Arranged Marriage is Just as Tough as Falling in Love
May 22, 2015
It wasn’t until a Valentine’s Day school assignment in first grade that I learned how my parents really got married. Our project was simple: explain how our parents met. The kids twittered with excitement over the easy assignment, since they already knew their parents’ stories.
Meanwhile, I quietly listened to their tales. I really didn’t know how my parents met. So I asked my mom.
Amma told me that one day her parents told her she was going to marry my dad. And that was that.
I was stunned. I always assumed they’d dated and fallen in love. “But Amma,” I said, confused. “You never dated Abbu?” My mom looked me straight in the eye and said, matter-of-factly, “Muslims don’t date. Nana and Nani told me who to marry, and I did.”
I was born and raised in the United States by immigrant Bangladeshi parents. Growing up in New York City in the 80s, I was spoon-fed all those romantic notions of dating and love. Who could forget the New Year’s scene in “When Harry Met Sally”?
But my mom explained that, for her, love came after marriage. Needless to say, my romantic ideas deflated somewhat. I was embarrassed of my parents’ unconventional story. So I told my classmates that my parents met in the U.S. in an English class and then got married.
I also vowed to myself that I wouldn’t get married without first falling in love.
All through my teens, I carried with me the stigma of arranged marriage. I just couldn’t grasp how you could marry someone you didn’t love or even fully know. So I just kept hoping I’d meet a man through friends or in my school’s MSA. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties – after realizing how busy I am with school, and that I’m not the type to put myself out there – that I relented to my parents’ wishes.
I went through the motions, meeting the boys they deemed suitable, but there was always something missing. Even when friends introduced me to potential “matches,” I was disappointed. When I asked one man about his divorce, he immediately began badmouthing his ex-wife. What would stop him from badmouthing me? This was nothing like the movies I nursed my hopes on.
My friends tried to introduce me to a revert brother, but he never understood why we always ate curry for dinner, why my parents exerted so much influence over me and why I wanted to keep in touch with them all the time. My time on the marriage market made it increasingly clear how important culture was to me. Despite being American, my expectations of a wedding and family life were very Bangladeshi. In my culture, parents and grandparents are integral to our lives. I could never marry a man who doesn’t love my parents as much as I do.
The arranged marriage market is just as tough as falling in love. Critical aunties whisper about your education, your weight, your complexion and family status. After five years, I began to feel I was on cusp of becoming an old maid.
Just as I was about to give up, I made a list of things I needed in a husband. I hid the list under my bed and decided to take a break from meeting anyone. I prayed and turned to Allah (swt) to help me find a partner that would help me be a better person.
It was a difficult period, spanning my entire last year of law school. But the hardship softened me into a person ready for marriage’s challenges and compromise.
One day, my older sister told me to check my inbox. Since she was already married with kids, she wanted to see me settle down, too. She’d taken it upon herself to email a Bengali American man on my behalf. His uncle had visited my dad’s auto body shop and mentioned his nephew was looking for a wife. I shot the idea down immediately – I was on a “break” – but my sister ignored me and pursued the connection I was so quick to dismiss. I’m forever grateful to her for being the advocate I didn’t even know I needed.
She forwarded me all the emails they exchanged: how he grew up in a Bangladeshi family in the U.S., his hobbies, his favorite band. I noticed how respectful he was to my sister in the emails. I unfolded my list and saw the number one item: “He is respectful – not just of me, but of my entire family.”
I noticed his telephone number in one of the emails. My heart was pounding. Could I call him? Did I need to tell my parents or sister first? Always the rebel, I took a risk and called him without consulting anyone. I could almost see Amma shaking her head at me as I dialed.
He didn’t pick up – he was screening all strange numbers, he said later – but he called me back a few minutes after I left a message. We spoke for a little while about our mutual love of “Batman: The Animated Series.” It’s a weird topic, I know, and I’m still not sure how we landed on it. But we connected for a moment, and I felt he understood what it was like to grow up sneaking in comics between family obligations and school in a Bangladeshi household.
When I hung up, I was struck with the thought that I had just spoken to either my future husband, or someone who would become a lifelong friend. Or both.
After a few more phone calls, I told my parents that I really liked him. They excitedly arranged for us to meet. I drove down from Buffalo, and he flew from San Francisco when we met a few months later in my parents’ home. By then, I felt like we were compatible, but I wanted to be sure I felt butterflies when we met in person.
We became engaged the next day.
It takes a while to realize that that little spark has turned into love. Six years later, I can’t imagine life without my husband. Sure, it may not have been the stuff of romantic comedies, but it is real. And it is gratifying.
Love is messy and not always romantic. And now I realize how my mother’s love could come after marriage. Sometimes it is practical and comes in the form of putting gas in the tank, paying the bills and loving you when you have a bad day.
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