Bride vs. dulhan: The many sides of a desi bride

Striving to incorporate Western concepts in traditional shaadi, Pakistani-American dulhans need to step back.

Fauzeya Rahman December 24, 2012

I got married last year in Houston, Texas in a mostly ‘traditional’ Pakistani wedding with a few twists. As our valima came to a close, we hugged the last of the relatives hanging out around the reception hall. Then my husband and I breathed a huge sigh of relief: we were done.

Done with the months of planning, the deluge of details and the careful balancing act of emotions required to keep both sides happy. While I know our wedding wasn’t anywhere close to the elaborate festivities commonly seen in the Pakistani community — whether in the US, at home or elsewhere in the world — it was enough to make me wonder if I’d do it again if I had the choice.

Regardless of one’s approach to a wedding, stress seems to be the most common component. And when talking with Pakistani-American brides busy planning their weddings, it seemed that the stress level of a Pakistani wedding can take the cake.

“There’s a definite difference between the elaborateness of a desi wedding and an American wedding,” says Sarah, owner of The Transformation Studio, a beauty and wellness center in Houston. “Being Pakistani makes it more stressful, from the old school chauvinism and prerogative given to the groom’s family, to the huge guest lists.”

Or maybe it’s because lately, the Pakistani wedding has morphed into a hybrid of traditional customs, Western concepts and fairytale. We’re no longer just the ‘dulhan’ on stage with the lowered gaze. Now, we’re also the ‘bride’, who has an opinion on everything from the decor to music selection to guest list. Now, our multi-day weddings demand a level of personalisation and attention to detail previously unheard of.

“We’re far more controlling in terms of what we want,” says Amna, who got married in 2008. “But these weddings aren’t meant to be organised by you. They’re not meant for you [the dulhan] to plan. But because we’re now raised differently, we have strong opinions and so we tend to get more controlling.”

“I’ve seen a very big shift in weddings from when I first moved to the US,” Sarah said. “A wedding used to be a pretty standard affair; now brides are having meltdowns over napkin folds. The more details involved, the more stress there is.”

And while a woman may see herself as a bride of today who calls the shots, there’s a good chance her family still sees her as a stationary object around which all celebrations take place. This distinction can open the door to all kinds of conflict. We now have far less patience for nosy aunties, inappropriate questions or decisions made without our consent. After all, we’re independent, intelligent people  — why can’t we do what we want?

Of course, as the bride and as a woman, you can do what you want — but I recommend doing it with finesse. While your wedding is just a day (or, more accurately, a few days), you have the rest of your life to spend with not just your husband, but his family and your family. If you let the stress get the best of you, you could end up making things quite awkward as you start your new life.

“There’s a major emotional component to getting married,” says Sarah. As a trained counselor and cosmetologist, she’s been around dozens of brides. “Every time there’s a life transition, there’s a fear of the unknown. Of course, there’s also familial stress and in-law issues that are too common in our community. A bride’s mom can either be a help or absolute hell. Sometimes diva attitudes come out unexpectedly and weddings bring out people’s true colours.”

She’s seen long-lasting friendships permanently destroyed and brides who behave as if they own their family. “The wedding has become more valuable to some people than the marriage. The wedding itself has turned into an object to allow a person to show off.”

Which is a bit ridiculous considering how elaborate our weddings were already. There’s definitely more pressure now to put together a beautiful, unique wedding while decked out in the latest designer threads. With the onslaught of websites, message boards and blogs, brides have access to so much knowledge that, if they’re not careful, they can quickly slip from being informed to being overwhelmed.

“Sixty percent of the brides I see are particular — to a degree that borders on obsessive — about everything from lip colour to how winged the eyeliner is,” Sarah said. “Social media has a major effect. The awareness of options has gone up, and I’ve seen several beautifully thought-out weddings. I think it’s a good thing to be informed, but people need to restrain themselves and not lose their minds.”

With sites such as Pinterest, brides are immediately transported to a perfect world where handmade flowers and mason jars filled with drip-less candles are effortlessly bound with raffia ribbon that secures a handmade label with the couple’s names. They are led to believe guests expect this level of creativity, the bride’s mental health (or budget) be damned!

Truthfully, no one will notice each and every personal touch. Whether in the US or Pakistan, brides would do well to focus their energy on what matters the most and delegate or let go of the rest.

If you have a major sweet tooth, go cake-tasting crazy and find a delicious cake that will make you smile whenever you need something to take your mind off the wedding craziness. If music is your thing, sit down with a friend and come up with some excellent playlists for the various events.

While you may see yourself as an independent super bride and your family may still see you as a prop adorning the various wedding stages in different outfits, find a balance somewhere in between the two extremes.

To do so without losing your mind, communicate your expectations clearly with those around you who you can trust. If a friend or family member has never come through for you before, chances are they aren’t going to deliver during your wedding, either. Instead, take note of the friends who genuinely offer to help and assign clear tasks that you’d like them to do. After that, let it go and move on to the next to-do item.

Be organised. Make lists and go over them with your go-to team. Most importantly, manage your expectations. Things will get crazy and they will go wrong, but for the most part there’s nothing you can do about it. All you can control is your reaction to the situation.

Most importantly, take care of yourself. Schedule monthly massages and facials leading up to your wedding. Detox to get rid of the impurities that can clog one’s system. You can do this by sitting in the sauna or even spending a few extra minutes in the shower. Try to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet (preferably raw).

Try to find an outlet to relieve stress that works for you, whether it’s exercise, painting, writing or talking to a neutral party. It will help you keep your cool when everything inevitably goes awry.

While your wedding is no doubt the biggest event of your life, it’s also just the beginning of your new life. Enjoy yourself and the moments that truly excite you, and simply let go of the rest.

We’re no longer just the ‘dulhan’ on stage with the lowered gaze. Now, we’re also the ‘bride’, who has an opinion on everything from decor to music selection to guest list.

Fauzeya is a reporter in Austin, Texas. She enjoys research, writing and finding new ways to tell a story

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, December 23rd, 2012.

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Nobody | 9 years ago | Reply

Interesting write up. I never understood why there is so much bruhaha around the wedding itself as opposed to the marriage. Perhaps that's partially the reason divorce is so common, at least among couples in the US; desi couples here are no stranger to divorce anymore either.

Personally, I refuse to stress myself out over a one day (or 3 days if you're stretching it) function. It's supposed to be enjoyable; a celebration. Not the life or death function people make it out to be. So what if your make up isn't perfect or the napkins aren't folded right? Petty details are nothing to get fussy over. I think I'll elope if and when I do find my guy. The idea of a wedding turns me off. And I won't even start about the drama that comes around ruksatti time. What's the point of a ruksatti anymore anyway? It's not a funeral.

Mohammad Shahid nazir | 9 years ago | Reply

come on ladies come on ladies....ONE POUND FISH !!

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