At every wedding, sooner or later, you hear some random aunty inquire about how it all happened. And the current answer that wins the award for being the cheesiest ever is: “Arranged thee; phir love ho gaya … tee hee.”
While I do not in any way judge people who pass that cheesy comment, it just seems like too much information — unnecessary, irrelevant information. The dichotomy of ‘love’ versus ‘arranged’ marriages has always seemed a bit too strong to me to be a serious reflection of reality. But the convenience of these labels in allowing people to form the perceptions they want to about a complicated relationship is undeniable. Tell the Aunty at the shaadi that it was a love marriage and she will get visions of clandestine meetings and romantic encounters. Tell your colleagues that yours was arranged and you can see the pitying look in their eyes.
And while love marriages may have been frowned upon and hidden half a century ago, at least in urban, upwardly mobile Pakistan today, it is arranged marriage which is considered a taboo. It is almost equivalent to oppression, lack of rights and even spinelessness. This, despite the fact that some people are quite comfortable with the idea of letting their parents make most big decisions. Besides, if you haven’t found The One by the time you’ve graduated from college, your chances of meeting someone slim down considerably and arranged marriage is the route you’ll have to turn to. Hiba, a second year A-levels student comments, “I would definitely opt for an arranged marriage. My parents, the two people who I love the most on the planet, would have chosen my match, so how can I not agree to it?”
But lest you think this is some patriarchal conspiracy designed to subjugate women, remember that most men also resort to arranged marriage, turning to their matriarchs to make the big decision. Usman, a 30-year-old working at an IT company says, “I don’t understand why people make such a fuss over arranged marriages. I’ve told my mother to propose to the right girl and I’m sure she’ll find me a good match.”
And the concept of arranged marriages itself has evolved quite a bit since the times of our parents. Twenty five years ago couples were lucky if they got to see each other before the wedding. Fifty four-year-old Zeenat, now married for many years, says, “I actually met my fiancé face to face the day of our engagement.”
“And your reaction when you got your first glimpse of him during his visit to your house?” I ask. She laughs, “I’d commented to my brother about how he’s darker than I’d expected, and a tad on the skinny side!”
Her husband, however, was quite gratified to see his better half: “She was exactly what I wanted: educated, beautiful and from a middle-class family,” he recalls, adding that he had been adamant about not marrying a wealthy girl because of the unnecessary pressure and interference that would result. And these were the factors that went into arranging a match back then: education, looks, financial and social status and religion. The opposite of arranged, of course, were love marriages and, because they so often flouted conventional parameters of religion, ethnicity and class, they were a source of scandal. Arranged matches, on the other hand, were stolidly prosaic. A degree of similarity is what was looked for in the prospective couples, though parents and matchmakers were not quite as blind to personal preferences as some may imagine: if the girl was pretty, efforts would be made to secure a personable husband for her; similarly the educational institution that the girl and boy have attended matters to a great extent in arranging what is considered a suitable match today. Shumaila, a graduate from LUMS, commented, “Despite the fact that I met my husband in an ‘arranged’ set-up, I felt we would be quite compatible since he was from IBA, which is also a good business school, and he belongs to a liberal and educated family. I would have been a lot more apprehensive if there had been a big difference in our lifestyles.”
In most families, people meet and get to know each other a little bit before taking the leap. Sana, a recently married 26-year-old, says, “In my first meeting with my husband, I felt like I had applied for a job. He kept questioning me about my year of graduation, grades in high school, and I was wondering why I hadn’t kept my academic certificates stacked in front of me!”
Though all experiences are bound to be awkward, some are a little more unpleasant. Sara, a graduate from one of the top business schools of the country, remembers a meeting with a prospective suitor from Canada and his family. After some small talk, he smugly commented, “I am a graduate from U of T.” Sara responded, “So what, everyone gets into U of T!” Obviously, there was no take 2.
So what happens after you sign the dotted line? Awkward silence? A fight over what to eat and where to go? Adeel and Mariam, both in their mid-twenties, act like the typical loved up couple, taking late night drives and making grand romantic gestures at every occasion. They’re not college sweethearts, but actually met fairly recently in an arranged set-up. “I thought it would be really awkward to be living with someone I barely knew,” says Mariam, “but we hit it off almost instantly.”
Most married couples, whether they had an arranged marriage or a love marriage, would agree with Neha, who dated her husband before they got married, “I thought we would be in love forever, but it turns out that forever was actually till his mother happened.”
Asna who’s been happily married with her high school sweetheart for seven years, puts things in perspective, “The romance wears off; the love stays, but life’s practicality hits you.”
So what should you look for in an arranged set-up? Family background? Status? Looks? Not really. Look for what you look for when you’re in love: how right it feels. You can’t go wrong with that.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, June 9th, 2013.