Arranged marriages: what really happens

The A-Word.

by RANDA ABDEL-FARRAH

We could have fooled around if we wanted to. There was nobody holding a gun to our heads to make sure we remained virgins until marriage. It was a choice my girlfriends and I were happy to exercise. And while we were big rom-com fans and each owned the box set of Sex and the City, our own search for ‘Mr Right’ played out in very different ways.

For starters, there was no sex. Or dating. While we had plenty of guys who were friends, we weren’t interested in having a boyfriend. Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t repressed prudes, and we didn’t subscribe to the patriarchal idea that our morality was linked to our sexuality. We were empowered and weren’t embarrassed by our conservatism.

We were all of us armed with our Mr Right wish-lists, although frankly they were wish-lists that seemed impossible to meet. Because our criteria (e.g: funny, smart, well-read, not too hairy, not a tight-arse, you get the drill) – also included wanting somebody who shared our faith.

Some of my friends were suckers for a real challenge and also wanted somebody from the same ethnic and cultural background, i.e. Indian and Hindu; Christian orthodox and Greek (some even went so far as to demand Prince Charming’s family hailed from the same Greek island as their parents).

Although I’m of Arabic heritage, I was happy with any ethnicity as long as Mr Right was Muslim. But not just a nominal Muslim. I wanted somebody with whom I could grow in faith and for whom religion mattered. It’s such a big part of my life and I wanted to share it with my partner.

But being part of a minority community means the sea in which your Mr Right swims is a lot smaller. Um, about the size of a baby bath, perhaps? There was fat chance of meeting my Muslim Mr Right in some romantic and random encounter with a man plucked from the general population.

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Oh, I had romantic fantasies of bumping into Mr Eligible in the work corridors (“You’ve just joined our law firm? You tick all my boxes and you’re Muslim? How about we discuss that file – and more – over lunch?!”) But they were nothing more than fantasies. I mean, even if a work colleague/barista/friend of a friend etc was Muslim, that wasn’t exactly a guarantee that we’d click in a kind of ‘You’re Muslim and male? Wow we were meant for each other!‘ way.

It was just a threshold criterion.

But a mighty hard one to meet.

Which is why my friends and I were open to the idea of our families and communities getting involved. We were open to- brace yourself- the A word.

Randa

That’s right. Arranged marriages.

That just meant we didn’t mind the oldies setting us up with ‘potentials’, as we used to joke. It was kind of like going on a blind date. Except sometimes the people arranging the blind date were our parents or their friends. And the date could – wait for it – take place in the lounge room at home.

Our families knew about our wish-lists and wouldn’t dare introduce us to somebody who fell short. Well, not too short anyway.

And it wasn’t always a lounge-room ‘date’. Sometimes a guy would call and arrange a coffee date, having obtained my number through a family friend. Other times he would visit the family home – alone, or with his family. There were unspoken norms. Don’t bring too many family members. The guy should always call after a visit, even if they weren’t interested (it was brutal, but common courtesy).

It could sometimes be about as awkward as, say, colonic irrigation, particularly when the ‘potential’ had the conversation skills of a toddler, or seemed keen after a relationship of about five minutes.

But I guess all blind dates – no matter whether they’re at a bar, café or your family home – are enough to send even the most composed person into a flurry of nerves, wondering if they’re about to meet the love of their life, or the kind of person who would make Borat look like an eligible bachelor.

There were plenty of hilarious and disastrous experiences: guys who arrived in fanny packs, or wearing polyester suits. Guys who expected to court your favour with a re-gifted bottle of perfume (the plastic wrapper was dusty and was stamped, ‘Dubai Duty Free’). Guys who thought it was normal to whip out a personality IQ test during a coffee date to ‘assess compatibility.’ And so on.

Wanting to meet somebody from the same faith background has its own particular challenges when you’re from a minority community. But for most single people wanting to settle down with their ‘soul mate’, the pace of today, with fulfilling but demanding careers cutting into social time, can make it hard to meet The One. Even with online dating trying to help people meet, there are struggles (and not just the ‘Mr tall, dark and handsome’ is actually ‘Mr fat, balding and creepy kind).

For somebody who is after marriage – not a casual or even long-term relationship – you wonder if the other person you meet online or through friends is interested in commitment, or just a good time. You know the drill: What are his intentions? What does he want out of this? Are we on the same page?

Having family involved usually took away that kind of uncertainty. It was clear and open: we would be getting to know each other with a mutual understanding that marriage was the goal. If that scared the guy off, then fine. That was kind of the point.

I’m not saying it was a foolproof state of affairs. After all, how do you marry somebody you’ve never been intimate with? How do you agree to ‘forever’ with somebody you’ve never lived with? For God’s sake, haven’t marriages broken up over toilet seats left up, or mismatched libidos?

Maybe. But personally, the way I see it is that marriage is always a leap of faith, whether you know somebody for five years or five months. Ultimately, everybody has to trust their intuition. There’s never any absolute way of knowing whether you’ll be that ‘happily ever after’ couple that ends up celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary on a low-ratings current affairs program.

When I met my husband – who was introduced to me through my family in the lounge room of my grandmother’s home – we both knew, very quickly, that we wanted to take that leap of faith together. Ultimately, everybody has their own test of faith because love isn’t a science.

How did I know my husband was the One? I couldn’t know for certain. What I did know was that I would rather take the risk of being wrong, than take the risk of losing him. That was all the proof of love I needed to say yes. And nine years later, I’m still glad that I did.

Randa Abdel-Fattah has written eight books, including Does My Head Look Big in This? Randa is also a lawyer, human rights activist and mother. You can find her website here and her Twitter here.
What do you think of arranged marriages? Has Randa’s description of how a modern day arranged marriage comes about, changed your view?

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