the living room and places it
gently on the coffee table. Her mother croons over
what a delightful and domesticated child she has
raised. The girl proceeds to pour the tea into small
porcelain cups, adding just the right amount of
sugar and milk, while her crinkled chiffon dupatta
frames her delicate features like a halo. There
is a sudden hush as she passes her first cup to
a man sitting on the chair right opposite her mother.
The man is at least ten years older, confident,
perhaps even cocky, as he watches the girl with
his penetrating eyes. The auntie sitting next to
him smiles and nods her approval. This one may do.
Is this a scene from a Bollywood soap opera? Yes
The ancient art of arranged marriage is not dead,
by any means. Update the styles and the background
— so instead of a crinkled chiffon dupatta,
the girl may be wearing a GAP shirt and jeans —
but this scenario is still one that is embraced
and dreaded by numerous families of South Asian
girls in the US.
What is the secret to a good marriage? Any full-fledged
American will tell you that the answer is love and
communication. So, how do you meet your future mate?
That can be a bit trickier. Since most South Asian
Muslim girls will probably not be searching for
their future spouse at the local singles bar, the
connections that are made through family and friends
will most likely be a safer bet. But not fool proof.
So, what are the requirements for the perfect wife?
This, of course, depends on the families involved.
Even though many of us would like to think that
we have evolved beyond the search for the youngest,
prettiest and fairest of them all, reality can bite.
In an arranged marriage scenario, family reputation
seems to be the key. Once research on both sides
indicates that the family name is clear, the spotlight
turns to the prospective bride-to-be.
I will go out on a limb here and say that most South
Asian parents in the US today will not want a bride
that is thirteen years old — if for no other
reason than the fear of societal and judicial repercussions.
However, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen year olds
seem to work just fine for some families. We couldn’t
pass up a good rishta. This, of course, propagates
a new generation of young girls with little prospects
of higher education and few marketable skills outside
At the other extreme, there are the families who
pooh-pooh any thought of marriage for their daughters
until they have graduated from college and established
themselves in their chosen career. These girls study
feverishly, take the MCATs, the LSATs, the GMATs,
obtain numerous degrees and work in high-powered
positions. They may be in their thirties, independent,
prosperous, with many letters at the end of their
names, yet little prospects of becoming a MRS.
Since women in the world outnumber men, at the end
of the day, we all seem to walk through the marriage
market in one role or another and very few of us
emerge unscathed. But of course, women are not the
only ones that are dissected in this process. Taking
the old adage, “A good man is hard to find,”
imagine how much more difficult it can be when the
field is narrowed even further by social factors
such as education level, occupation, ethnic background,
religion, and the greatest mystery of all, compatibility.
A woman’s emergence in the marriage market
comes at an earlier age than a man’s. This
is purely economic. Men are still expected to be
the main providers for the family and thus, their
marketability increases with age and income level.
No matter how many degrees a woman possesses or
how much money she earns, she is still expected
to be the “domestic engineer” in the
family. This dichotomy crosses over the boundaries
of culture and perpetuates the image of the Supermom
that women in today’s society try to attain
on a daily basis with varying degrees of success.
As unfair as it may seem, a South Asian woman’s
marketability reaches a peak around the age of 25,
whereas a South Asian man may still be a good catch
in his forties.
So, should parents of teenage girls jump at the
first good rishta that comes along? Or should they
teach their daughters to be independent and career-minded
and leave marriage on the back burner? It’s
a tough call and one that needs to be made at the
individual family level. But there are some things
we can all keep in mind as we trudge through the
maze of family politics, shuffling through photos
and bio-data to find that perfect match.
Make a list of all the requirements that you want
in your mate. Then list all the requirements that
are important to your family. Now that you’ve
created Superspouse, start crossing out the elements
that are less important or outright unrealistic.
Then circle the elements that are important, but
still negotiable. Remember, at the end of the day,
marriage is a contract. There will be compromises.
It’s better to know within yourself where
your flexibilities lie and which elements are non-negotiable.
Look within your social circle. This may seem like
a no-brainer. As South Asian parents, as soon as
a child is born, we start looking for his or her
potential mate. How many times have two friends
with children of opposite genders made plans to
pair their children in holy matrimony at some in-descript
time in the future? Of course, as soon as adolescence
arrives, these same children are divided into gender-specific
groups to avoid any possible interaction within
their social environment for fear of impropriety.
Muslim youth need to learn to interact respectfully
with each other in an adult-monitored social context.
This not only increases their chances of finding
a compatible mate, but helps them understand the
value of decency and izzat.
If your own social circle does not provide enough
leads, there are various websites and marriage brokers
that specialize in bringing people together. Of
course, this scenario requires a great deal of personal
reflection and a heavy-duty flair for researching
the background of potential mates that may live
on opposite sides of the country or globe.
So, where does love fit into all of this? I’m
not as young as I used to be, and I’ve come
to realize that the definition of love changes as
we grow. An arranged marriage can be just as successful
as a love marriage, or just as disastrous. The lasting
kind of love is not made of the desperate fireworks
that we see in the movies. It is the daily dose
of support that we give each other in marriage.
It is on this notion of companionship that the marriage
market thrives today.