If marriages are made in heaven then surely Mrs Mumtaz Qureshi’s humble home-office can boast of some celestial influence. In a career spanning 30 years, the head of the Clifton Women Welfare Society has lost count of the happily-ever-afters she has helped create.
The ‘Welfare’ in Clifton Women Welfare Society can be a bit misleading: Begum Mumtaz does not, in fact, feed the hungry or educate the underprivileged — she simply operates a marriage bureau that caters to upper middle income families in Karachi. But since matchmaking is considered a good deed in Islam, her line of work takes on the mantle of ‘sawaab ka kaam’, never mind the fees being charged for what is evidently a thriving business. We hook up with Mrs Qureshi one morning, not looking for a suitable spouse, but for some insight into the matchmaking process.
In the office set up in her personal lounge, two highly competent secretaries bustle efficiently, dispensing registration forms, screening applicants and taking phone calls. Behind them, a shelf full of applications is carefully divided according to sect, ethnicity and class. Not everyone can be blessed by a proposal from Begum Mumtaz — there is a one-in-five chance that you might not even be eligible for a mere appointment with the reigning queen of matchmakers. Though matchmakers such as Mrs Khan and Mrs Javed can boast of better connections and hence better rishtas, Mrs Qureshi seems to outclass them all. She has a sister concern in California and another one in Houston run by her daughter-in-law that deal with US-based Pakistanis desperately seeking suitable rishtas.
Far from being the social brokers they now are, at the time Begum Mumtaz started her business, matchmakers were kind of looked down upon. “People were unwilling to trust the existing marriage bureaus which were often located in dingy areas of the city where people were hesitant to go. I knew I could easily pull this off from my home. Although my husband wasn’t too enthusiastic initially, I was adamant that it would turn out to be a great achievement for me — and it has!” says the raven-haired 70-year-old.
Her meticulous background research and organisational skills aside, part of the reason for this success lies in the fact that Begum Qureshi’s views on marriage are squarely conventional, echoing the pragmatic approach of the middle class. You will get the same sermon from her that you most likely hear from your aunts and grannies: girls have to give it time to make it work. “Girls step into the house assuming that they will change everything, but I advise them to adjust to the new family and the lifestyle which they have probably had for over 20 to 25 years.”
With her line of work, she can only be described as a staunch supporter of arranged marriage, though love marriages too have her blessings: “If it takes place with the parents’ blessings, there isn’t much of an issue,” she shrugs. However, she does feel that the high expectations in a love marriage can put the couple under undue pressure, whereas in an arranged marriage you get enough time to develop the right kind of expectations from your spouse. “But there is no hard and fast rule as to which one has a higher success rate.”
Thirty years in the business, Begum Mumtaz feels that the process of matchmaking has become more difficult from when she started out. Back in the day, the decision lay in the hands of the parents and elders but now the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ are very vocal about their opinions, which slows down the process. Mrs Qureshi advises girls who are interested in pursuing higher education to first get married into a family which will allow them to continue with their studies. “This is because higher education often makes it difficult to find a match in the appropriate age bracket,” she explains.
One of the more positive developments that she’s noticed in her years in the business is that mothers-in-law— who have traditionally had a demonic reputation — have become more understanding now. “Earlier people used to worry about what kind of family the girl would go into; now people are scared of what kind of girl will come into the family,” she says. She thinks that nowadays mothers-in-law are educated, sensible women who are aware that they can’t control their own kids, much less the new addition. “While not all mothers-in-law can be called ‘considerate’, most of them are aware of their limits and refrain from interfering. In our times, a ‘saas’ had to exercise full control over her ‘bahu’,” she says.
What hasn’t changed over the years though is the demand for a ‘gori larki’: “Be it a well-off family or a modest one, everybody wants a beautiful girl,” she says. In her opinion, this obsession with the girl’s complexion often blinds the guy’s side to traits that might be more important in the long run. “The idea should be to choose a girl who knows how to carry herself well regardless of her complexion and can mingle with your family with a smile on her face,” she advises.
Our conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a couple with major political connections. They have come seeking rishtas for both their daughter and son. The couple is not pleased with a 32-year-old girl for their 44-year-old son, deeming her to be too old for him. Mrs Qureshi buzzes them off by suggesting that no girl in the age bracket that they’re looking for would be willing to marry their son. Does she witness such ludicrous demands on a regular basis? Begum Mumtaz recalls an educated, good-looking young man who came to her looking to marry an American national around 10 years back. In the world of arranged marriages, it seemed like an appropriate requirement and she had someone in mind. He then also asked for the girl’s family to help settle him since he did not have savings that would allow him to travel to the US. This too did not seem bizarre since Begum Mumtaz had actually been in touch with a family which had made just such an offer. But finally the young man said that he made Rs25,000 a month out of which he gave Rs20,000 rupees to his parents. He wanted his prospective bride’s family to transfer that amount to his parents every month. “I was so infuriated that I immediately asked him to get out of my house. It amazes me how people can have the guts to make such foolish demands!” she exclaims.
The veteran matchmaker can boast of having arranged matches for generals’ daughters, ministers’ children, and even two acting-governors’ daughters. But she guards her clients’ wish for anonymity closely and refuses to divulge any names. When we step out of her office, we find the old couple still hanging around — after all, their 44-year-old son still needs to find his better half. One wonders if the celestial sunlight that beams down on Mumtaz Qureshi’s office will shine down on him.
The most important criteria for a rishta
What do people seeking matches look for when they come in? Mrs Mumtaz Qureshi sheds some light.
Religion and sect: This ranks as the number one concern. It’s not just about the broad Shia-Sunni difference anymore; people are very particular and there are too many considerations now.
Ethnicity: Ethnicity is another dividing factor but Punjabis and Urdu-speaking families seem to merge well.
Location: Location is also another prominent factor now. People living in posh localities prefer marrying somebody near their vicinity. Finally, social class has to match and that seems reasonable.
What the guy’s side demands
“The guy’s side has always been pretty demanding however, the girls themselves are now very particular about what they want and what they don’t. People don’t come to me with a dowry requirement because they are aware that I am completely against such disgraceful practices. However, there has been a particular rise in the demand for an educated family and a working girl which is quite the opposite from our times. One thing that hasn’t changed in ages is the demand for a ‘gori khoobsurat larki’.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, May 5th, 2013.
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