Great (marital) Expectations – the woes of a nontraditional Asian journalist

This piece was submitted by the journalist Iram Ramzan.

“The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.” ~ Albert Einstein

The whole evening was a mixture of embarrassment and expectations, with a whiff of desperation. Or maybe that was the smell of the samosas frying.

For a start, I was told to put on a nice pair of salwar kameez. I refused point blank to change out of my skinny jeans and tee shirt, but wearing western clothing in front of Asian guests is not ‘proper’. Denim is kryptonite to the auntie brigade.

I didn’t care. It would set a very bad precedent – why should I let these people think that I was traditional and conformist when I am neither of those things?

“At least put a dupatta around your neck,” my aunty insisted.

Then there was the fact that my mum and my aunty, her sister, had cooked a three course meal for our soon-to-arrive guests: samosas, a big pot of chicken and spinachhomemade ras malai and store bought gulab jamuns and jalebis. It was as though I had already said ‘yes’ and they were celebrating.

In case you’re confused reading this, I am recounting my excruciatingly uncomfortable rishta ordeal, which I live-tweeted, might I add (am I shameless or what!). I was told of a very ‘suitable’ proposal which had recently come my way. “A doctor!” My aunty exclaimed, showing me his picture sent to her phone. The gold standard of proposals. A doctor! How could I possibly say no?

In many, Muslim and Pakistani households, this is how proposals and marriages are set up. I’m not completely against this at all; I know some happily-married couples who have met each other in precisely this way.  I’ve been given the choice to find someone myself (although this should go without saying) but I guess my family are getting too impatient waiting for me to bring someone home that they decided to speed up the process.

Anyhow, the guests arrived late (Asian Standard Time) and sat in the living room. I stayed in the kitchen and then the conservatory for nearly an hour after, not knowing what on earth was going on or what I was supposed to be doing.

After hearing the men discussing mosque politics behind closed doors (standard topic for some of the older Asian uncles), it quickly dawned on me that this wasn’t a meeting for me, or for this suitor, whoever he was. No. This was a meeting of the elders, the men in particular, for them to catch up and arrange the whole thing. I knew more about them than the would-be groom!

I had to go in and introduce myself to the potential mother-in-law, a woman in her 50s or 60s. Wearing traditional clothing with her hair covered, she had an air of sternness about her. Oh I will fit in so well in that household, I thought sarcastically to myself.

The young man later came in, said ‘salaam’ and sat down at the other end of our corner sofa. I thought, at last, perhaps this will be an opportunity for us two to speak and see what we had in common. But that was all the conversation we had. We were never given the chance to talk to each other privately.

Then, to top it all off, the potential father-in-law, who was also a member of the mosque committee (Citizen Khan eat your heart out) took great pleasure in telling me how closely related we all are. As though that was supposed to impress me.

I was furious; I was adamantly told that these people were not related to us at all. I had been duped.

The following day I was asked on my thoughts, would it be a yes or a no. How was I supposed to make an informed decision on a mere “salaam”? As it turns out, the young man was not a doctor. Not even close. And once we’d eventually started talking, he started laying out a few ground rules, such as the fact that I would have to live with him and his mummy, wear salwar kameez most of the time and that I would have to stop seeing my male friends, because “what would people say?”

Imagine how that must have made me feel. Like no one cared what my opinion was. Like I was not in control of my life, the back-seat passenger instead of the one controlling the steering wheel.

Oh, but I have it lucky you see, as I’m constantly told. “We didn’t have a choice when we were younger,” the busybody aunties tell me. “We’re not forcing you into anything, we’re allowing you a choice here.” Oh thank you, thank you so much for allowing me to choose my own shackles.

Then they tell me: “Get married and you can do whatever you want.”

There are two problems with this: a) isn’t is slightly ironic to depend on some man to liberate you, and that too in the form of marriage? And b) this is a lie that some families tell their women to coax them into marriage and then as soon as you’re married, they say: “You can’t do that now, you’re married!”

Eventually I know I will have to submit to my family’s will and tie the knot, because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, the next step in life we’re all expected to take. At the grand old age of 25, my designated expiry date is looming ever closer and according to the elders, when I hit 26, no one will even want to look at me.

Yet somehow, I don’t think I’ll be happily-married. My ambition is to be a foreign correspondent. I cannot do that and be a doting wife and mother. It is just not possible. Okay, maybe not impossible but it is downright difficult because for some reason, some Muslim and Pakistani men still seem to have an aversion to independent women.

Then there’s the fact that I know I’m not alone in thinking this way. There has been an increase in the number of British Muslims women having ‘part-time husbands’ in order to maintain some freedom – should it be this way?

Maybe it’s my age. I may change when I’m slightly older and wiser and I’ve found a younger, Asian version of Jeremy Paxman (dream on, right?)

Most of these suitors are going to be the same because my family’s social circle is very small – we don’t venture away from blood relations (the thought must be icky to some of you out there).  Consequently, every suitor and their families can’t help but be the same: very conservative and traditional. I don’t, however, have the option to marry a man of any other ethnicity because this is still a no-no in our family. I dread to think what would happen if I brought home an Arab or Indian man. They use religion when it suits them but the same religion, which allows us to marry Muslims of any colour or creed, is quickly disregarded.

I haven’t been raised in a traditional environment. I can wear pretty much what I want, and go out and socialise with few restrictions. To go from this to a traditional family where I will have to seek the approval of my husband and the mother-in-law would be going backwards, not moving forward.

I have my own dreams and plans, but does anyone care? No. I have centuries of tradition, culture, religion and elders all working against me and as the eldest child, there is even more pressure for me to comply. Their collective weight is very difficult to resist. I announced my new job as a local reporter to my family – they hardly blinked. They are saving all their excitement for my wedding day, I suppose.

It’s dawning on me that this entire marriage thing is all more for my family, not me. It is a chance for them to look respectable in the ‘community’, to proudly boast to people (people, who we really don’t like might I add), look, we have married our daughter into an ‘honourable’ family. We have finally fulfilled our obligations as parents. Should I give in for an easier life? It would be simpler; to please not only my parents but my wider family as well. Those who can’t seem to see that what was right for them isn’t automatically my preference. That maybe my best interests lie elsewhere. That as communities change and meld not every tradition has to be held on to so determinedly. That there can be adjustment that is ultimately beneficial.

I just hope that one day, my mum realises that the reason why I am so strong and independent, why I refuse to bow to society’s expectations and take notice of their double standards, is because of her, not despite her.

And, also, as one of my friends once asked me, “why are you trying so hard to fit in when you were born to stand out”. I have things that I want to do.

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