Thursday, March 10, 2011

Day 162: Navigating the Desi Marriage Process Pathway

Now that the jet lag and vacation high is beginning to wear off, of course the question is once again raised: what are you going to do with the rest of your life? (roughly translated from desi code language to English as “When will you find a nice boy to marry and make babies with?”). At this point in life, a desi woman such as myself has most probably figured out how to quickly inflate a transparent “marriage comments” shield within milliseconds to deflect such statements (insert lightsaber sound effect).

Yet there’s something poisonous about the desi marriage system that has this subtle way of chipping away faith in oneself, and I’m not just talking about the comments made by others. It’s the entire, lifelong process, and the fact that it is still in place baffles me. Of course, not all desi families still prescribe to the system, but many, if not most, still do. Many desi parents that immigrated to America in the 1970s and 1980s were part of that first large influx of Pakistanis to America, those that now form the backbone of our community here. This immigrant generation, by and large, went through the desi marriage system themselves in Pakistan. Yet when this generation settled in America and gave birth to the first generation of Pakistani-Americans (those children born in the 70s and 80s), an entirely new group of elements entered the scene, particularly in terms of the desi marriage process.

Pakistanis and Pakistani-Americans, as I’ve known them, seem to emanate this deep desire to cling to and preserve their cultural heritage - values, customs, traditions and all; they desire it far more than Pakistanis in Pakistan do, as I noticed during my trip. For example, growing up in America, many of us Pakistani-Americans speak more Urdu than kids born and raised in Pakistan; for us here, learning our mother tongue is an essential part of maintaining our heritage, but for many Pakistanis in Pakistan, Urdu is nothing much of importance, and Westernization (including speaking English instead of Urdu) is seen as a positive status symbol (in fact, I heard a story while there that there are women who actually learn and practice speaking Urdu with an American accent; this saddens me, I have to say). Pakistani-Americans, on the other hand, continue to find any and every way to maintain their heritage, in fear of losing it completely amidst all the other cultures present and melding in America. Weddings, hands down, play the most major part of this cultural maintenance process, I’d say. In close second place would be Eid and Ramadan customs and celebrations, and while there is a bitter taste on my tongue as I begin to mouth these next words, Bollywood also seems to have had a large cultural impact on those born in 70s and 80s America. There is much to be said on this last point, but I’ll leave that for another day (perhaps this calls for a trip to our local Indian cinema).

The marriage process, then, is a large part of this clinging-to of desi heritage in America. But it becomes very complicated with the first generation of Pakistani-Americans, or even in a more narrow sense, those born here before the 1990s. What you have with this section of the generation is a very difficult plane of existence in which we struggle to live as Pakistanis, South Asians, Americans, and Muslims, all at once. Parents of this generation worked hard to instill desi heritage in their children, while the young generation itself was and still is in a constant state of attempting to reconcile all of the cultures thrown its way.

While this multiculturalism is truly something to be celebrated as a great strength on the one hand, it has also become a source of discord when it comes to the marriage process. Parents’ expectations seem to shift throughout the life of the first generation child: at first there is an “unshakeable” insistence on finding a spouse that is both “Pakistani” and “Muslim” (and even further than that, on that of particular ethnicities within the Pakistani race, such as “Punjabi” or “Memon” or “Urdu-Speaking”, as well as on those of particular Islamic sects, such as “Sunni” or “Shia” or “Ahmadi”). Many of the 70s and 80s-born Pakistani-Americans clung well to these restraints and found appropriate, family-pleasing spouses right out of (or even before) college, while a few strayed completely away from the restraints and married against family wishes.

The portion that worries me, though, is that group of desi-Americans (who I might call the “middle-of-the-roaders”) whose parents, with time (“expiration dates” looming by), have begun to slightly loosen the restraints on these ridiculously closed avenues, while still maintaining particular expectations of how their children are supposed to meet possible partners. I’ve heard from many of my generation in this portion how they were told while growing up that dating was absolutely not allowed, but that once the “marriageable age” was reached, they were suddenly expected to come up with “suitable” partners that they “clicked” with (“suitable” being quoted sarcastically by the younger generation, and “clicked” by the elder). As one can imagine, this has led to quite some trouble for the young men and women I know, including myself, who do not know where in the world they are supposed to suddenly come up with a magical, perfect person.

Young Pakistani-American men in their late 20s and early 30s these days seem to be struggling with personal complications of their own (with a rising inability to “figure themselves out” or decide on a career or location or commitment, or anything much at all), while young Pakistani-American women in the same age range are (very proudly!) increasing their level of education, career aspirations, and intolerance of useless boys. Add to this situation the mess that is created when aunties get involved – oh the horror, the horror! Either the persistent mothers of confused boys fail to understand their sons, or the confused sons of these persistent mothers fail to communicate their confused state (or both, as I believe).

What results is the harmful, corrosive situation that I mentioned at the beginning: young women are being introduced, through aunties, to young men who have no intention of commitment, or who completely lack the ability to proceed in a mature, honorable fashion. Too many beautiful, intelligent, wonderful women and friends I know have been repeatedly hurt through this process. The desi marriage system, as it stands, is slowly eating away at the self-esteem and self-faith of many of these young Pakistani-American women, who continue to work hard against some of the outdated norms of culture and the struggle to reconcile a multicultural state of being in America.

Desi-American children of the 70s and 80s must trudge through the marriage process, I suppose. But I do see positive signs of a smoother cultural reconciliation among the portion of the generation born in the 90s and after, many of whom are now reaching the “marriageable age” themselves. What will be most interesting to see in the coming decades is how us first-generationers help our own, second-generation desi-American children navigate through the pathways of the marriage process.


  1. Just so everyone knows Kiran is blessed with very liberal "desi" parents she can work not work marry not marry marry whomever she wishes cant help,what auntis say but as far as we :desi" parents are concerned you are a free bird we will provide the
    seeds and water for you and be there when you need us

  2. That is very true, I do have relatively liberal desi parents, and am lucky for that. However, my post discusses the system of marriage as a whole, and does not point to any individual person(s). What I discuss here is an amalgamation of the experiences of friends, family members, and of course my own experiences. It is a commentary on how the process has affected many young people I know, again including but not exclusive to myself.

    The feelings of frustration with the system expressed here are not those of one individual, but rather of many, many people that I've had conversations with. It is a process that has emotionally and mentally hurt wonderful young women that I know, and I hope that by discussing it blatantly, more people will be aware of the detrimental effects the persistent insistence on marriage has on women and how parents' raising of their sons, many times with double standards, has caused those young men to grow up without a sense of proper respect and maturity toward young women.

  3. Great article, Kiran! After reading it, I was struck by how correct you were in your analysis & observations. I often feel the same pressure by aunties and my own mother. Unfortunately, I do not have parents that are as open-minded as yours and must try to keep my patience with their demands. Also, I was struck by your comment on how the marriage process can lead to low self-esteem. I feel like parents will say anything to encourage their daughters to marry, even if it means attacking and hurting them emotionally.

  4. Thanks Maliha, I really appreciate your comments, although as always I'm sad to hear when another young woman is going through this. You're so right about the importance of patience in dealing with the situation, as it is one of the things that helps one stay sane sometimes I feel. You bring up an important point about some parents actually using hurtful language, although their intentions may be good (well, sometimes I wonder about that, too). I honestly hope future generations don't feel the need to resort to hurtful language just for the sake of forcing a marriage.

  5. Thank you for giving a voice to so many smart talented young women. As an immigrant mother of three first generation Pakistani-Americans, I often think of the pressures my children have been under, in order to keep up with the demands of their parents to follow the rules of a distant land and coping up with the demands of the society they live in. I know we desis cling to our culture and tradition, and try to do everything the way its done back home. Please stop and think desi parents what are we doing to these children in the process, in this case, insulting our intelligent sensitive daughters! It was our decision to bring our children here, aren't we happy that we are able to provide them with great opportunities by living here , but also think that everything comes at a price, we bartered our way of life with this one then why do you expect your children to be a pukka Pakistani, they are not and they will not be. I know this is the hardest to accept, but for this mistake please don't tear our children apart by imposing the rules that have become obsolete even in the society they originated. We can still be Pakistanis if we accommodate our children's perspective into our own and maybe the picture will be more beautiful with the mixing of colors!

  6. Dear Anonymous Reader,

    Thank you so much for your very important words! I'm so happy to hear the opinion of a Pakistani parent, and to find that the pressures younger generations face are understood. I really liked your last statement, "We can still be Pakistanis if we accommodate our children's perspective into our own...". I think that sort of mentality put into practice would really allow both parents and children to feel so much more comfortable as Pakistani-Americans and not feel a need to pick one side or the other, and you make a good point that that mixing can be beautiful if we take the best qualities of both worlds. It would be very sad if we lost the amazing parts of our desi, Pakistani culture, but I think it would also be sad if we didn't adopt good American values too after living here for so long.

    Thanks again!

  7. Nadeem (nadeem at nadeemwaheed dot com)April 3, 2011 at 7:15 PM

    Interesting viewpoint - I randomly ran across this while trying to do a google search on muslim marriages. As someone who is currently in the process of trying to meet that special someone, I am amazed that most desi people do more research in buying a car than in choosing their life partner. I actually relate the marriage process to a superficial car buying process. It's my experience and experience such as individuals like yourself that have inspired me to try to come up with a solution for this problem. Regardless of if it is me or someone else, I feel we have a big problem that needs to be addressed. If I were to go according to the traditional process, I would most probably wind up with someone who looks good on paper and has a nice picture, but someone who I may or may not be able to understand ... lol :)

  8. Nadeem - if you find a solution to this issue, please please let the world know! You are so right to compare it to a car-buying process and it's so sad but it's true as you said that some people do more research when buying a car than when looking for a spouse. If that "looks good on paper" process works for two people and they're willing to stick through the consequences, I suppose there's no judgment to be made, but when the process does hurt people, it becomes a major issue.

    May you find the cure soon!

  9. Kiran, this is a really profound article and I enjoyed reading it. Although I am pressured to get married by only one side of the family (phew) I still really relate to your words. Your point that Desis put so much emphasis on marriage, and all its particularities, because of their desire to maintain their ties to their culture and origin really resonates with me! I think that is very true and a key point! It is helpful for us diasporas to recognize this reasoning, to help make logic of our family's insistence and advice, and help them realize some error in their ways.

    I agree that Desi children from the 80's are dealing with a difficult marriage process because of culture clashing, but I think the ideas and change that all of us are putting forth are making very positive headway. I see a positive process for our generation as well. We need to be proactive and communicate honestly (as you have done) for our culture to progress and for a more feasible process to be instilled.

    And as you coined them very accurately, the 'persistent' mothers need to realize when it is time to stop mothering, and the 'confused' sons need to man up and make decisions for themselves.

    I have more to say but I'll stop! But I think your article is great and it would be so beneficial for the community to read it. I'd like to see it in InFocus or something.


  10. hello everyone i was searching in net about how pakistan marriage is...bcoz me and my boyfren is now having a big problem rightnow...bcoz i am from different country and religion,but my boyfrend is from pakistan..and the problem is he will about to marry next year by the girl where his father chose for him...we fights,argued many times about this issue,i ask him if he really love me he will choose me rather than marry the girl..but he said to me that he really loves me but he cant disobey the culture and the parents,,,i ask him that let us live together and be far away from them so we can live together...but he cant do that...why? it possible to have a marriage between a filipino and pakistani?can u give me some answers?plz?coz now im so crazy about it,,i really love him..and its so hard to accept that my love of my life will be marry wth someone else,,its really hurts,,,im willing to give up and give everything for him just for sake of our relationship..thank u so much and more power...

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