Category Archives: Culture

International Love

‘If I get really desperate, I’ll just go to Lebanon/Pakistan/insert-country-here and find someone’.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that statement, I’d be writing this from the Bahamas instead of my suburban couch. It’s terribly clichéd to say it, but I’ll say it anyway: increasingly, we are living in a global bubble. I often feel like there are so few degrees of separation between people that it’s all a bit claustrophobic. Social media gives us the sense, even if it’s not entirely accurate, that we have a portal to different countries, with those portals often being people we’ve never even met.

Even as we ‘connect’, the simultaneous sense of loneliness can fester. Routine and repetition can render us prone to the belief that we know everyone in our own city and that if there was anyone to meet, we’d have met them already. Put this sense of boredom together with the belief in global portals of discovery and we have some pretty interesting possibilities arising. We can talk to people in different countries and on different continents and see if there’s the potential of a shared life together, wherever that may be.

But it seems not all countries were created equal. There is often a marked difference in how people raised in Western countries view the idea of marrying someone raised in another Western country as opposed to marrying someone from their parents’ country of origin. This means someone in Australia may be perfectly fine with talking to someone in Canada, but they may not be as open to talking to someone born and raised in Iraq.

Much of this may be explained by language barriers. If someone doesn’t speak a language other than English fluently, they will naturally experience communication issues with someone whose English isn’t fluent. But it’s more than that. Many people refer to ways of being particular to the ‘third culture generation’: those who were raised in a Western country to migrant parents, negotiating their way through different modes of existence and forming their own mishmash of an identity. Those with a very strong sense of cultural identity may feel they relate well to people from their parents’ country of origin, and as such are very open to marrying someone who was raised there.

But even so, a kind of stigma is often attached to these unions. People whisper behind their hands, well, they clearly gave up and couldn’t find someone here. The perception exists that it’s easier to find someone to marry overseas, perhaps grounded in suspicion of the motives of those who don’t hold Western passports. It’s a common perception that many people are just after visas or green cards and will marry anyone to get it. ‘Fobs’ are the butt of many jokes, with everything from their broken English to their way of dressing becoming the subject of derision.

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I find it all very interesting, especially from where I stand as a person whose parents and relatives overseas speak English as their main language. I’ve certainly never had anyone show any interest whatsoever in my Australian passport when I go to South Africa, and so part of me feels sceptical when friends talk about dangling their passport in front of people overseas and watching the hordes run in. I also know many people who’ve simply met someone overseas and hit it off with them, just as they would with someone here, and so I hate to think that their relationship would be attributed to a mere visa hunt by the overseas party.

I also wonder just how similar the experiences and outlooks of Muslims in different Western countries are. How different is the Canadian Muslim experience to the British Muslim experience to the Australian Muslim experience? Of course, migration patterns differ between these countries, which results in different demographic mixes and community dynamics. For example, the migrant US Muslim community is known to be particularly affluent and well-educated. Friends I know who’ve mingled extensively with people from the US Muslim community comment that they seem more ‘liberal’ than people in Australia when it comes to relations with the opposite sex, which makes for interesting international love conundrums. Even here in Australia much is made of the distinction between Muslims in Sydney and Melbourne, and within cities all kinds of different communities and sub-communities exist.

Where is this all going to go? What kinds of identities will the children of Muslim Australian-US-Indian-Somali parents ascribe to? Will these apps and sites, created to foster country-wide and global connections, achieve their aims? I’m not sure. There are too many variables involved, too many factors at play. All I know is that the world for me has simultaneously contracted and expanded as I’ve gotten older. I’m more conscious than ever of all that lies beyond the city of my birth, but am also more conscious of how modernity and globalisation is condensing and eroding culture and difference into one soupy hot mess. I wonder about all the people who are getting left behind as people like me, the privileged, well-travelled, well-educated elite, continue to do our global dances from retreats to conventions to conferences, meeting more and more people just like us.

Would you marry someone from another country? Would it matter which country they were from?

 

 

Ready or Not?

An acquaintance of mine recently got engaged. After contemplating on what a cute couple she and her fiancé made, my mind turned to their different positions in life. He, working a full-time job, she at uni for several more years with no immediate career prospects. But somehow it didn’t seem to be a major issue. Time and time again, I hear of a couple getting engaged and then married while the female half is still studying at uni. ‘Readiness’ seemed to be a concept that applied to men exclusively in many cases.

The whole concept of ‘readiness’ has always intrigued me. For some reason, it’s been cropping up an awful lot lately amongst people I know. As a Social Inquirer, I must confess that I’ve struggled with the term. (Postmodernism and relativism immediately comes to mind, and with them a whole host of other academic footnotes.)  The above paragraph refers to financial readiness most obviously, but ‘readiness’ encompasses much more than that. It’s a term often bandied about when relationships fail. ‘Oh, he just wasn’t ready’. ‘In hindsight, neither of us were really ready’. But what does it actually mean to be ready to get married?

I have no definitive answer to that question. For some people, especially men, the question is mainly one of finances. This is due to the emphasis placed in many cultures, and indeed Islam, on men being carers and supporters of their families. Even if a woman works, as the majority do, many men, their families and prospective wive’s families like to know that they have a steady income before they go door-knocking. Much of the familial opposition to a person their son meets of his own accord (e.g. at uni, or through Muslim community events) stems from the fact that they feel their son is just not ready ie. financially stable.

‘Readiness’ also encompasses emotional and intellectual maturity. As you might guess, this is where things start to get really murky. Who deems when a person is in a fit emotional state to get into a relationship? How are you supposed to assess whether you’re fit to be a good partner before you even enter into a relationship? This, then begs the question: precisely how ready do you need to be to even approach someone for marriage?

As someone who firmly believes that emotional and spiritual growth is a lifelong project, I have trouble comprehending the idea that there would be any moment where you’d feel like you’re ‘there’. As mentioned previously, I also take issue with the fact that this type of ‘readiness’ is often underemphasised when it comes to the female half of the equation. Some claim that this is because women mature much earlier than men. Perhaps this is the case; popular discourse and anecdotal evidence certainly screams it. But that doesn’t mean that an eighteen year old female is necessarily ‘ready’ for marriage, or even a twenty eight year old female.

When it comes to ‘readiness’, people tend to fall into one of several categories (forgive me for the cake analogies, I have a soft spot for baking):

1.) ‘Still raw in the middle, total no go’

These people feel that they’re not ‘ready’ at all for marriage, and as such they’re pretty much untouchable. They feel it’d be unfair and irresponsible to get into a relationship while they’re still figuring it all out, and so plan to stay well clear of romantic entanglements until they do.

2.) ‘Still need a few more minutes in the oven, but can be taken out if necessary’

These people will generally avoid romantic entanglements wherever possible, but if it happens ‘organically’ they’re not too fussed. They feel they’re not quite there yet, but that they can get themselves over the line without too much hassle. They keep one eye open for potential partners and one eye firmly on their career/spiritual/ intellectual advancement.

3.) ‘Fully cooked, get me outta here!’

These people are keen to seal the deal. They are generally well-established and feel they’re at a stage in their life where the only thing ‘missing’ is companionship. They’re on the look-out and tend to bring things to a head (i.e. propose and get the parents involved) pretty quickly once they meet someone they like.

4.) ‘Cooking time? What is that?

These people don’t buy into the whole ‘readiness’ thing. They feel that when they meet a person they like, they’ll be ready to meet whatever challenges come together with that person, regardless of what stage of life they’re both in.

At the end of the day, no one can tell you precisely when you’re ready to get married. It’s not a scientific measurement with its own scale. Socially constructed, contextual parameters can and do assist in its determination, but ‘readiness’ is as much a state of mind as it is a concrete state of affairs.

Do you feel ready to get married? When do you think a person can be said to be ‘ready’ for marriage?

The Love Actually World…

*disclaimer: The identity of this poster has been kept anonymous.

I was having a chat to a non-Muslim friend of mine about the differences and similarities between the Muslim “courting” world  (I’m using this word here because it’s probably the most appropriate way to describe it) and the non-Muslim dating world. We made some interesting observations that I’d like to share. To start it off, there are generally three types of people in the non-Muslim dating world: the uncommitted dater, the monogamist and the “Muslim” non-Muslim.

The uncommitted dater

This group is actually becoming more common than the monogamists. These people casually date multiple people without committing themselves to an individual. They may be intimate with multiple people at a given point in and do not see marriage on the horizon. Marriage is probably a word that brings shudders to their spine. Most people in this group eventually move to the monogamy category when they are “old” and have “been there, done that.”

The monogamist

This group of people may not see marriage in the near future or at all, but they are in a committed relationship or looking for a committed relationship. They tend to be older (although this is not always the case), wanting the emotional connection that uncommitted dating doesn’t offer, and searching for an individual to share their future with.

You also have the serial monogamists in this category. The individuals who, although they do not date multiple people at once, are constantly in committed relationships one after the other, without much uncommitted dating in between. They usually have many partners, but these partners are not concurrent. These guys are probably searching for “the one” but haven’t found them yet and are tired of disappointing relationships.

The “Muslim” non-Muslim

This is the non-Muslim who could almost be mistaken for Muslim because of their approach to the dating world. They are probably from a traditional culture or are religious. Examples that come to mind are Indians with traditional parents or practising Christians.

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In my opinion, the practising Christians have it tougher than us Muslims. They usually restrict themselves to getting to know someone who is also a practising Christian of their particular religious group, so a practising Anglican for example. Unfortunately for these guys, they are of a culture that no longer follows the “courting” tradition that was once common, so these practising Christians are left trying to find their a practising Christian in the huge non-Muslim dating world where no rules apply; the “Love Actually” world where the practising Christian may become attached to non-Christians and throw their requirements out the window in the name of love and in the hope that faith will come to their chosen partner. Or, remain single for a very long time until a religiously appropriate partner is found (I’m sure a lot of Muslims can relate to this latter point too). Luckily for us though, we don’t have to venture into the non Muslim dating world,  Alhamdulillah. So it’s easier for us. We have our own Muslim courting world that is still very much so embedded in our culture and widely accepted, unlike the Christians whose religion encourages courting but Western culture does not.

I think it’s safe to say that non-Muslims from traditional cultures have somewhat similar experiences to Muslims when it comes to all things love-related. It’s usually a box ticking exercise, it’s probably not ‘romantic’ and involves parental approval. Muslims tend to relate well to this group because besides the religion factor, these friends understand the logic to our supposed “restrictive madness.”

Actually, to digress for a moment (okay, more than a moment), this takes me to something that is forever brought up with non-Muslim friends. The idea that as Muslims, we restrict ourselves too much and care too much about the “Muslim” box being ticked, rather than looking at the content of the person’s character. I call bulls$$t on that, but let’s indulge in a discussion of it regardless. This is something that is endlessly on the debating table with non-Muslim friends. Putting the “haram” factor aside, since this is never an argument that non-Muslims take well to, this is how the conversation usually plays out:

Non-Muslim friend (John): “But why are you being so restrictive, shouldn’t the most important thing be that they’re a good person?”

Muslim (Fatima): “Of course that’s important, but why can’t they be Muslim AND a good person?”

John: “It’s hard enough these days to find someone decent, you’re being too picky. ”

Fatima: “Being Muslim isn’t just a label, it is my purpose and is a part of my everyday life. There is no point marrying someone who can’t share my lifestyle.”

John: “But a non-Muslim could still take part in your Muslim stuff and support you.”

Fatima: “Would you wake up at 5am every single day of your life to support your Muslim wife? Would you fast for 30 days every year?”

John: *dumbfounded*

Fatima: “Yeah. There you go.”

Okay, so the conversation is usually a lot more detailed than that but putting the sarcasm aside, this takes me to the #dontevengothere mentality that non-Muslims generally do not understand. I’m talking about the “uncommitted dater” and “monogamist” types mentioned above, not the “Muslim” non-Muslims. Generally speaking, dating and relationship stuff in the non-Muslim world is a free-for-all. No one is off limits. It doesn’t matter which religion, culture, situation, or even gender that the person is, pretty much every person that you find attractive is date-able. This is definitely not the case with us Muslims. We have what I like to refer to as the “don’t even go there” mentality. We are excellent (for the most part) at restricting ourselves to what is (usually, Allahu Alam) good for us.

Non-Muslims are always in the #dontevengothere group for us, as well as sometimes particular cultures. We may #dontevengothere seemingly suitable Muslims who might not be at the level of spirituality that we feel that we need. Or we may #dontevengothere girls who don’t wear hijabs or men without beards. Some of these  restrictions may not be Islamic, but I’m simply trying to illustrate a point. We are (usually) really good at limiting ourselves to choices that we believe are good for our worldly life and the hereafter. We are disciplined. Non-Muslims aren’t because they don’t have to be. There is no other-world punishment for their romantic choices. Their objectives are different. And so our restrictive approach is always something that rarely translates and seems to lack substance in the non-Muslim’s mind since, when it really comes down to it, our objectives in this life are vastly different.

And that’s what it comes down to boys and girls. No matter how much we analyse this, no matter how much non-Muslims are perplexed by this, it always comes down to one thing: why are we here?

Turkish> Lebanese? Afghan>Bengali?

My parents have never been too big on culture, or more accurately, the culture of a potential son-in-law. ‘As long as he’s Muslim’, they’d always say. But that’s not to say that they don’t have slight preferences one way or another. It never manifested itself in an overt way, but for many people I know drawing up the hierarchy of cultures is a rather easy exercise. They know exactly where various cultures stand in their parents’ eyes, and they weigh up the risks of being with someone accordingly. Some cultures are a complete red light, others orange, and a select few green. The hierarchy of cultures depends on a variety of factors, such as geographical proximity and points of cultural commonality.

The Green Light Cultures

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but in 99% of cases parents either outright state that only their own culture will do or that they strongly prefer it. Why do people want their children to marry partners specifically from their own cultural background? That’s a topic too weighty for me to do full justice to here. If I had to offer a quick summary, it’d come down to one word: ease. I’ve mentioned this before, but for many people culture offers a template by which to make decisions in life. Marriage, as one of life’s major decisions, is no different. There are set ways to go about things and set criteria by which to choose a partner. Culture facilitates communication, and quite literally so when parents don’t speak fluent English.

Some parents take the ‘close enough is good enough’ approach, which means that a prospective spouse from their region will get the tick of approval. It’s still not quite bullseye, but it’s enough for them not to kick up a fuss. For example, if they’re Turkish, they might not have an objection to someone from the Balkans wanting to marry their son/daughter. If they’re Lebanese, Egyptian might be a bit of a stretch, but still passable.

The Orange Light Cultures

The orange light will usually be signalled if the culture is an unknown variable. (Being South African, I get this a lot.) The parents in question will be apprehensive about the person being from a completely different culture, but because they lack preconceived notions about the culture they’re often willing to give it a go. Obviously this is only if they’re somewhat open-minded; for some parents simply being from a cultural background other than their own will signal a huge red light.

Some cultures are also stereotyped as being ‘inoffensive’. Typically south-east Asian Muslims are thought of as such, perhaps because of a stereotype existing of them being easy to get along with and laidback.

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The Red Light Cultures

You might think that people within the same region could all get along, but this isn’t always the case.  Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt, or much worse, such as a history of tension or even outright war. For example, the subcontinent is fraught with these types of historical tensions, making it hard for different cultures within it to intermarry despite their geographical proximity.

The other situation in which the red light is definitely flagged is due to racial stereotypes, which sadly Muslims are not immune to whatsoever. You’d think that as a minority group we’d understand the harm stereotyping does, but apparently not. I’ve heard Arab parents say that they don’t want their children to marry someone from the subcontinent because of their mental associations with servants in the Arab world, who often hail from the subcontinent. I’ve heard parents from the subcontinent say that they wouldn’t want their child to marry an Arab because they associate them with criminality and gangs, and these are just a few examples. It makes me really sad, but it happens all over the world. I listened to a lecture in which the Shaykh touched on the fact that in the USA African American brothers and sisters have a hard time marrying other Muslims because of parental red lights.

In my ideal world, there would be no red lights, but I certainly understand that people prefer to marry within their own culture. Do your parents have a hierarchy of acceptable cultures to marry into? Do you?

Living with the In-Laws: Recipe for Disaster?

I’m no economist, but it seems to me that it’s more difficult than ever to make a start in life away from the parental home. Studies have shown that Gen Y kids are putting off moving out until later in life than their Gen X predecessors due to financial pressures. (Plus, let’s face it, who would actually volunteer to do their own washing?) For Muslims, this discussion takes on a whole other dimension.

For starters, us Muslims generally don’t move out of home before we get married unless it’s seen as absolutely necessary, such as getting into medicine in a different city. (‘Medicine’ is a magic word for Muslim parents, much like ‘open sesame’.) For the overwhelming majority of us who stay at home, life at twenty eight can potentially be exactly the same as it was at eighteen.  Twenty-somethings often still have curfews and thirty-somethings may still meet potential partners in their lounge room like they did a decade before. But there’s more. In many cultures it is the norm for the daughter-in-law to move in with her new family and stay put for an extended period of time, if not for life. This is a cultural norm not exclusive to Muslims, but when these cultures intersect with Islam it makes for some interesting conundrums.

For example, a woman who wears the hijab is not permitted to remove it in front of her brother-in-law. If your husband has a brother who lives at home, this means either staying in your room a lot or walking around wearing hijab and long sleeves and all the rest of it. The issue is not that the hijab is particularly uncomfortable in the physical sense of the word. If it was, we’d hardly be able to cope on a day-to-day basis. It’s more that hijab is the ‘face’ a Muslim woman presents to the public; it encompasses a modest demeanour as well as modest dress. If a Muslim woman cannot remove her public face in her own home, where then can she occupy an uninhibited space?

There are other more trivial but still noteworthy issues associated with living with in-laws. One raised by friends who have lived with their in-laws is the somewhat delicate issue of ghusl, the ritual purification required after sexual intercourse. If you’re having a shower at 4am, it’s not that difficult to conclude that something has been going on. Nothing wrong with it of course, but do you really want your in-laws to know about it? How comfortable can you really be with conducting your intimate married life inside someone else’s home?

These are just a couple of the issues I’ve discussed with people, not to mention the more general issues of interference from in-laws and lack of privacy. For these reasons, I have many friends who will simply not even consider living with their in-laws, even when they get along very well. They would rather live in a boxy apartment than in relative comfort with their in-laws because they anticipate that nothing good can come out of it. They also feel that marriage signals the start of a new independent, adult life, and that remaining in the family home is the exact opposite of this. After all, the process of settling into married life can be fraught with difficulty on its own, let alone with the addition of long-established family dynamics and tensions.

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I’ve fluctuated between hating the idea of living with the in-laws and being indifferent to it. As someone who enjoys a healthy dose of the 2 P’s, privacy and personal space, it’s a hard pill to swallow. But I’m also aware of the financial advantages of blended family life, as well as the potential emotional rewards such as familial closeness and support. I try not to buy into the horror stories about X’s evil mother-in-law and Y’s and overbearing father-in-law. But I must concede that it’s something that I find difficult to view as anything more than a stopgap, a platform to bigger and better things to come. I worry about the little things, like not enjoying my mother-in-law’s cooking and having to make polite conversation when all I want to do is collapse on the couch with my husband after a long day’s slog at work.

I don’t deny that living with the in-laws can work, particularly when it’s only a temporary arrangement. After all, doing so is the norm in many parts of the world, so it can’t be all bad. I’m more interested in the process of negotiation that takes place to facilitate it and how people conduct it while maintaining open and cordial relations. This process of negotiation can be especially interesting when the parties are of different ethnic backgrounds, which is becoming more and more common in the Muslim community and beyond. If there are expectations of a daughter-in-law specific to a particular culture, what happens when that daughter-in-law happens to be from a different culture altogether? Who draws the lines, and where?

Over to you guys. Would you ever live with your in-laws? Why/why not?

An Arranged Love Story Part 1

*Disclaimer: author’s identity has been kept anonymous.

I hardly gave any thought on how I would meet my man. Or actually, I didn’t know if I would meet a man that fit my simple criteria. See, I didn’t care that I only wanted a few necessary things on my criteria list. However I did care enough that if I chose a man, he would fit my criteria to a T.  I’d begun to open up to the idea of marrying someone in my late teens. As a female, my parents would remind me about marriage but suggested that I finished my degree first without too many distractions. So they weren’t prepared to outwardly look for me until I hit my 22nd birthday. I wasn’t too caught up in looking for myself either with university, internships and work taking up most of my time.

My rebellion within the notion of marriage didn’t come from the idea of marrying someone. My rebellion came from my parent’s idea of marrying someone from our own culture. We disagreed for over a year on this issue, so much so that our local ethnic community caught wind of it. As someone born and raised in Australia, I wasn’t too keen on marrying someone from my roots- not if they weren’t already living in Australia. And that was almost impossible, considering how ‘connected’ our ethnic community was.

So I decided to take matters in my own hands. My friend and discussed the idea of joining an Islamic marriage circle such as Mission of Hope’s The M Word. I was and still am very honest with my parents, so I wasn’t going to enter into this without the consent of my parents. I wouldn’t say it was a bad idea to tell my parents, but maybe it could’ve been handled better. Cue World War III. After that very intense discussion, I realised, fine, I wasn’t desperate to get married right here, right now. So I decided to place my trust in my parents and allow them to look for an appropriate guy, no matter how sceptical I was that they would actually find one that fit my criteria.

After one of my best friends got married at 20, my family was hit with marriage proposals- from around the world. They were all from our cultural background and they were mainly older men- so if I ever said yes to them, there would’ve been a good 7 to 12 year age gap. My parents and I weren’t too keen on that, as well as the fact that I wanted to remain in and work in Australia.

So it was a surprise to everyone when a proposal was brought to my dad by a younger, newly married family friend. This family friend was proposing one of his BFFs as a suitable partner for me. What surprised my dad was that he’d subconsciously taken note of the proposed guy at the local mosque for the last 3-5 years during Ramadan. The proposed guy had been living with flatmates in Australia as an international student for the last 6 years.

My dad decided to let me know about this proposal. I was fine with them looking into someone, but boy was I super skeptical. After much investigation into the guy, his family, his friends, his life- my parents told me that everything was fine and that if I was still open to the idea, to see him. I’ll forever remember the first day I saw him- Eid-ul-Adha 2012. There were a lot of anticipated and unanticipated things that went down that day…

Image c/o  jscreationzs at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Image c/o jscreationzs at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

I was about to see the man who could potentially be my husband. I was also going to see my best friend’s husband for the first time as he had just come from England and it was the festive day of Eid. Colourful clothing, presents, socialising- the exciting atmosphere in our ethnic community was everywhere. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened next- the shocks, the excitement overload and a bit of betrayal thrown into the mix.

My first drama was seeing the ‘proposed dude’ as I called him. Despite many attempts by my mother to lure me closer to him, I was overcome with embarrassment and shyness- which was new for me. Anyone who knows me knows how talkative and confident I can be. After a while, I relented by detaching myself from the protective circle of my friends and into the lion’s den. My mum and I awkwardly met the friend who initiated the proposal, his wife and kids and his proposed friend. We didn’t want to make it obvious to the community that something more official than Eid socialising was going on. There was a decision to keep it between close relatives, close friends and any family involved for now- in case the proposal was unsuccessful. I was happy just discussing my thoughts with my newly married friend, otherwise being alone in this would’ve driven me crazy.

I could barely look at his face, and I was sighing in relief when the chit-chat was over. I  made a beeline back to my friends where another unforeseen drama was unfolding. Another friend of mine had announced that she was engaged. I was so happy and excited for her- particularly because we had no idea that she would be ‘the next one in line.’  The engagement was a quick process for her, and was kept under wraps. However at the previous Eid, I did suspect something might have been going on for her and commented about my speculation briefly to my mum. Little did I know what impact that would have.

We were congratulating her and after a while, I noticed her walking over and talking to the guy that was proposed for me. Cue shock number 2. I was looking at them wondering, what on Earth!? This guy, whom I had just met for the first time today, wasn’t heavily involved in community activities and had no way of being on chummy terms with a girl my age, since there’s strict gender segregation.

My other girlfriends and I were watching her curiously (me being the most curious) until a friend informed me that the guy my engaged friend was talking to, was her fiancé’s first cousin. Say what!? I think I was so shocked that we were both ‘investigating’ future spouses at the same time from the same family. After the shock, I became angry and betrayed. There was no way this piece of information could have gotten past my parents.

As I looked for my mum, I was really upset- why didn’t they tell me, why did they keep it a secret? These were some of the questions repeatedly running through my head. I had a severe discussion with my parents in the corner of the park for the following 10 minutes. They told me that 1, they didn’t tell my friend’s family that we were looking into her fiance’s first cousin as a potential for me and 2, after my friend’s family’s insistence, my parents had promised my friend’s family that they wouldn’t tell anyone about my friend’s engagement because she wanted to tell me and the rest of our friends herself on Eid.

After I had mentioned to my mum last Eid about my suspicions, she’d kept that in mind. While my parents were looking into the proposed guy it had gotten around to my parents that the proposed guy’s first cousin was already ‘settled’ with another girl in our community. So in true CIA style, she did a bit of investigating and found out who the other girl was.

In my raw hurt from being kept out of this piece of information my reflex action was to slam the proposal back in everyone’s faces crumbling up months of invested ‘research’ into family compatibility by everyone involved. But after (unashamedly) listening in on his conversations in the park with other people that day, I realised he truly was a nice, genuine guy. I couldn’t let my emotions get in the way of my judgment of him and the possibility of a future with him.

After another long discussion with my parents, I expressed my dissatisfaction with their choice (despite the fact that I knew they had no choice as they had a promise to keep). I also told them that I’d give the proposed guy a shot. So a date was set for a chaperoned meet-up in Bicentennial Park- and that led to self-discoveries more than I could’ve ever imagined.

Intercultural Relationships: Yea, or Nay?

My cultural background is Cape Malay South African.  Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of us, because according to Wikipedia there are only 200 000 Cape Malays in the entire world. This limited supply, combined with the confusing patchwork quilt that is Cape Malay culture,  has always left me feeling supremely indifferent at the thought of marrying one. But I am well aware that this indifference isn’t the norm amongst Muslims. Part of the reason Islam spread so pervasively and successfully was because it respected tradition wherever it didn’t directly conflict with Islamic rulings. This means that today culture has endured alongside religion, providing points of both contradiction and intersection.

As long as people stayed in homogenous cultural groups, all was fairly smooth on the marriage front. The cultural rituals of meeting a partner, getting to know them and eventually getting married could be followed with little confusion. People knew what to expect; they were following procedures set down eons ago. But things got well and truly whacked with the complicated stick when our parents decided to pack up and leave their homelands in search of a better life and cleaner air and all that jazz. In doing so, they ensured we would meet a whole of people with vastly different backgrounds to our own. Inevitably, people being people, attachments are going to be formed. But who are they going to be formed with? In case you haven’t realised (crawl out from under your rock if so), I’m a big fan of categories, so I’m going to go right ahead now and list the different attitudes I have encountered in the Muslim community towards intercultural relationships.

1.) ‘No way in Jahannam’

This attitude is still fairly common, even amongst people who were brought up in a land far, far away from their parents’ country of origin. To form this attitude, parental and community involvement will have been paramount. In these cases, parents will have so successfully inculcated their culture into their offspring that they cannot conceive of a life with a person from a different one.

For these people, culture is an anchor. It provides a definitive way of both of seeing the world and seeing those around them. They also find that they tend to relate better to people from their own cultural background on both a social and romantic level. I’ve had many friends tell me they cannot see themselves with anyone but a fellow Indian/Lebanese/Inuit, and while I don’t share their sentiments, I completely respect them. Studies have proven that intercultural relationships do in fact have a higher rate of failure than relationships involving two people from the same cultural background, so they may be onto something there. When it comes down to it, it really is just easier to marry someone from your own background. In-laws can find enough to quarrel about as it is without adding different cultures into the mix!

2.) ‘I don’t care, but my parents will lynch me’

This is a common one too. A lot of Muslims who grow up here are not in fact so attached to their culture that they cannot become attached to someone of a different one. But their parents are an entirely different story. For these people, the choice then becomes one of immense difficulty. Do they walk away from someone they care for or do they displease their parents and push for the marriage to go ahead? I’ve seen both cases occur. I often wonder if the first type of person feels regret, or if they console themselves in the knowledge that it was never meant to be.

The second group, the fight-for-this-love types, are a patient bunch. It can sometimes take years to get things across the parental line, but the funny thing is that often these very same oppositional parents become their daughter/son-in-law’s biggest fan. Even if this never happens, at the very least the parties can keep their distance and thus keep the peace.

*One of the anonymous comments I received reflected a deep frustration with these parental sanctions, so I will be devoting a post sometime soon to how to deal with being on the receiving end.

3.) ‘I’ll take what I can get’

I jest, I jest. This attitude isn’t driven by desperation, just by a simple word: ‘meh’. They don’t mind marrying someone from their own cultural background, but they are just as content to marry a person from a different one. They like their culture well enough without being fanatical about it. They’re not too fussed by the thought of parental opposition; perhaps they have lenient parents and know it won’t be too much of a biggie. Whatever the reason, they’re not going to let someone’s background get in the way of their happily ever after.

4.) ‘Bring on the cute babies!’

This is one I’m hearing a lot recently. For some reason intercultural marriage has become a somewhat hip thing to do. (Well, there are lots of reasons I could suggest, but I won’t do so now because it would involve too much Social Inquiry for this blog to handle.) Suffice to say that it’s become quite unfashionable in some Muslim circles to admit to a preference for a person of your own background. Free love, baby. The hipsters have reclaimed the spirit of the flower power generation and are wielding it like Light Sabers, leaving no gene pool untouched in their wake.

I’ll be revisiting this topic many times in the future, but for now I’ll sum it up by simply stating that intercultural relationships can be very hard work. After all, relationships are hard work, so why would adding another spanner in the works make them less so? But does this put you off, or are you prepared to put in the hard yards if you meet a person you feel is worth it?