It’s 2017, and my cousin recently got engaged. Beaming, she shows me the gifts she received from the groom’s side of the family at the engagement ceremony: sky-high stilettos, a Western-style diamond pendant and matching earrings, a Ted Baker makeup bag — exotic luxuries for a young girl raised in a mid-size city in north India.
I, however, am more interested in learning about her fiancé. “What does he look like?”
On her phone, she shows me a grainy photo of a young man slouching on a sofa. It’s the same photo I have seen before, taken by her father at the rishta meeting she did not attend. Later, the engagement ceremony was attended only by his sisters and nieces, who brought the gifts. Although the two families have business ties, the bride and groom have never met.
“Do you guys talk?” I ask.
She giggles. “Of course not.”
I raise my eyebrows. They live in the same city and have been engaged for nine months. “Not even on WhatsApp?” I press. “Facebook?”
“No,” she says, a little annoyed. “That’s not done.”
It’s 2017, and my cousin has had zero direct contact with the man she is about to marry. True, in this mahallah (neighborhood), which so often feels like a step back in time, blindly arranged marriages are simply “what is done.” From an Islamic perspective, however, I find this irresponsible. Marriage is a serious undertaking. Shouldn’t the bride and groom should step up to communicate, build understanding of each other and set the terms of the relationship before jumping in? In practice, though, she is moving from one joint family home to another, in the same city, and already has an intimate understanding of the particular subculture to which both families belong. She has been occupied with cooking, driving and “home-making” lessons full-time for over nine months. She is cognizant of and well prepared for many of her duties as a wife. Importantly, she has seen the example of countless new brides who have woven themselves respectfully into the fabric of our extended family, many of them living under the same roof as her.
Still, the “woke” part of me is momentarily outraged. Doesn’t she deserve to choose her partner rather than being blindly arranged? Yet, she does not seem particularly interested in getting to know her husband before marriage. She has the rest of her life to spend with him, as the aunties point out jovially. Moreover, she consented willingly and is certainly enthusiastic about the wedding. For my cousin, like so many girls, marriage is foremost a coming-of-age ceremony. In South Asian culture, twentysomethings are considered children until we are wed. The wedding itself affords young women a kind of societal debut, an opportunity to function as the over-the-top, unapologetic center of attention — much like a quinceañera or sweet sixteen birthday party. In a far cry from the demure white weddings of many other cultures, our brides traditionally look like experienced and grown women, in bold makeup, kilos of heavy jewelry, and bright hues of sexually empowering red. Much of this is superficial, a materialistic prelude to the often harsh pragmatism of adult life, but she has the right to choose this experience and revel in it.
Marriage itself entails significant, if subtle, shifts in her social role: to manage the finances of her immediate family’s household, to be the primary decision maker for her own kids, to develop a relationship with her husband, and to mentor younger women. Within the confines of the culture that she knows and loves, this is empowerment; the chance to finally call the shots.
In the end, no matter how much or little you know about the other person, no matter how ready or unprepared you feel, marriage is a leap of faith. Accepting and supporting the decisions of your loved ones is likewise an exercise in faith. For all these reasons and more, I hold my tongue as I embrace and congratulate her, placing my trust in Allah, Ar-Rashid, Al-’Aleem, Al-Hakim.
We unpack the makeup bag and dip into blush. She doesn’t need it. She is already flushed with excitement. It’s 2017, and my cousin is happy to be getting married. Everything else will follow, inshallah.