Do Cultural Norms Kill Relationship Prospects?

We had been working together for nearly a year at a large financial services firm, and you were the first Muslim man that I had met outside of my immediate community and college circles.
Handsome, tall, and athletic, but the qualities that captivated me most were your gentle demeanor and presence, genuine curiosity in what was happening in my life, and keen self awareness. I was attracted to you immediately. You were Pakistani, just like me, and through our conversations, it was apparent that we shared a mutual commitment to our identities, and thus our politics.
You asked me numerous questions during our coffee breaks and lunches–my family’s lifestyle and upbringing, what activities made me happy, and who I envisioned myself to be in my community or in the workplace. Your insightful questions and curiosity mesmerized me, and slowly, you became a clear choice.

For the first time, I felt that I had met someone with whom a real, authentic, and purposeful relationship could be born.  You were a refreshing surprise in a sea of seemingly transactional rishta (marriage proposal) processes. And you were clearly interested in my opinions, personal life, and my career. So I waited.

I wanted to know if you were seeing someone, or maybe if you would be interested in me. I wanted to know what kind of woman you were attracted to and where you wanted your personal life to go. When I saw that you were on Minder, I nearly dropped my phone in astonishment. One of my questions had been answered–you were single and looking.
But I didn’t ask any of my questions, and even now, months after, I can’t pinpoint why.
It might have been because I was afraid of being rejected, and perhaps further, that if I revealed my true feelings, you might be put off by my forwardness.

Any step felt like a double-edged sword. If I kept my feelings to myself, I risked losing your interest. If I came forward, you might be turned off by the break in the social code.

There is a pressing stigma, whether true or not, that I feel compels women in our community to follow certain social norms, consciously adopt some behaviors and discard others because“Log kya kahenge?”   (What will people/society say?)
As a woman, there are politics of waiting, being patient, and being mindful as you navigate heteronormative dynamics of power when a Muslim man and a Muslim woman get to know each other. These politics are magnetic.
In my experience, it seems that it doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum, between someone who approaches relationships with a conservative mindset or someone who is willing to take more risks to see where the other person is at.
Sometimes, it seems that our fears and discomfort prompt us to revert to behaviors that are contrary to what we may believe, because we have been conditioned and expected to behave this way.

I am a strong believer in equity and de-institutionalizing the patriarchal power dynamics that can sometimes prevail in rishta processes or other matrimonial endeavors…yet contrary to my own beliefs, I still waited in silence.

I can’t decide if it was because of pressure I put on myself to play dumb and wait for you to make a move. Or if it was because the majority of my consulting circle of Muslim gal pals advised not making you aware of my intentions or interest because when guys are interested, they will pursue you.

One school of thought tells us that it’s not worth it to reveal how you feel because it contrasts the social and cultural behaviors expected from a young south Asian Muslim woman.

But a married friend told me that sometimes women have to put in more work to get the man to notice them. My mom said I should casually ask you if you were seeing anyone. The more opinions I got, the more my own convictions started to destabilize.
For months, we took breaks at work together, eating lunch and catching up on family, social lives, and endless meetings and workstreams. And my questions never left my lips.
One day, we went to a Mexican place near the office. This was nearly a year into knowing you, and I told myself that today was the day that I would reject what was expected of me, and finally ask you if you were seeing anyone. If you weren’t, I would share that I was interested in you. After months of giving into my low self-esteem, fear of rejection, and apprehension about breaking an unwritten rule, I wanted an answer, once and for all. But before I could unfold my napkin onto my lap, your voice glided across the table.
“Did you see that Rubina got engaged?”
You kicked off our conversation by bringing up a mutual friend’s engagement. I nodded and said “Yeah, I saw!” referencing the Facebook post of two pairs of hands interlocked with one another that I had seen. Why were you bringing up a mutual friend’s engagement?
“It always seems to come out of nowhere, huh?” you continued.
You were right. Sometimes, it seems that in our circle of friends, you have no idea that someone was even with another person. They keep it so DL. Even after attending the mehndi (henna party), the shaadi (wedding), and the walima (reception), sometimes even the bride and groom’s closest friends don’t have details on how the pair got to know one another, and how they arrived at their decision to wed.
Though this observation about the often mysterious happenings of Muslim love lives was something I wanted to share, and probably would share later in a conversation among my Muslim girlfriends, I replied diplomatically. “Yeah I didn’t know he was seeing someone; they look great together though.”
You leaned forward into the table and it was as though the people around us here during a crowded, chaotic lunch hour weren’t there at all. “Are you seeing anyone?”
Did you just ask me the question that I had been agonizing over for several months? I was caught completely off guard. Why did you want to talk about this today? Of all days? The same day, after countless lunches and coffee breaks throughout the year, that I had decided that I was going to figure out your relationship status myself?
“No I’m not,” I responded softly, smiling curiously. I wanted to be nonchalant and avoid giving away my anticipation.
“Have you ever seen anyone?” You followed.
I shook my head no, and asked him about his love life right back.

You leaned back, smiled and nodded. “Yeah, I met this really cool Lebanese girl through mutual friends. I’m going to be moving to Dallas, soon actually, so we can get engaged.”

My heart sunk and my stomach felt heavy. I wanted to frown and relinquish the care and control I had put into my facial expressions during this lunch. But I could not give my sadness away. It was barely 12:15 and I knew I had to sit through at least another half hour of lunch with you.
So you talked for a bit, your smile seeming more distant with every detail. And I nodded, twirling rice between the narrow tines of my fork and swirling pieces of chicken on my plate.
“Aren’t you hungry?” You noticed that I wasn’t really eating.
“Oh, I was. I don’t know why but not really hungry now,” I answered, as if I too was confused about my lack of appetite.
You changed the subject, perhaps aware of the space you were taking up with your stories about the vacation to Dallas last month to see your girlfriend, and how your parents had already agreed even though she wasn’t Pakistani.

You described her light, fair skin and colorful eyes. How at first glance, she didn’t even look Muslim, whatever that meant.

At this point in my life, I had seen so many South Asian men in my community speak openly about their Eurocentric beauty preferences that these descriptors failed to surprise me, especially because the dynamics of our community allowed the often problematic and exclusionary romantic inclinations of men to slide by as preferences, and not idealizations of romantic partners that are shaped by political, economic, and social conditions that privilege whiteness (or proximity to it) over other identities.
I had seen the destruction Eurocentrism caused in my community:  The brown girls I knew who invested in blonde highlights and light-colored contents to bury their dark eyes; one who nearly destroyed her skin permanently after an adverse reaction to a skin lightening product she ordered from Singapore.

I thought about my friendships with brown and black Muslim women, the conversations we’d have over coffee in common rooms at college, and how often we noticed that the romantic preferences that privileged white and Arab women made us feel unwanted and unattractive.

“So what kind of guy are you interested in?”
You were twisting a knife in my gut. The worst part was that you had no idea. You had no idea that with every question you asked I felt more acutely aware of my loneliness and of the fact that I was a few years out of college, and had still never experienced what it felt like to be committed to someone. To feel so electrified with love that I’d want to pack my bags and be pulled to that person, wherever they were.
I wanted lunch to end. I didn’t want to answer your questions. I didn’t know how to answer them without my voice cracking open with sorrow. I was disappointed in myself for letting these coffees and lunches drag on without thinking about how I might feel if they led to nowhere.

The politics of waiting, hoping that you might see something in me, had ignited an unparalleled frustration and eventually, a dull, familiar loneliness.

I was so angry at you, but even more with myself. I had let my expectations soar sky high with excitement and faith, just to be blindsided. With the time that remained during our lunch break, I played along to your questions about what I envisioned in my future spouse, while avoiding your gaze. After daydreaming about your eyes for so long, they became especially unbearable to look at. Despite my despair, I was shocked that I could carry the conversation without coating my voice with bitter defeat.
“Oh I don’t have, like, a list of expectations. I think the right person will come along at some point… you know, educated, honest, respectful.” I rattled off vanilla answers, hoping his questions would reach a dead end.
“That’s good; you don’t sound as picky as other people.” You thought you were helping, and that this was fine.
And you continued, asking me when I’d hope to settle down. “I don’t know, like 28,” I said, questioningly.
Of course I had answers to these questions, but now I felt too far away from you to answer them honestly.

I would say that many young brown women who grow up watching Bollywood movies and having colonized middle school crushes have thought many of these things through. But I couldn’t just tell you all of this.

We drove back to the office. You shared that you started watching a TV show I told you about, and really liked it. You dropped me off in front of my building. I scanned my ID, went straight to the bathroom and cried in the stall until my next meeting.
I politely declined your next invitation to lunch and eventually, you moved to Dallas.
Months later, while hanging out with a close Muslim friend, Safia, I came across a photo of you on Facebook, smiling ear-to-ear in the Texas sun with your fiancé. Though you were wearing sunglasses, I remembered how the creases near your eyes crinkled with your smile, like a ripple effect in water.
I wondered when I might look into a pair of eyes again and feel illuminated with hope and possibility. Safia glanced over at my screen, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “Don’t worry hon, the right one will come to you.”
To this day, I can’t decide if things would have ended differently if I had just said something. Or if my friends were right…when you are wanted, he will come to you.