Growing up can be difficult when you have very little in common with the people around you. Amara Chaudhry-Kravitz, born to a couple that had emigrated from Lahore to a small American town in Appalachian Virginia, experienced this firsthand. There were very few South Asian immigrants around her and Amara stood out for being ‘different’. “[South Asians] mostly came later in the 1980s ... I experienced and witnessed a lot of discrimination from childhood through adulthood,” she says.
Chaudhry-Kravitz, who now practices law, believes these experiences have informed her career choice. “That’s why I became a civil rights lawyer, and even within that I focused on criminal justice for so long, because I think that’s how racism is perpetrated primarily in the United States,” the Philadelphia-based attorney says.
Chaudhry-Kravitz says that while she is sometimes judged for her faith by non-Muslims, she also feels that as a woman who does not take the hijab or fit into certain ideas of what a Muslim looks like, she is also dismissed within the community for not being Muslim enough. It does not help that she is married to a Jewish American gentleman.
How Pakistani-Americans are making their interfaith and interracial marriages work
CROSSING THE DIVIDE
It is easy to trace where this reaction comes from. Many Pakistani parents still put potential suitors through the ringer: their ethnicity, religious beliefs, socioeconomic and family backgrounds, looks and ages are all up for scrutiny. However, attitudes are changing and the new generation increasingly marry a partner of their choice. What matter isn’t the partner’s ethnic or religious background but whether they share the same values.
Ammara Chaudhry-Kravitz and John Kravitz are one such couple. Ammara’s family was quick to accept her decision to marry her now-husband John Kravitz. The fact that he was from a different faith or culture was not a concern for her parents, she maintains.
Instead, it was her in-laws who resisted the union. “It was fairly enormous in his family’s world view,” she says. “John’s family is of the Eastern European Jewish fraction — a religious community that historically marries within itself. It was believed that the culture would die if people assimilated too much.”
WHEN SUZIE MET SAKIB
It is interesting to observe the emphasis people from around the world place on marriage as a means of cultural preservation. Saks (short for Sakib) Afridi and Suzie Afridi are another couple that has experienced this.
Suzie was born to a Greek Orthodox Christian family in Jericho, Palestine. Her family was “ethnically cleansed and pushed out” of their hometown when she was 13. It was at this time that she came to the US.
“We were absolutely forbidden from falling in love with Muslims … I remember when I was a little girl there was this woman in our neighbourhood who suddenly disappeared. We found out later that she was murdered by her brother because she fell in love with a Muslim,” she says.
Her “heart sank” when she realised that the man she is falling for is a Muslim, Pakistani and Pukhtun.
As predicted, her family refused to accept Saks. While she managed to win over her mother, one sister and one brother, others were not on board. “My brother was appalled at the position I had put him in; his father-in-law is a priest.”
Tragically, one day her oldest sister declared, “Suzie, we are disowning you.”
Her brother-in-law told her mother, ‘You don’t know how to raise girls.’
Suzie was devastated.
“It was very tough … there were times I just wanted to give up because they just could not get over the fact that he is Muslim. But I rebelled. I said ‘I’m going to marry whoever I want’.”
She recalls, “For the longest time they were waiting to see if Saks turns out to be the ‘big, bad Muslim on TV.’ The narrative was always the same, ‘He will marry another woman; kidnap his children; beat you’.”
Fortunately, for her, none of that happened. The couple lives in New York. He is a graphic designer, while she is a standup comedian who manages to find the funny in their situation. She is working on a book titled I Married a Muslim and No One Died.
Saks, on the other hand, did not need to convince his parents much. His father’s job as a PIA pilot meant that the family spent a significant chunk of their lives in different countries, exposed to new cultures. Saks, who was born in Peshawar, moved to Libya as a five-year-old and went on to live in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the US.
“We led a very well-rounded life, and half of it was spent exploring and figuring out how to cope with different environments and new cultures. I think that really helped us become more open-minded,” he says.
Moving away, however, does not always make people more ‘open-minded’, suggests Ali*, an Indian man engaged to a Pakistani woman he met in the US. Ali, who relocated from Mumbai to New York to pursue higher studies, notes that South Asians who settled in the US in the 1970s or 1980s are perhaps more conservative than their counterparts in India. “They came here with the traditions that were in place back then and things weren’t as liberal. While certainly not all of them, a lot of them seem to be stuck in that era,” he says.
“Back home in India, since the 1990s things have evolved and a lot of people have become more liberal. The kids over there are having open conversations with their parents,” he says.
Yet, both Ali and his fiancee agree that a family like theirs could not live peacefully back in Pakistan or India.
“Now that we both know that we are going to be with each other, it’s going to be really difficult to move to [either India or Pakistan] … I think our best bet is to pick a third country,” says Ali.
Both Suzie and Saks also recognise that they could not have led this life in their respective home countries, but maintain that they are still “very much Arab and Pakistani. To love a Pakistani is to love Pakistan… [It] is part of the package,” Suzie says.
HOME ADOPTIVE HOME
These couples are living life on their own terms. They have chosen America as their adoptive home; they have chosen to marry outside their communities; and they have also chosen to adapt their belief systems.
Freedom of choice is a liberty Chaudhry-Kravitz and Kravitz hope to give their daughter, Laila. The Jewish-Muslim couple is introducing her to their own faith, traditions and more. “We try to observe all holidays. We observe Passover, the Jewish high holidays, and Laila also attends the Eid services in our local mosque. But then since Christianity sort of permeates culture in the United States … we celebrate Christmas each year at my parents house; we stay overnight, there’s a tree, in the morning Laila opens presents.”
“Laila has boldly declared each holiday season that she’s a quarter Muslim, quarter Jewish and half Christian. Now mathematically that doesn’t work ... But I think that’s an interesting thing because she wants to have Christmas and she wants to have Easter, so that’s how she declared it.”
Similarly, Suzie has converted to Islam and is raising her son as a “Pakistani-Palestinian-American-New Yorker-Muslim kid”. Their house is trilingual; both Saks and Suzie can converse in Arabic, Urdu and English. The couple had started learning each other’s languages when they first started dating.
“I think we both wanted to absorb and learn as much as we could about each other’s cultures,” Saks says. The learning continues to this day. Being open to different cultures is the only way to fight racism, they believe.
While being American is a big part of their identity, Suzie does not like to think she or Saks have ‘assimilated’, “because that means you’ve lost something.” Instead, the comic such as using the word ‘acculturated’. “That is like you pick and choose, like cafeteria style.” She’s only given up parts of Arab culture she didn’t like, and picked up aspects of Pakistani and American culture that she agreed with.
The couple has managed to build a good life — and even their strongest detractors can see that now.
Suzie’s mother recently passed away. At her funeral, Suzie met her brother who had been angry with her all those years. He hugged her and said, “I’m so glad you stood up to us … I was wrong, I’m sorry.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
The writers are members of staff
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 21st, 2017