Years ago, when I was foolish enough to dream I could afford an undergraduate degree from the US, a friend asked my mother what would happen if I fell in love with a man while away at university?
My mother thought about it for a moment and then said that she was very open minded — as long as he was well-educated and from a good background, she would be happy to marry me to the man I love.
What if he was well-educated, upper-middle-class, Christian, my friend asked? Oh, but then what faith would the children be, my mother asked?
Well, would a well-adjusted Nigerian Muslim be okay? She’d much rather he be Pakistani, to smooth out cultural differences.
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Ok, what if he was a Sindhi Shia? Well, wouldn’t a Punjabi Sunni be a better match, asked my mother?
My friend beat her head in exasperation. “Toh phir reh kya gaya, aunty?” “Dekho beta, I’m very open-minded, I didn’t insist that he be from the Arain caste like us.”
Jokes aside though, my mother’s first two conditions — education and background — seem to be ones that we as a society and as individuals are least willing to compromise on.
I was hard pressed to meet people from extremely different educational or class backgrounds. I went to private schools and private universities. But I did work in newspaper offices, where there was, at the very least, a mix of lower- and upper-middle-class.
Why then didn’t I (romantically) meet someone from a different class?
“The arena for cross-class romantic relationships is limited. Those that do meet in colleges, universities, or workplaces have already gathered the requisite credentials,” says sociologist Dr Umair Javed.
Secondly, he points out, that class consciousness, sociologically speaking is part of our subconscious. “We have a deeply ingrained idea of who we are. We have certain dispositions, tastes and preferences and we will likely be drawn to people with the same habitus as us.”
Habitus is the physical embodiment of cultural capital, it refers to the ingrained habits, skills and dispositions that we accrue from our upbringing and the people around us, in our lifetime, and it is one of the things holding us back from disrupting the current system of class.
In Pakistan, even the term ‘class’ is fraught with tension. The most common code word for class is ‘background’ or ‘brought up’ — an endearing colloquial term for upbringing.
Too often have we heard that so and so couldn’t get married because “un ka brought up bilkul different tha”. Rather than articulating and acknowledging the particular socioeconomic factors involved in creating our behavioural differences, we like to say “background farq tha, is liyay baat nahi banni”.
And if you think the word ‘class’ can get you into trouble, try asking people what they think of cross-class relationships and marriages, even if they themselves are implicated in such, and be hit on the head with, “What! There are no cross-class relationships in Pakistan. It’s a taboo. Our class structures are very rigid.”
But is this entirely true? Pick up folklore, women’s digests or television dramas — the stories are everywhere. Mahiwal of Sohni Mahiwal wasn’t always a buffalo herder.
Before he was struck by whatever he thought was love, he was a rich trader by the name of Shahzada Izzat Baig. It was his love for Sohni, a potter’s daughter, that compelled him to forgo his family, trading caravan and nobility, and take up a working-class job to be close to Sohni.
Unfortunately, it didn’t end well for them and their tragedy had everything to do with class. The stories may be packaged as warnings; if you fall in love and marry outside your class, tragedy will befall you, but the point to be noted is that if love and marriages across classes weren’t occurring, why would we need to be warned about them?
Marriage, in the sociological sense, is a means of class reproduction. And across socioeconomic classes, the unspoken rule is that you marry either to maintain your social, cultural and financial capital or to increase it; never to diminish it.
Perhaps this is why we think of cross-class marriages as foreign and unreal, but consider this: if an upper-class man marries a middle-class woman, or an upper-middle-class man marries a lower-middle-class woman, does he lose any capital? Unlikely.
On the other hand, if a woman were to marry beneath her socioeconomic class, it would be a scandal.
Essentially, we subscribe to cross-class marriages, as long as the marriages maintain the status quo and favour the patriarchy. It is only when a cross-class marriage upsets a traditional setup that it becomes a problem.
Alina met Saad at university in Lahore. She was on financial aid; he didn’t need aid. They both lived on campus.
To save money, she would either skip dinner or boil a packet of instant noodles. He typically ate out.
In Islamabad, their family homes were close to each other; his family owned a massive house while hers rented a two-bedroom portion.
When they began dating, none of this mattered. They had chemistry, they understood each other’s silences and had mutual friends. They rarely spoke about money.
One of the reasons Alina and Saad found so much in common is because they had gone through similar private school and university systems. They both had the same degree; in fact, Alina graduated with a distinction. But does this mean they were from the same class?
In her book, The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages, Jessi Streib interviews and analyses marriages in which couples come from “different origins”, meaning, everyone she interviewed were staunchly middle-class white Americans, but some of them had grown up in working-class households and worked/studied their way up.
Essentially, she explores what role your upbringing plays in a marriage, despite a couple having similar educational or professional achievements.
After years of blissful dating, Alina and Saad were told it’s probably time to get married. “I didn’t even think of class then,” she says. “I recognised that they have more money than my family, but we both went to similar schools and the same university so why would money matter, I thought.”
Two years into the marriage — a little after Alina realised that her mother-in-law spends more on handbags than her family spends on rent every month, and around the time she had a pregnancy scare — class-based cracks in their marriage began to appear.
“You can like the same TV shows and have the same friends, but that doesn’t mean you’ll agree on your spending habits or how you plan to raise your kids,” she tells me. “There are some things about a person’s upbringing that no amount of time will change.”
Alina is referring to habitus, the ingrained habits that Dr Javed brought up earlier.
For instance, Saad was told from the start that he would inherit his father’s business, so his work ethic, according to Alina, was too weak to deserve respect. In turn, Saad’s mother had never “needed to work”, so why did Alina feel the need? Was he not providing for her?
The conversation that really shook her was about childcare. Saad was adamant about a Filipino nanny; all his siblings had hired them for their kids. Alina was shocked.
She understood the need for child care, of course, but a nanny from the Philippines? She found the idea “outrageous, uncomfortably extravagant”.
Alina says it took years to understand that their varying class-origin was the basis of their clashes but, she explains, “Ultimately, women are expected to mould themselves into their husband’s families, and it's awkward to pretend to be rich but it’s not exactly difficult.”
They got the Filipino maid, and are living "happily ever after."
Most of Streib’s respondents reflected Alina’s initial delusions about her marriage. She writes that most respondents “denied that class had any sway on their relationship or that it was worth thinking about at all. They maintained that their class origin was irrelevant to their own identity, their partner’s identity, and their marriage.”
But the kind of cross-class marriage Alina has maintains the status quo: in that the man is able to retain power and property. Popular television is filled with such examples.
In Gumrah, Faisal Rahman’s super-rich character has no qualms marrying a girl from the lower-middle-class. His family objects to the wedding, but the girl’s class is the least of their concerns.
In Sanam, Maya Ali’s character’s mother actively risks her savings and familial bonds to rent a house in a posh locality in order to find her daughter an ‘acha rishta’ (read: upper-middle-class, educated boy).
Humsafar and Zindagi Gulzar Hai both exhibited women gaining upward social mobility through marriage. You may say here that Kashaf was equal to Asher in that they had the same educational and professional background, and to that I say: remember, origin-class?
But when the situation is reversed, women marrying into lower socioeconomic classes not only puts at risk their own status quo but also upsets the traditional system of patriarchy where men must hold power.
In the same drama where Rahman’s character married out of his class, he does everything in his power to prevent his daughter from marrying a decent but impoverished art gallery salesman.
Similarly, in Mann Mayal, Manno’s family outrightly rejects her love for her tutor. To be fair, Mann Mayal also had the added element of the tutor aka Hamza Ali Abbasi’s character exhibiting deep-seated insecurities about marrying above his grade.
Aimen Bucha, who works at the Saida Waheed Gender Initiative at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, explains the basis of these insecurities: “A woman marrying downward will have more power in the relationship. Money is directly linked to power and control. She has the upper hand in that marriage, and will continue to maintain it for the rest of her life.”
But such cross-class love marriages also aren’t unheard of. They are simply dealt with in a different way.
My favourite story is about a man with a young daughter and a thriving business opposite Lahore’s General Post Office (GPO). His daughter worked for him, specifically in receiving and sending shipments of business products, for which she would regularly go to the post office.
The tale goes that one day she confessed to her father that she was in love with a junior assistant at the GPO. The father, furious, complained to the young man’s boss.
But the boss had a softer heart than the father, or perhaps he just had more perspective; he spoke to the junior assistant and concluded that the couple was really serious about each other. He encouraged the young woman’s father to let love take its course.
But when there is a booming business at stake, you measure your risks. The couple was eventually wedded, but sent to the Middle East with a business investment, presumably to avoid any social investigations.
They moved back once the former junior assistant had grown into his new-found upper-class surroundings.
Another young girl, Bisma, in a cross-class relationship tells me that she’s working hard to ‘groom’ her boyfriend, Ahmed, to make him acceptable to her family.
She helped him apply for an MBA, has been introducing him to friends working in multinational companies, convinced him to move his family out of their “decades-old Tariq Road apartment” and has been gifting him “the right clothes and colognes” for years.
“By the time I am done with him, even he won’t recognise that he was ever lower-middle class,” she says.
According to Streib, encouraging your working-class partner to pursue additional education, to develop direction in their careers and to create social networks all affect the couple’s collective upward mobility.
But while partners from varying classes can share and transfer social capital — arranging the ‘right’ interview or getting a portion/apartment for rent in the ‘right’ neighbourhood — cultural capital, which Bisma attempted to transfer via her gifts, is typically more difficult to hand over.
Cultural capital, according to Strieb, involves being familiar with tastes, preferences and behaviours for particular settings; think of that scene from Humsafar when Khirad goes to Sara’s birthday party dressed in a blingy shalwar kameez, while everyone else is in Western wear, and is sarcastically asked by one of the elites if she’s coming from a wedding.
If Bisma has to change so much about Ahmed before her family will let them get married, then is this really true love? After all, isn’t this behaviour a tad controlling?
“When a girl marries upward and starts wearing Sania Maskatiya and builds a fondant cake business from her husband’s investment, we say wow, how lucky she is,” responds Bisma. “But if I guide him about his career and gift him a few polos, I become controlling? Where’s the equality in that?”
There is a conception, amongst the best of us, that marrying for love is radical. And to some extent, when looked at through the historical context of ‘arranged marriages’, perhaps a ‘love marriage’ or a pasand ki shaadi is bold.
But if both types of marriages are maintaining the status quo and upholding the seemingly untenable structures of class, then what exactly is it about love, or love marriages that is radical?
Perhaps some of us are settling for something other than marriage. Laila was 23 when she told her mother she was in love. Her mother’s eyes grew large at first, then narrowed as she began cross-questioning Laila.
Her first question was about the boy’s level of education. She had met Taimur at college in Lahore, so he was as educated as her.
Satisfied with the first response, her mother then asked, what does his father do? Laila was expecting this question. “He works in the agricultural sector, like daddy,” she said, knowing full well that this was an obfuscation of the truth.
Laila’s father exports cotton to China; Taimur’s father collects rent from farmers in a village near Faisalabad.
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Next, Laila’s mother asked if he was Sunni and Punjabi. Check and check. It was decided that when Taimur’s parents called, they would be positively received.
“It was the most awkward 20 minutes of my life,” says Laila, describing the day Taimur’s parents came over. “They had nothing to say to each other. I think till that day even I hadn’t recognised what class really means.” Since then, Laila hasn’t brought up the topic of marriage or Taimur at home, but she’s still dating him.
Despite the unsuccessful, awkward parent meet-up and the differences in their class, upbringing and value systems, they claim to be deeply in love.
“Of course he has a thousand faults, who doesn’t? But no one understands my ambitions, my insecurities, my whole sense of self like him,” she says.
“Maybe we won’t ever marry, but why shouldn’t we enjoy each other’s love and support for as long as we can?”
All names have been changed.
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