I Had an Arranged Marriage – But I'm Still a Feminist
I first met my future husband in a Travelodge. It was the best decision I ever made.
I fell in love with my husband after I married him.
We met only twice before we walked up the aisle, after being introduced by a mutual family friend. Neither of us had been in a relationship before and we didn't live together before our wedding day. And, although the odds were stacked against us, we've been happily married for almost five years. It was the quickest and the best decision I ever made.
It's also one that I will probably never stop having to field questions about as long as I'm alive. The one that triggers knee-jerk judgement in strangers. The one that my friends – people who would never in a million years consider allowing their parents to pick their partner for them – described it as "a recipe for disaster", like I was suggesting mixing tuna with bin juice and self-raising flour for my lunch.
It's hard for people to reconcile that a woman like me can still call herself a feminist. But I am, unequivocally. I have a vagina and I refuse to let that make me any less powerful, ambitious or successful than someone without one. It's that simple.
So how could I do it? How could I let my family facilitate such a defining part of my life? Well, I think arranged marriages are considered. They're nothing like forced marriages, which are abhorrent, oppressive and distinctly un-Islamic. An arranged marriage – one that both bride and groom happily consent to – can actually be rather sweet. Hear me out.
My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles had all had arranged marriages. Many of them were successful and many ended in divorce, just like a lot of "normal" marriages. At the time of my own marriage being arranged, my friends thought I was insane. They looked baffled and disgusted every time I mentioned it, like I had smeared shit all over my face and licked it off, saying, "Mmm, delicious."
Islam and feminism are not mutually exclusive terms.
The way I saw it, though, is that I was just viewing marriage in a different light to them. We were all looking at the same reality – a pledge of commitment, honesty, companionship, support, all that – but I chose to interpret it differently.
For me, marriage was the route towards love, rather than a tangible marker of its presence. It was about security, friendship and adventure with a person who shared my values and was all in for the ride from the start.
My parents were a great example of a successful arranged marriage and I wanted the same for myself. My dad still makes my mum breakfast every morning. She still tells him off for eating cream doughnuts, dyes his hair and prays for his health. He pretends that she's a nag in front of me but tells her that he loves her pretty much every chance he gets. Even when they're asleep, they snore in tandem. They're a wheezing, nocturnal orchestra of snuffles and grunts. That's what I wanted.
Finding a partner for me wasn't a decision that my mum and dad took lightly – their approach was methodical and rational, like many other parents who have done the same for their children. It had nothing to do with serendipity, romance and attraction. For them, it was more about finding a nice, humble man who would be kind and respectful to me.
My mum would usually do a background search of any guy in question, check for details of his education, career, age and height as well as talk to his acquaintances to try and get a handle on whether he was a psycho or not. She wasn't an expert, but she fumbled her way through, like a little, curvy Inspector Gadget, gabbing away to to other Muslim mums in our family network and beyond.
In most cases, an email would arrive from a guy's parents, a mutual middleman or a matchmaker with a list of "bio data" and an attached photograph. This kind of arranged marriage is basically like a luxury OK Cupid service, only, your family are doing the matching rather than internet software.
If the guy's profile didn't get lobbed into the slush pile, a meeting was set up – almost like a blind date, but with a parental chaperone and no kiss at the end of the group rendezvous (or "randyboo", as my mum likes to call it). Most meetings usually take place at the girl's parents' home. I, however, met my future husband in a Travelodge. That's right. Let me be the first to say that little packets of Canderel, sticky tabletops and cheap, chipped crockery really can be a precursor to genuine romance.
Nowadays, if people can't find someone to marry through their existing friendships, they join Islamic dating sites to make a new connection because, in Islam, pre-marital sex is forbidden. It means that marriage is pretty much the only route to getting some action.
Many parents like to meet the guy and his family first, before he gets to talk to their daughter, to guarantee that they haven't been catfished. All of this is done – or should be done – with the consent of the bride and groom to be. No one is forced into meeting or pushed into getting married because the parents like the potential suitor. That is a myth. Rather, it's a relaxed meeting where they get to talk freely and see if there's a spark. All that said, it's still a massive gamble, regardless of how much research or time is put into it. You're talking about putting two people together to embark on a relationship from a pre-embryonic stage. It's a risk.
There's no limit to how many times two families can meet before the marriage takes place, but usually the decision is usually made swiftly. The guy's parents will ask for the girl's hand in marriage – at which point the girl can still say no. She's under no obligation to agree. The final choice is hers.
For me it was a done deal very early on – my parents were happy with their background check and my "suitor" spoke to me with genuine kindness when I met him. He was also the most handsome man I had ever seen in my life and so, having spent the majority of my formative years as a big, insecure fatty with a moustache and a double chin, I was fully on board to be betrothed to such a babe. I felt like I'd won the Euro Millions, to be honest.
Other women may look at the trajectory of my marriage with judgement, but my decision to have an arranged marriage was absolutely a feminist choice.
I held all the cards. I was free to say no at any time. I felt in control of everything. My personal rights were upheld and I was never coerced into making a decision that I was unhappy with, so I'm often perplexed when others question whether you can have an Islamic arranged marriage and still be a feminist. To me, Islam and feminism are not mutually exclusive terms and the Muslim women – and men – in my life are fiercely feminist and conscious of building equal, fruitful relationships with each other.
I also never had to worry that I would be alone forever. As Bridget Jones as that sounds, the fear of potential spinsterhood is something that plagues a lot of women I know. I wouldn't be alone, sporing, smelling of fusty farts. Marriage – or not, just a long, fulfilling relationship with another kind, funny, supportive person – was not something that I had to obsess over. I was able to focus on my education and career without the pressure of having to find my soulmate. In fact, the phrase "soulmate" doesn't exist in my family's vocabulary – I was taught that you have to make a marriage work through compromise, sacrifice and respect, so that a friendship can be transformed into a love.
I like the think of my husband as a broader shouldered, stubblier version of Beyonce. He's a massive feminist, with an arse of steel. He is supportive of my every ambition. I didn't love him from day one, but his kindness built around me, like a moat, and I soon had very little desire – or ability, really – to escape. In the early stages of our marriage he would fill up my dad's car with petrol in secret and listen to my forgetful grandmother repeat the same questions over and over again without looking bored. He was silly and fun to be around, and, eventually, I didn't just like him. I loved him. He became my comfort zone. I struggle to see how the path I took to get to where I am with him matters.
Every every relationship – whether you're married or not – is undulating. Some last, some don't. I've been incredibly lucky with my back-to-front love story. Only, for me, arranged marriage isn't backward at all.
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