A Day at the Marriage Market
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 and no.
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 the home.
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.
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