“I never knew that I would be able to write about my experience as a woman of this community. I’m here today because of it, I’m here because it has made me who I am today: a woman trying to embody the ideals of both the West and East, a constant struggle, a constant obstacle- one day, I will overcome them…”- Zaafira
I am a South Indian Muslim, from one of the greatest historical coastal towns, (the name of the town cannot be disclosed due to privacy reasons), found in the state of Tamilnadu, in South India. Moreover, I have had the opportunity to both study and live in different parts of the world like the UAE, UK and Malaysia, which has exposed me to various cultures. I have had the chance to live amongst unique individuals in each country and I have witnessed first hand a confusion relating to my cultural identity. Families and individuals from my town, follow Islam, which was brought to us by our ancestors who predominantly came from Yemen, Iran and Egypt. It is believed that my ancestors, especially from Yemen, were merchants and traders who arrived on boats to the coastal town, married the locals who were descendants of the then Pandyan King Raja Varma Kulasekhara, and settled in this busy port harbour around the 10th century. They had assimilated into this new flourishing town and primarily adopted coastal and agricultural trading for survival. I am a descendant of the Moors of the town (what we are known as today), the largest ethnic group from my town. My ancestors preserved and passed on their Islamic cultural heritage infused with South Asian values from one generation to the next. This was the emergence of what I would call, the Muslim community. A community that used to, and still is adhering to the hybridized, values, customs and traditions passed on from its ancestors.
Amongst one of prominent practices that we have adopted from our Yemeni heritage, is the ancient pre-Islamic tradition that is practiced in our community, ‘shegar’ or ‘swap marriages’, a variant of arranged marriages. The way we call this system is ‘badal mappillai’ (in Tamil), which literally translates to the exchange of grooms. However, we do not follow the shegar system in the exact way as Yemeni’s do. Our ‘badal mappillai’ system is mix of both Yemeni and South-Indian customs. To begin with, we must understand how shegar works and how my community has modified it to its own needs. In Yemen, according to Yemeni BBC representative, Mai Noman, the practice of shegar is an ancient marriage custom that still exists to date in few Yemeni communities (usually in rural and/or countryside). For example, family A would approach family B, asking family B’s daughter’s hand in marriage for their son, in exchange for their own daughter’s hand. In simpler words, a brother and a sister from the same family would marry a brother or a sister from another family. Their marriages would strengthen family ties. This is when the problem arises, making these marriages complex. If suddenly, one of the couples has a fight and the marriage ends in divorce, the other couple would directly be harmed. Let us say that Sarah was married to Abed (the couple who are getting divorced) and Omar is Sarah’s brother married to Abed’s sister, Yasmine, immediately Omar will decide to divorce his wife, Yasmine, since his sister was divorced by his brother-in-law, causing two broken marriages. This practice in Yemen can be regarded to be very extreme.
On the other hand, in my community, we have a different form of shegar. Families will be willing to do the ‘exchanging of grooms’ and in the case of divorce, the community will try to ensure that none of the involved parties are harmed or get divorced. If they are unable to keep the couple united, they will go ahead and grant the divorce, however the other couple will not be affected. They are not forced into getting divorced by their families. In addition, we also follow the same way of inter-marrying within our community like few communities in Yemen. So it is a norm in our community to marry our cousins. To marry someone from outside the community is considered taboo. Individuals, who have married outside the community, become excommunicated, to an extent from their families and extended families.
I mentioned the above in order to set the stage for the upcoming paragraphs where I’ll be recounting my personal experiences and how I have overcome them. I’ll also be explaining the theories and beliefs behind arranged marriages not only in my community and India, but also in South-Western Asian countries like Egypt, the State of Israel and Turkey. Additionally, I will briefly mention my qualitative research conducted in my university, regarding the notion of arranged marriage.
When I was around the age of 3 or 4, my maternal uncle was getting married to my aunt (my father’s 1st cousin). All the memories that I have of this occasion, come from wedding pictures and videos. My uncle happily got married to my aunt and life moved on. However, I found out that somehow I had become betrothed to my second cousin (an aspect of shegar) who was the nephew of my aunt. The elders had decided my future at such a young age. I had no idea about the betrothal; I was naive and innocent. As years went by, I used to receive gifts like clothes and toys from my future in-laws. As weird it may sound, this was not something new- this was a norm, and nobody questioned it. Years went by, and my family and extended family teased me about my “supposed fiancé” and I think I pretended to be shy or I was genuinely shy when they teased me. It was vague to me at that time. Fast forward 10 years, when I was around 14, talks of me going to study in London arose- since I wanted to study there. My brother was already in London and he is 6 years older than me. He was going to be my guardian and I would be under his custody. Somehow, my parents agreed to send me to a boarding school in Kent, the following year and I told them to trust me that I would never betray them or do anything silly when I were to live there. They completely trusted me and I them. I was exhilarated and ecstatic.
Now, it is not a norm for young girls of the age 15 to go abroad and live (almost) on their own in my community. I had broken the barriers and the status quo. To top it all off, I broke off my engagement with my second cousin. You may be wondering how it would have been possible. One, my family had agreed to this when I was very young, without my consent and on top of that I have three older siblings, 2 sisters and a brother. I made the argument of why my older sisters were not engaged to someone when I was. Two, my mother was not too keen about the alliance. Finally, I was going to the UK, and I assumed that it was the right moment for me to break off the engagement. I, at the age 15, thought that the community would start creating rumors of me falling love with someone abroad, so I kind of made and took a ‘prevention is better than cure’ type of action. It may all seem irrational to both, someone from my community and someone from the outside.
At the mere age of 15, I had broken two strict conventions of my community. One, I had broken off my engagement of 11 years and two; I went to study in the UK. I felt a sense of freedom and my friends and cousins started saying that I had done something very rebellious and I somehow felt like a rebel. I did not feel guilty or regret my choices, actions and decisions at that time. However, they do say, all good things come to an end. My parents had accepted my choice but after couple of years, when I was 17, my mother started to panic. I had moved to Kuala Lumpur at that age and started school over there. My mother started worrying because people from my community were concerned about my future. As enraged as I was, I argued with her saying it was none of their business.
I started to embrace the western ideals of freedom and choosing my soul mate. My parents sat down with me when I came back to Dubai and started to give me pieces of advice about life. They also said they had found an alliance. I had no intention of pursuing this, but I was forced into it. So, when I was in India, I was asked to go to the new and possible candidate’s house to visit his family. I was not comfortable with that idea. All I wanted to do at that age was to focus on my studies; I was in year 13, doing my IB. It was important for me to focus, but somehow my parents kept insisting that I agree to that proposal. They told me that they had their best intentions and interests for me- I was skeptical (a side effect of being a teenager). I put my feet on the ground, and told them it was not going to happen. My mother became highly emotional and said things you would usually hear in Bollywood movies like: “all the good men would be married and you will have to settle down with someone who’s good for nothing!”, “you have dishonored our family”, “how can I show my face to the community?”, these statements had affected me. I used to live on my own in Kuala Lumpur, and I used to cry and cry and cry, wanting this phase of my life to end. I had become depressed, but my studies kept me going.
Simultaneously, another proposal came up, this time it was someone (a cousin) who I genuinely liked and I knew him from a young age. I had somehow decided if I was to marry someone from this community, it would be him- I had accepted the fact that there was no way out for me at that time, so I settled for the best. However, the proposal did not work out because his family already had plans for him- he was a ‘badal mappillai’ for his sister. So, as you can see, my community wanted me to marry someone from my own kind in order to keep the lineage pure, but me liking someone from my own kind and putting forth my proposition, I had obstacles, i.e. the groom’s family was not willing to accept the alliance because they were committed to a form of shegar.
My parents, during that period, were diverted for a while, they thought that I had at last given into the community (for that period of time, I had given in) but once they knew that it was not going to happen, they carried on with the previous alliance. My amazing siblings acted as my pillar of support during this time. They fought on my behalf and made my parents move on from the proposal. They consoled my parents, and myself and said we will get a better proposal. I was happy and I continued studying. Despite of saying no to the proposal, my IB results reflected how I was affected by it. I was very upset, but life has to move on, that is what I told myself. I was content with the fact that I was not going to get married to every Ahmed, Abdullah and Amer. Things seemed to be calm and months went by without my parents mentioning a new proposal.
After 5 months, talks of another alliance surfaced. I thought to myself- no, not again. It felt like déjà vu- it was back to square one. I would probably say, my experience that came with this alliance was one of the worst- the one followed by this would be the worst one of them all; a living nightmare (it affected me both, physically and mentally). I had graduated and I was 18. I had decided to take a gap year to travel and get some work experience at a law firm (I was planning to get a degree in law). It was sometime in August, when I was on a holiday with my family in Sri Lanka. My father received a phone call and I thought it was regarding work. Couple of days went by, and there were recurring phone calls. My father said, there was a family, which was interested in ours, and they wanted to ask my hand in marriage. For a moment, my heart stopped. It was happening all over again. Somehow, I had a feeling it was going to end badly- and it did. My father said that this supposed groom, was tall, fair and handsome (he thought I was superficial- there was a time when I told my parents about my ideal kind of spouse) but it did not matter to me, I had transcended my superficiality phase. The age, for starters was the biggest problem of all. He was 9 years older than me. I was 18 and he was 27. In my community, if a groom were around the age of 27, he would have to get married soon. For a woman, the age between 18-20 is an ideal age. This thought of his age and imminent marriage made my heart beat even faster, I felt disoriented and started to panic. I told my siblings that it could not happen. Nonetheless, the same routine happened: I heard about a new proposal and my parents wanted me to meet him and his family. I told them I needed time to contemplate and assess the situation. I asked for 3 months (trust me, that is definitely not enough!) to give them my answer.
I went back to Dubai and spent Ramadan over there. Things got very heated between my parents and myself. My mother decided to go to Chennai and stayed there until I gave her an answer. I said I needed time and started doing some Islamic research on the whole concept of marriage. I told my parents about my findings and they did not bother and they said it is important that a daughter respects her parent’s choice- after all; only they know the best for their child. I tried to talk to my mother and asked her to come to Dubai so I could sit down and talk with both, my father and her about my choice. She was immensely upset with me that she actually refused to not only come to Dubai but also to talk to me for 2 months! I was upset and disheartened. The start of the proposal itself seemed ominous to me. It had ruined my relationship with my mother; I did not know what could possibly happen in the future. In order to settle this once and for all, my parents asked me to come to Chennai and asked me to visit the alliance and his family. So just like previous occasions, I went to Chennai.
When I went to their house, I felt a strong negative vibe and my feelings were reaffirmed. I knew that this would not happen and I fought with my parents verbally (with my mother physically- yes it had reached that point). My older sister was always on my side and she too, was involved. At last, I had victoriously broken off the proposal! I somehow became like a phoenix. Each event killed me and I died, but at the end of the day I woke up new and alive. I rose from the ashes- a resilient woman. I was fighting my own battle with my own parents. The ones who gave me life, they were my enemies. But I sympathized with them as well; it was not their fault, it was the community’s fault. It had made them like that. There were times when I used to vicariously feel their pain, but I could not do anything since I knew that it was not the right time for me to give in.
The accumulation of proposals and alliances made me very depressed. I had to force myself to start university. I was around 19 and I decided to start from scratch and enrolled into Paris Sorbonne Abu Dhabi to pursue a degree in Philosophy and Sociology. My parents had vowed not to speak to me about marriage proposals again. During the years 2009-2013, I had gone through enough drama and stress. I was glad that they promised to not to speak about marriage until I finished my degree. However, one thing that life has taught me is that in a community like mine or similar to mine, the talks of marriage were unavoidable and inevitable. So there was always a part of me, dreading the moment these talks would resurface again. Like I had suspected, it did.
During the spring of 2013, I was in Kuala Lumpur for my spring break. My grandmother was with me and started saying something like “oh there’s a new proposal, a boy from a good family, he’s very family oriented…’ and the potential groom’s résumé continued. I tried to stay calm and composed, but I could not tolerate the hypothetical ‘new elephant in the room’! I asked my mother what was going on. She said yes we have received a prospective alliance and he definitely trumps the rest. I thought to myself, no he definitely would not. I started to feel the invisible pressure from the elders. My life somehow turned into a nightmare. I started to get affected both mentally and physically. To top it all of, I had met someone (who was not from my community)- it was definitely not the right moment, but fate works in mysterious ways.
My parents started talking about the proposal and started planning ahead. The new individual was 7 years older than me (better than 9 years-probably). I told my parents that I would try and make an effort, in order to avoid all issues and drama that I have mentioned above. I tried talking to the potential groom just to satisfy my parents, who wanted to satisfy the community, but somehow I felt I was forcing myself. Moreover, my relationship with the man I met was growing and I did not know what to do. I was in a moral dilemma. I knew that I would not pursue my parents’ new proposition. In June 2013, they asked me to fly to Bombay to visit the potential groom and his family. I had no intention at all, but my father reassured me and said things will be fine; he tried to convince me. I had not told him about the man I was in a relationship with; if he had found out at that time, he would have been shocked. I thought it was not the right moment.
I went to Bombay for just 4 days (and oh were they long) and I kept constantly arguing with my parents. On top of that, I had to make an effort and talk to this new man, with someone else in my heart. In addition, I fell sick with food poisoning on the 3rd day, hence I had to postpone my trip, I honestly thought to myself I’d rather leave this city sick, than stay and get better over here. I felt tortured mentally and I had no energy to fight with my parents. At last, the potential in-laws agreed to give me a month for me to decide. The thing with my parents or any of these potential in-laws was that there actually was no option of saying ‘no’. It was either, yes I will marry their son or yes, I WILL marry their son. For the person I was, I knew this was going to be a long battle. I was happy with the fact that I left Bombay and went to London for the rest of the summer. My parents left me at peace for few weeks.
The fact that I was in love with someone was bothering me; I felt I was being dishonest with my parents (for not telling them the truth). So one day, when my father came to London, I told him “no father, it will not happen” and he kept saying how I went to Bombay and I seemed fine there (according to them) and etc. I told him I just went there to satisfy their wishes. He got upset but I could not do anything about it. The next thing that happened, I told my father I had fallen in love with someone. Everything stopped for a moment. I do not know where I had gathered my courage. He was shocked and he reprimanded me. For the first time in a long time, I saw him break into tears. He said, “You will not get married to anyone outside our community. That will only happen after my death!” I felt destroyed. I did not know what to do. On one side, I was in love and wanted to marry the man and on the other, I had to satisfy my parents. My forever supportive siblings, fought by my side and told my parents it was no the right time; the proposal was broken off shortly. My emotional and physical well being diminished over the next couple of months due to the events of 2013. I dropped out of Paris Sorbonne and went back to Dubai. I had drastically lost weight and there was a point when I started to look pale and fragile. My relatives started asking me what was wrong with me, I said “oh it’s nothing aunty/uncle”. Obviously, I could not tell them and they will never find out. My heart felt heavy for upsetting and breaking my parents’ trust.
To someone from outside my community, it may seem inconceivable to do things like the above, like getting engaged at the age of 3, or marriage talks at the age of 15 and above, etc. For some, between the age of 3-15 they would be concentrating on growing up, having fun and studying etc. They might regard our community to be backwards, and to be honest; I had felt that way too. I felt that even if people from my community were living outside India, in countries like the UK, the UAE, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and the USA, we had resorted to old values and customs that seemed very backwards to me. Also, some might think that what my parents did to me was inhumane and unimaginable. The answer is no. I still love them and they have done so much for me. I can tell you that there are reasons for why my community was and still is like this- we are a collectivist community.
In order to put things into perspective, we should understand that there are two forms of cultures, one, collectivist and two, individualistic. The former is usually present in the East whilst the latter in the West. Collectivism correlates with family integrity, loyalty and unity. There is a sense of harmony and interdependence in collectivistic cultures, while individualism is linked to personal initiative, personal autonomy, self-reliance and personal freedom. Individuals from individualistic societies feel the need for independence and somehow there is lack of concern for others. In her work in ‘Mate Selection Across Cultures: Mate selection in contemporary India’, Nilufer P. Medora, claims that collectivism manifests itself in the beliefs and practice that reflects individuals ‘embeddedness’ in his or her family. Also, Medora, believes that there is a great influence of the family and extended family that takes interest in an individuals well-being like, choosing the right spouse. They safeguard the individual’s interests in exchange for his or her permanent loyalty to the community.
This theory clearly reiterates how my community functions. Members of the community believe in integrity of the group. There is some form an identity that strengthens family stability. Also, moral dignity and family reputation are highly valued and placed on a pedestal. It explains why it means so much for my parents to get me married to someone within the community. They have a good reputation and if I went on to marry the man I love; they would be affected by my actions. These are key things that I still have on mind (to figure out whether I should carry on…). It is believed that love comes after marriage, so it is a norm in my community to get an arranged marriage and then fall in love.
The reasons above are not sufficient enough to make one understand why my community functions like this. In my town, arranged marriages have existed for centuries. However, in recent times, divorce rates have been high. I would say one of the main reasons is that some individuals solely enter the marriage in order to satisfy their parent’s wishes. In my opinion, I feel that any form of marriage (be it love or arranged), an individual always takes a risk. There is a 50-50 chance of the marriage working out. The power of making the marriage work only lies in the hands of the husband or wife. It is also considered a taboo if anyone was to marry outside, as aforementioned. This does not mean we do not have people in our community who have married outside. In fact, one of my aunts is actually married to a Pakistani. She had her own battle for sure. Parents and elders believe that marrying within the community provides socio-economic security, especially for their daughters. Furthermore, arranged marriages take place in my town in order to retain the family name and ensure our blood is ‘pure’. But I would definitely say it is not pure, since we have Yemeni heritage.
It is not only in my community or in South-Asian communities’ do we find arranged marriages. This form of marriage is prevalent in Southwest Asian communities as well. For instance, in Egypt, Turkey, and the State of Israel, marriages continue to be arranged by parents and relatives. In Egypt for example, marriages bring together two families (like it does in my community) and it remains to be a central building block for both religious and social aspects (Hamon 135). In South-Asian communities, family is considered to be strong, well knit, resilient and enduring. This is also the case in few Southwest Asian communities.In the State of Israel, some families practice arranged marriages, which are carried out by matchmakers (shadchan) and sometimes by relatives. It is believed that during the later Talmudic period, the arrangement of marriage was made when either the bride or the groom was a minor (Hamon 140). This takes me back to my first account, possibly we could have adopted Yemeni Jewish customs as well, and hence I might have been engaged when I was 3. Turkey is another country where arranged marriages exist as well. It is believed that couples who are involved in this practice, have “lower levels of reciprocal self-revelation, lower emotional involvement with their spouses, and being closer to their families of origin” (Hamon 162). In my town, few marriages are like this as well. It is probably a by-product of arranged marriages.
In order to understand more about arranged marriages, I conducted a qualitative research. I spoke to few International Relations students and Dr. Deniz Gokalp of Social Sciences. I came to understand that marriage is a form of institution that ensures relationships are carried out legally, according to Dr. Gokalp. Sometimes, few individuals feel the need to go against this institution (like I did) since it breaches their sense of freedom. Also, I believe that when religion and culture is mixed, it ends in a disaster. One of the respondents from Syria made an interesting statement and said that men are more vulnerable to arranged marriages. I would say that it has become true over the years; families of the bride would probably be looking for hardworking men who are financially stable and rich. Another respondent from Sudan said, that the general definition of arranged marriage has changed over the years. Next, it can be argued that one of the common misconceptions in the West is that arranged marriages are practices related to religion- NO! It definitely is not. It is principally related to cultures, customs and traditions. Cultural practices in collectivistic communities transcend religion.
So, what is the future of arranged marriages? The world is getting more and more globalized. I am personally impacted by this phenomenon. I feel like the increase in technology and mobility has made the world more multicultural. We are becoming more open and exposed to Western ideals. I would say that my struggles and hardships that I faced and still facing in my community, has made me resilient. I have become a stronger woman and I feel like I can stand up for myself. My love for my parents has not changed and I feel that I can convince them one day. I know there will be great repercussions, but it will only prepare me for the future. My father once said, “You are a cat on the wall, you do not know which side of the wall is good for you to jump off to”. I think I know which side of the wall I would choose. I intend to show my parents that marrying someone outside my community does not mean my life is going to end badly. I want to show them that I can be happy and marriages outside the community could actually one day, be better than inter-community marriages. I will make it a reality.
Hamon, Raeann R., Bron B. Ingoldsby, and Nilufer P. Medora. Mate Selection across Cultures. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003. Print.
Noman, Mai. “The Pre-nuptial Agreement That Can End a Happy Marriage – BBC News.” BBC News. BBC Arabic Service, 29 July 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.