Yes, we have heard it all. The pictures. The skin color (which, by the way shaadi.com uses in one of its questions for its profile). The family background. The extremely awkward e-mail exchanges, and if it goes further, awkward meetings between families. And, of course, the “biodata”.
To our non-South Asian readers. Here is a quick 101 of “biodata”. Essentially, it is very much like a resume, not just of the potential bachlor or bachelorette, but also of his or her family and of the person’s physical traits. When families are looking for potential spouses, they need to know that everything “aligns”. He could be an engineer, but is he a practicing (insert religion here)? She could be light skinned, but is she more educated or does she make more money than the guy?
Two people may seem like a great “jori” (Hindi for pair) on paper, and in pictures together, but beyond that what else does a person know? (Note: nowhere in this question do I intend to imply that “love marriage” is somehow better than “arranged marriage”. There is not one formula for a successful marriage). Where do any moral inclinations or values come into any of this? Values are not determined by vegetarian/non-vegetarian or drinking/non-drinking only (though I understand if that is important to people).
I say all of this in light of an interview I came across about the high rate of divorces amongst Muslims in America done by Alt Muslimah Watch. The interview is in reference to Suzy Ismail’s new book: Muslim Marriage Fails: Divorce Chronicles and Commentaries (which I hope to read soon, so please do not take my opinions here as full assessment of the book because I am going solely off of the interview). Ismail talks to five divorced Muslim couples (names and details changed for protection of identities), and tries to gauge reasons behind their divorces. The best part is that she looks at both perspectives, although there is some criticism out there that there may be more heavy leaning towards the female perspective. I believe this can be applied across South Asians, or at least some parts of the interview or book. Whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or whatever, the idea of divorce is taboo and difficult to talk about for all South Asians.
As Ismail has pointed out divorce is happening at a high rate among Americans, but among Muslims there is not enough discussion about it. I do not personally know the statistics across South Asians, but they too can relate to the problem of lacking discussion when hearing about a divorced couple or even meeting one. In other words, even though the book is discussed in a Muslim context, does not necessarily mean the ideas and questions do not apply to South Asians generally. We have heard of the sad stories of men leaving women who cannot bear children or in-laws getting too nosy or general power struggles. Yet, where in there do we just hear that they just were not compatible cited as a reason? We do not, because that is just not a valid reason in the community.
Maybe, it is time to stop pretending.
Below, I quote two answers that are most relevant to my discussion in this post:
Atl Muslima: “Inflated expectations are a major problem in all five stories. How can we as a community shift our focus away from an idealized image of marriage towards more realistic models?”
Ismail: “Education is the key to gaining a better understanding of what is truly important in a marriage. We need to continually promote the idea of what a real, strong marriage is. This is the best way to dispel the idealized notions that the media and even our own cultural movies and notions tend to dramatize. The romantic ideals of marriage are often very different from the day-to-day joys and trials of marriage. The sooner we can recondition the upcoming generations to view marriage as a continual work in progress, the better the outcome will be for the future of Muslim marriages.”
As you see, we can easily change “Muslim” marriages to South Asian marriages. Of course there are some differences, but the principles are all something all can learn from. If that is assumed, then what is the idealized image of marriage? In the South Asian world, it is marrying a particular type of guy, having a beautiful wedding that many families take out loans for, and living happily ever after with tons of money, children, sweets, and beautiful outfits. Is that it, though?
It may be wonderful to be able to put on a grandiose/familyzilla wedding (and I say familyzilla because in South Asian weddings the bride is not the only -zilla), but what are the social implications of that? After all of the effort and planning that goes into a South Asian wedding (not to mention the numerous days), what happiness comes from it? It is easy to look happy and give that appearance when a wedding is happening, but there is not much focus on what is to come and what we have to give and take in order to make it all work after the flowery, romantic event.
In light of that, a second answer from Ismail’s interview really resonated with me.
Alt Muslimah: “As you emphasize in the book, certainly divorce is not to be taken lightly. However it seems that in many of these stories, the root problem is that marriage was taken too lightly, to the point that weddings were rushed, couples barely communicated beforehand, and those that did failed to have discussions on substantive issues that would have revealed their incompatibility. How would you advise two people to get to know one another in a productive, honest way?”
Ismail: “It is impossible to completely know another person prior to marriage. This means that it is more important for people to know themselves before attempting to know someone else. If you can clearly identify your own needs, desires, and life goals as well as your good and bad points, you will have a better chance of identifying potential compatibility. We also need to change our line of questioning when meeting a potential mate. Rather than focusing on an interview-style firing of question after question, we should instead develop a discussion that can unfold into a mutually beneficial conversation…”
Ismail makes a great point about the “interview-style” firing of question after question. What does it really do? I think this applies to either arranged marriage or “love” marriage. Maybe we are not honest with ourselves about what really matters to us, and this is why we do not have “discussions on substantive issues” with a potential marriage partner. Where in matrimonial websites do people ever give a soul-search list of their “needs, desires, and life goals as well as [their] good and bad points”?
Although Ismail’s book addresses divorce, these are questions the pan-South Asian community can certainly benefit from thinking about before the opportunity for heartbreak occurs, whether the marriage is “love” or “arranged”. It also allows for realistic consideration of the difficulties and responsibilities that come with marriage. After all, marriage is not just Bhangra and Bollywood dancing, flashy bangles and dresses, and tons of henna. What comes afterward is the actual fun (and strenuous) part. Now, I am not sitting here and pretending that marriage is not a gamble because it is, however, like any endeavor, we (hopefully) assess risks with the information that is available to us. We cannot just passively accept information and not be honest with ourselves. We must be proactive in making sure we have consulted every source possible, both externally and internally. The rest, then, is to some extent, a matter of coincidence/higher power/luck/whatever you want to call it.
The point I make with Ismail’s book and just general observations: “Biodata” puts too many unrealistic expectations of perfection out into the Desi matrimonial universe. It is almost like dating, where both sides put their best foot forward, but in Desi matrimonial culture it goes beyond just charms, flirting, and chemistry. There’s a career bracket, income bracket, immigration status bracket, vegetarian/non-vegetarian, and the list goes on. If you thought just trying to find someone was difficult, it is even difficult within the categories of linguistic, cultural, or caste-related groups. The choices become even more limited.
As Ismail said, maybe you do need to first realize what really matters to you, and even if the guy/girl seems amazing in “biodata” terms does not mean he/she is compatible with you in the long-run. If you are not grounded in who you are as a person, how can you expect your mate to live up to the ideals you are told you are supposed to look for in a potential mate?
In the end, if some of the guys and girls mummy and daddy are pointing out to you just are not cutting it, politely tell them that it just is not working for you and you just are not compatible. It will benefit you in the long-term, and even parents. Maybe you can word it to them as: “Well, Mummy and Daddy, do you really want to see me get a divorce in less than a year down the line after all of your hard-earned money is spent on the wedding? Would you rather me married to someone I will not be compatible with only to find out I am not happy and rushed into this because of your pressure?”
If you would like to read the full interview, by the way, read it here.