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The approach to arranged marriage

Sometimes parents do know what's best

Photograph by Joel Kowsky

In order to find a bride, Muslim men in Saudi Arabia, such as Abdullah Almuqaytib, will describe the woman of their dreams to their family. They will then set out to find her.

May 6, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Abdullah Almuqaytib knows exactly what his future wife is like — how she acts, what she looks like, her sense of humor. She is smart, has a college education and a job, and he knows that she is pretty. And when the time comes, that’s what he’ll tell his parents.

The term “arranged marriage” is usually affiliated with a much-maligned lack of choice within religion. Since the days of child brides, most yentas have been put out of business in exchange for facilitated matches via Match.com. The very definition of what makes a marriage arranged and how it relates to religion is changing: In a world where e-mailing, texting and online chatting have made dating simultaneously easier and more difficult, do parents still know what’s best? The answer, as Abdullah has come to realize, is that sometimes they do.

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Abdullah: the future husband

“If you are a guy, you describe the woman that you want, and your family will look for her,” Abdullah says. Abdullah has spent almost four years in the U.S. earning his bachelor’s in business management at MU, but the process used to find a wife in his home of Saudi Arabia is, and will continue to be, his only option.

The plan is clear: If his Muslim family already knows a Muslim woman who fits the description, things are easy. If not, they are still pretty easy; Abdullah’s parents will find a young woman and essentially propose to her family. This includes explaining the reasons why the two would make a good match and highlighting Abdullah’s education, personality, job plans and other positive attributes. From there, the two households meet. Although arranged marriage is still a staple in some religious cultures, it has come a long way from Fiddler on the Roof. “Both sides get to say yes or no,” Abdullah stresses. “You do get a choice.”

For Muslim men in Saudi Arabia, Abdullah says, this is the only way to meet women. His parents met this way, and this is how he will meet “her,” his one-day wife. As he speaks, soft laughter punctuates the honest explanation that is clearly strange for him to give an outsider.

“All marriages in Saudi Arabia are arranged,” Abdullah says. “Women are supposed to be separate — you’re not supposed to know them.” The idea of going up to a woman on the street and talking to her is completely foreign to him, and it would horrify his mother. He pauses, searching for a way to introduce the idea to someone who lives in a country and culture of casual dating, and settles on describing his mother’s hypothetical shocked reaction.

“If I were to talk to my mom and tell her that I met a girl and I like her, she would just ask, ‘Why do you know her?’” he says. His voice grows mock suspicious. “‘Why were you talking to her?’” For him, that situation is not an option.

Abdullah will graduate in May, and when he jokes about his mother arranging his marriage as soon as June, it’s hard to be sure it’s only a joke. Most of his friends and family married in their early and mid-20s as they were expected to. Abdullah is 22.

“The last time I went home, my mom asked me, ‘Do you want me to look for you?’” he says. He shakes his head. For now, at least, his answer is “No.”

Anantha: the generational link

It takes three exhausting flights of stairs to reach Anantha Gopalaratnam’s accounting office, but it takes only three minutes for her to share her story. As she speaks in a slight, lilting Indian accent, the 53-year-old hints at and shows her roots as she gestures to explain her history with an emphatic pride that shakes the gold bangles around her wrists.

“While we have poetry and music and everything that extols romantic love, marriage is still very practical in Hindu society,” Anantha says. Her bracelets knock against one another as she moves her hands from her heart to her head. “It’s the hope of many that you’ll get a chance of love, but as you get older, you accept the other route and are more open to a facilitated marriage.”

Anantha, who moved to the U.S. 25 years ago from Pune, India, is just one from a country of 1.2 billion people and a long line of Hindu brides. Her grandmother, a strong woman who grew up as part of a now-dead tradition, was a child bride — married at age 8 to a 14-year-old boy — an idea that makes Anantha shake her head even as she admits the practice had its reasons. Her grandmother told Anantha stories when she was young about children being given toys at the ceremony so that they would stay awake and happy until their wedding ended. “It was not cruel but more practical,” she says. “The children got married, but the girl lived at home until she attained puberty. Only then did she move to her husband’s home.”

Anantha’s mother wed her father in an arranged marriage at age 16, making Anantha practically an old maid when she married at 28. Anantha marked a subtle but substantial change in her family’s lineage: Her marriage, though encouraged, was not entirely arranged. “Our families knew each other,” she says, smiling. “I often say that if we hadn’t decided we’d get married, maybe our parents would have decided for us.”

Although Anantha was not put in the exact position many of her peers were, she understands the culture. Sixty years ago, marriages were influenced by life expectancy. For a man in India at the time, she says, life might end at 25 or 26, and childbirth decreased that short span even further for women.

“Everything in life had to be compacted into the early years of your life,” Anantha says. “In my parents’ generation, you could count on your fingers the number of people who were not in an arranged marriage. I have a friend who married a Muslim man, and her mom refused to see her until the very end.”

Although the rules have changed significantly in India and in Hindu culture over the past century, what is acceptable for women of religious families remains strict, with arranged marriage as the norm. The understanding in these arrangements is that if there are more commonalities than differences between the two people and their families, the union will be successful. By hand-picking their child’s spouse, parents are providing them protection.

“How is it different from Match.com or those other Web sites?” Anantha asks. “Your family has a vested interest in your well-being while those sites are in it for the money.”

Anantha smiles and smoothes her hair, which is graying at the temples. At 18 and 23, her two daughters are still comfortably far from weddings of their own, and she has no intention of arranging their marriages. Or, as she puts it, they have no intention of being in arranged marriages.

“There is a perception that there is no choice at all, but that is not the case now,” Anantha says. “Earlier, it was ‘Parents know best,’ and that was the end of the discussion. Permission was never sought. In today’s circumstances, I think of it more as a ‘facilitated marriage’ than an arranged one. You don’t want to marry an ax murderer.”

Ammar: the married man

It all happened in 15 minutes. As Ammar Ashri describes how the result of that short meeting affected the rest of his life, the corners of his mouth curve into a bashful grin, but last summer they probably more closely resembled a frown. The main emotion he remembers is an overwhelming nervousness. Would she say yes?

The marriage butterflies began with questions from his mother, as he says they usually do with Muslim men of his age in his home of Saudi Arabia.

“I wasn’t thinking about marriage,” Ammar says. “I had no special girl — I had no idea. But Raniya was really nice and beautiful, and a lot of guys wanted her, and my mom didn’t want her to fly from me. She kept telling me not to let her go.”

As Ammar describes the hierarchy for Muslim men, he explains that marriage is the fourth step in an average life, preceded by education, a job and considerable savings. Although he is attending MU for a degree in engineering, Ammar admits he has yet to acquire any of the first three, which made starting with the fourth step even stranger. Last summer, while he was home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, his mom approached him with the idea of marrying the sister of his brother’s wife (or “brother-wife,” as Ammar calls her). At first, his answer was no.

“I didn’t want to be apart for two years,” Ammar says. “I said, ‘She has to want to come with me, and she has to want to study English because there is no way she could have come with me to the United States if that was not so.”

But what Ammar learned of Raniya Firash — that she wants to become an English teacher, that she is kind, that she is beautiful — made him change his mind. One month later, he found himself with his and her extended families in her home for the strict first meeting required to decide if the couple would enter into an arranged marriage.

“Dating in my country is prohibited,” Ammar explains. The common belief, based on Muslim concepts of chastity, is that talking to a girl will lead to more frequent conversations, which will lead to — well, Ammar ends at pregnancy. Muslim men are taught in religious classes that if they want to talk to a woman outside of work or school, they have to marry one. “You are going to save her from a lot of bad things,” he says, elaborating that the ultimate bad thing is pregnancy outside of marriage. “Our religion knows that a guy needs a girl and a girl needs a guy, but they both need to be protected.”
The rules of that first visit — and there are many — included that Raniya be allowed to sit without her hijab (facial veil) so that Ammar could see what she looked like and ask her basic questions. Ammar was only allowed to stay in the same room as Raniya for 15 minutes. After that, the couple separated while their families peppered them with questions, the most important of which were: “Do you want to marry him?” and “Do you want to marry her?”

“Both of us were panicked,” Ammar says, and though more than nine months have passed, he shakes his hands to emphasize the feeling. Nearly half of the 15 minutes were silent, and though Raniya was shy and rather quiet herself, he knew his answer.

“I told my mom immediately that I wanted to marry her,” he says. “It was mostly her looking at me, me looking at her — that’s it. But I knew.”

After their families made the final arrangements, the two tied the knot in December. Today, Ammar and Raniya live in a small house off Highway 63, and they have been married for around five months. As Ammar sits in class at MU many thousands of miles from Jeddah but only a few minutes’ drive from his young wife, Raniya studies her English. Maybe, in a few months, if someone has questions about arranged marriage, they can ask her in her new language.

“I have two lives,” Ammar says, “my life and my wife’s life. We are partners. What surprised me after the first two weeks was how much we have in common.”

Now that Raniya has received her visa and begun her studies, Ammar’s biggest concerns are being clean and nice, he says with a laugh. “We live like friends. We watch movies.”

But as he goes into detail about Raniya, the key is, again, in watching the corners of his mouth. “She loves taking pictures — of herself, of me, of buildings, of nature,” he says. The corners are on the rise. “She loves Indian movies. She loves (Indian actor) Shahrukh Khan, probably more than me. She loves English music.
“She loves me.”

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