Read Love in a Headscarf Online

Authors: Shelina Janmohamed

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General, #Social Science, #Religion, #Family & Relationships, #Personal Memoirs, #Arranged marriage, #Great Britain, #Women, #Marriage, #Religious, #Self-Help, #Personal Growth, #Love & Romance, #Sociology, #Women's Studies, #Conduct of life, #Islam, #Marriage & Family, #Religious aspects, #Rituals & Practice, #Muslim Women, #Mate selection, #Janmohamed; Shelina Zahra, #Muslim women - Conduct of life, #Mate selection - Religious aspects - Islam, #Arranged marriage - Great Britain, #Muslim women - Great Britain

Love in a Headscarf (7 page)

We were also taught about the actions we would have to carry out as Muslims. The first was
salat
, the prayer. I already knew the movements and words for the ritual prayers that were to be performed every day, because my parents had taught me. Next was fasting. Every year, for thirty days during the month of Ramadan, Muslims would refrain from eating and drinking from dawn until dusk, and spend their time focusing on their spiritual development. I didn’t have to fast yet because I was too young. Then there was
hajj
, the famous, once-in-a-lifetime journey that all Muslims try to complete: to visit Mecca and the House of God, which is called the
Kaba.
Fasting, prayer, and
hajj
were personal duties to connect you directly to God. There was also charity to give, and that had to come out of your time as well as your wealth.

I was the star pupil at the madrasah, so I was selected to appear in a video for children about how to pray. My mother dressed me in my favorite green
shalwar kameez
, tied my hair into two thick plaits, and pinned a white cotton scarf over my head. My father bundled me into the car and we set off to the other side of London to the house where the video was to be filmed. I was going to be the star of the film. Fame had called early.

My celebrity would spread far and wide, and marriage proposals would come flooding in. Not at the age of six. But it already laid the foundations of my public persona in the minds of our social circle and community. What my parents had implanted into my heart were the seeds of faith, love, and community service.

In my own mind, my life would unfold according to the rules of a Disney cartoon. I knew that when I grew up, the mysteries of princes and marriage would be revealed to me. For now it was enough for me to read my favorite fairy tale:
Beauty and the Beast.
Butterflies fluttered in my tummy each time I read it. It was the perfect love story—full of eternal romantic truth. The hero of the story was undeniably handsome as the prince. As the beast he was dignified and patient. Whether monster or man, he was always true and dedicated in his love. The heroine was gracious, beautiful, and saw the beast’s inner beauty. The story hinged on a white rosebush. Each night the Beast would pluck one of the exquisite roses to present to Beauty as a token of his love, until she was won over by him. In our back garden at home we, too, had a magnificent white rosebush that burst forth with the same pure snowy petals as in the paintings in the fairy story. The roses fluttered, innocently fragrant, throughout the fairy-tale summers of my childhood.

Kulcha

I
t is a universally acknowledged truth that all Asian parents want their children to get married and settle down. It is the final and most important duty of the parent toward their child. It is also an Islamic responsibility to help your child find a suitable spouse. Only when the offspring are paired off can the mother and father sigh with relief. So momentous and significant is this obligation, and so huge is the impact of the choice of partner, that parents fret about finding that spouse from the moment the child is born. It is the job of parents, mothers-in-law, and Aunties to network furiously and line up candidates. The girl and boy do not necessarily need to be involved. They can just turn up on the day, if they are required, in order to attend the communal meeting, as Ali and I had done.

Cultural norms dictate how the meeting of the two parties will play out. It may involve members of both parties being present, along with tea and civilities, and a subtle but rigorous scoping out of the other side. Or the boy and the girl might not even be there. The only certainty is that the meeting could change significantly the lives of the two people who are at the heart of the discussion.

The Buxom Aunties, those round matriarchal women in nylon
shalwar kameez
with their chiffon
dupattas
pulled deftly over their heads, therefore wield enormous power as matchmakers in the lives of young men and women and their parents who are searching for a partner for their child to build a life with. Behind closed doors, over cups of tea and crispy just-fried pakoras, the seasoned mothers-in-law, the nylon-clad
naanis
, and the grandmothers, all of whom function as matchmakers alongside the Aunties, talk with the authority of wisdom and experience to those women who are wannabe mothers-in-law in search of a wife for their son.

WANNABE
: “I’m getting too old to look after Ahmed on my own.”
NYLON NAANI
: “It’s time you got him a wife.”
WANNABE
: “I know, but where do I find someone suitable? Someone who can cook, look after the house properly like we used to do, and who will give me grandchildren and not go out and about abandoning her responsibilities. Girls these days are just all about themselves. They don’t have the patience and tolerance that we had. You’re a
naani
already, a grandmother, and you’ve sorted out your daughters-in-law so well. So hard with girls these days.”
NYLON NAANI
: “You’re right, it’s very tough. So many couples getting married and divorced willy-nilly. And your Ahmed is
such
a good boy. Have you talked to him about going back home and choosing a girl? They are the best you know, well-trained and obedient. They know how to look after a mother-in-law.”
WANNABE
: “Talk to Ahmed about going back home to find a wife?
Pfah!
He doesn’t want to even
talk
about getting married. He doesn’t know I need someone to help around the house. Besides (and her voice softens here), he needs someone of his own and I’m getting old. Who will look after him when I’m gone?”
NYLON NAANI
: “That’s your mistake. Boys are
never
ready; you have to just
surprise
them. Show them a few pretty girls and even the one who says
no, no, no
, he will fall for one of them. Boys can’t resist a pretty girl. You might need to encourage and persuade him a little bit or perhaps even push him. But he’ll thank you in the end.”

Nylon Naani pauses, and then looks furtively in all directions,
Godfather
-style. Even with no one in earshot, she leans in conspiratorially.

NYLON NAANI
: “I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about finding a daughter-in-law. Only four things and you will be
laughing, laughing
, so happy. First, do not involve your son. He does not know what he wants and will only complicate matters. Next, avoid girls who are oh-so-independent. This is not a good quality for a daughter-in-law. They will not be committed.”
WANNABE
: “Hmm, yes, hmm. So wise,
so
wise, yes, you are right. Such
wonderful
wisdom.”
NYLON NAANI
: “Three, make sure she is pretty and she can cook. And the younger, the better. And last, look for a girl from the same culture, so that she can ‘fit’ with you.”

When I am older, with many sons, fretting about finding them wives, I will write a sequel to my book. It will be called
Love in a Nylon Dupatta.

THE BUXOM AUNTIES’ RULES

The natural habitat of the Auntie is weddings, gatherings, dinners, and other places where young unmarried women play together. They are normally distinguished by their fulsome breasts and round tummies, and often by their taste for chewing
paan.
They have either been married for more years than the Rolling Stones have been alive, and their multitudes of children are married and they have a small tribe of grandchildren, thus making them experts on marriage; or they are lonely spinsters, who now devote themselves to pairing off the younger generation.

As a young woman, I was deeply suspicious and cynical of the Aunties. They appeared to me like
jinnis
whose sole purpose was to make me feel small and useless. I was convinced that their entire reason for being was to make my life difficult and miserable by belittling my aspirations. In return I had to be polite and affable, as they might have access to my Prince Charming, my dream man, my life happiness. And, of course, I had to play by the conventions of the search that remained unspoken:

 
  1. A third party, preferably someone considered as an “elder”—the Aunties being the first choice—should be involved in mediating the search process. It is shameful social etiquette for one party to ring up the other and say, “Hey, why don’t our kids get together?”

  2. Both sides must make delicate inquiries among contacts to find out about the other side’s family and the individual in question. Only when sufficient information and recommendations are provided will the two parties move onto the next stage of arranging a meeting.

  3. The first show of interest must be from the boy’s party. The girl’s party cannot make the first move, otherwise they will be considered “desperate.” If the girl’s party wishes to initiate a discussion with a potential match, they must do it through a third party who should make it look like it was the boy’s party’s idea.

  4. The girl must be younger than the boy by at least one day. This is not so that he can avoid a wrinkly wife but so he can assert his authority. It is also in order that the girl will be “moldable,” a word entirely peculiar to Asian matchmaking. “Moldable” means that she will “adapt” to the boy’s family’s way of doing things. A younger woman will be less “set in her ways.”

  5. The girl should be shorter than the boy even while wearing heels. This is so the couple will be aesthetically pleasing when standing together. The boy can gel up his hair to gain extra height.

  6. The girl should be less educated than the boy. The husband should be able to say in response to any question: “It is because I am your husband and I am more educated than you, so I must be right. Do not question me!” in a surly yet dignified manner.

  7. The boy’s family should be wealthier so that he can look after the girl. The boy should have a “good” secure job, ideally with a title such as doctor, dentist, or accountant.

  8. The girl should be pale in color.

  9. It is important that she is “homely and domesticated.” A domesticated girl is proficient in matters of cleaning, cooking, laundry, and other kinds of housework. Being “homely” describes a natural penchant for these activities.

  10. “Well-mannered, religious, and from a good family, this is what you should look for,” I was told repeatedly. In Asian tradition, marriage is about becoming part of a new family, so choosing a “good” family is a critical factor. It includes people in the family having good reputations, which can be built on piety and religiousness, and acts of kindness and generosity, like dedicated community service and charity. Scandals could damage a family’s reputation for years and they would directly affect the marriage prospects of the children. They were hushed away as quickly as possible. Also high on the criteria for “good” family are: from the same country “back home,” from the same part of the same country, from the same town, from the same village. Most controversially in some communities, marriage proposals are only considered from individuals from the same caste, even though Islam, which is rooted in the principle that all human beings are of equal worth, is fundamentally opposed to the very idea of caste.

These unspoken rules of culture contradict the simple yet unheeded words of the Prophet Muhammad, which sum up the criteria for a prospective partner with wisdom and simplicity: “Do not look for wealth or beauty as these will last only a short time, and then you will be left with nothing. Look for piety and faith and you will get everything, including beauty and wealth with it.”

Despite all the unsaid cultural regulations, it is important for both parties not to appear too fastidious when it comes to selecting a spouse. Matchmakers lose interest in families who turn down prospective partners for nitpicking reasons. It is also important not to appear too eager. The stench of desperation is universally despised across cultures but the conditions are especially stringent in the Asian context. It is shameful for a girl herself to show any interest in getting married, no matter how much she may want to. This is because women are not supposed to be interested in worldly matters such as men. Perhaps in traditional societies where a woman used to have little choice in her partner, her interest would be futile. If asked by an Auntie or potential mother-in-law, “Are you interested in marriage?” the girl must blush shyly, look coyly to one side, and whisper a platitude: “Well, it’s in Allah’s hands. Of course all girls would like to get married.” There was something in the very essence of this process that made young women squirm and even made young men run in fear. It was just so very embarrassing. We squealed at the agony of the ritual, both boys and girls. The parents, the mothers-in-law, and the Aunties held it together. They were the cast and chorus, with cameos from the boy and girl. Things might not be perfect, they told us, but the Search According to Tradition had worked for generations.
Do you want to change the world, or simply find a wonderful partner and live happily ever after?
And who would dare to argue with that?

When I was a young girl, we had a family tradition of a Sunday afternoon drive. Part of this ritual was to listen to Sunrise Radio, the first big Asian radio station in London. The afternoon show was a phone-in for people searching for a marriage partner. It was aimed at the subcontinental population, which included Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and even Christians. Callers usually consisted of prospective mothers-in-law looking for wives for their sons, or of “fresh-off-the-boat” subcontinental men looking for wives, and the bonus of a British passport. Even as a child I found it extremely funny. I was blissfully oblivious to the impact that such attitudes would have on my life when I grew up. Perhaps that was why everyone else seemed to take it so seriously.

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