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Society: The shifting sands of matrimony

Updated February 17, 2019

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Illustration by Farooq Dawood Saati
Illustration by Farooq Dawood Saati

Mani, a fashion designer, is quite worried about her son Mustafa’s marriage. Mustafa, now 26 years old, graduated with a Bachelors’ degree in Business Administration and is working for a local bank. He is handsome, ambitious and flirtatious, his mother thinks. “I don’t want him to marry someone inappropriate,” she fears. What does she mean by ‘inappropriate’? “We need to look at a lot of factors when our children get married: class, education, age, family background etc. We can’t let our children marry just anyone,” she says. When asked why she worries that her son will not find the right match, she says, “My son is very impressionable and can fall for any girl who may not fit in our household.”

Mr and Mrs Zaidi on the other hand, say they trust their 28-year-old daughter, Sania, to find a suitable partner for herself. Sania is an art school graduate who now works in corporate communications at a private organisation. They believe that children should be given the freedom to decide who they want to marry. “They have much more exposure and education than we did. Why should they not have the freedom to decide who they want to marry?” Do they worry about class or society? “I think Sania is sensible enough to make a good decision.”

They say marriages are made in heaven … until someone on earth decides to take over the job and call the shots. Whether that someone is a domineering parent or nagging family member or a persuasive society in general, especially in South Asia, tying the knot seems to be the ultimate goal in the life of a young man or a woman. To marry of their own choice or their parents’: that is the question.

Instead of their parents making decisions for them, increasingly couples are making their own decisions about their marriages

When Anaaya told her parents about Ahmed who worked with her at a multinational organisation, they were a bit upset. They weren’t sure if she had made the right decision. “We were worried about the kind of family he may belong to, whether he would be the right choice,” says Mrs Siddique. When they met the boy and his family however they were at peace. “We could not be happier, though we were initially worried about our daughter’s decision,” she says. “Of course, we had given her the freedom to marry the man she wants but we did fear what might happen if she fell for someone not quite appropriate.”

Unlike Western societies, the Pakistani social fabric is predominantly traditional and is heavily divided by social hierarchies. Marriage decisions are often made collectively, and dominated by patriarchal structures, and decisions are usually taken by elders for the young boy or girl, who are supposed to accept it. More than simply to provide companionship and avenues for procreation, marriages are often a means to extend the familial powerbase — whether it is social, financial, communal, ethnic or religious. In many cases, even now, they showcase the resolve of those who believe in maintaining the status quo in society.

My elders used to refer to the adage, “Bund paeti ka maal” (unseen match), to explain the matchmaking of yore: the bride and the groom would see each other for the first time only on their wedding night. A tradition called ‘Aarsi Musshaf’(looking in the mirror) was often the first interface for the bride and the groom as they would see each other in the image of a mirror.

However, today there is a power shift in the decision-making process.

Mrs Mumtaz Qureshi, chairperson of Clifton Women Welfare Society, has been a popular matchmaker for 30 years. When she began her work, people used to frown upon commercial matchmaking. Over the years however, she has seen a sea change in societal trends in marriage decisions. “Parents approach me with a list of requirements for their sons or daughters,” she says. “Only they make it clear at the very outset that they will not give their consent unless their son or daughter has met and agreed to the match.”

“My job is then to shortlist the possible matches, and discuss them with the parents. They then discuss them with their children. Meetings are arranged with the prospective partner. Marriage only takes place once both sides have agreed,” she adds.

Why has this change taken place? “Both young men and women are educated and have exposure,” Qureshi says. “They are professionals and want to marry spouses with similar mindsets. Women are more empowered. Families also meet once the children have agreed.”

In many households, matchmaking norms and traditions are being challenged as young men and women are reaching out for higher aims, receiving good education, living modern urban lifestyles, and pursuing various careers. They also wish to spend their lives with compatible partners in a conducive environment (read, friendly in-laws).

In order to see the trends in the society, I conducted an informal survey on social media where people where asked whether they believed parents should take marriage decisions for their children or it should be left up to the children. The respondents largely belonged to the middle and upper middle class. Their answers were analysed keeping in mind their age, marital status and, in case they were married, the number of children they had, as well as whether they had had a ‘love’ or arranged marriage.

Though it was a small survey, interesting comments and insights came to light. For instance, it was revealed that about 90 percent of the respondents were married. And out of that, about 48 percent had had arranged marriages while 40 percent had chosen their own partners — showing that both streams are running in parallel.

A large number of respondents (about 85 percent) agreed that children should choose their spouses themselves, while only 16 percent said parents should choose a marriage partner for their children. Some were of the view that parents took good decisions because they are more experienced, far-sighted and more mature; however, it was countered by some saying that parents do not make a good marriage decision for their children and that parents can often make mistakes.

An interesting but quite true response came from a small number saying that marriage is a gamble, whether the decision is taken by parents or children.

While about one third of the respondents said this should be a mutually-consulted decision, almost half of the respondents said ‘absolutely yes’ to the question whether children should be given the freedom to choose their own spouse. This was agreed to by some with the addendum “with their parents’ approval”. “They should be given freedom once they have ‘achieved important milestones in life’,” said one respondent.

How did society play a role in marriage decisions? Out of 45 responses, 22 said it played a negative role, while seven said it played a positive role; 15 remained neutral. Some said society puts pressure on young people to get married as soon as possible. “Society dictates the social strata of the potential spouse,” says Mrs Siddique. “Even vicinities are a point of reference,” says Mrs Mumtaz Qureshi. “Many living in posh areas want potential spouses from the same areas.”

“Big extravagant weddings are also the result of societal pressure,” said a respondent.

While Pakistani TV plays are stuck in the ‘rescue narrative’ geared towards ratings — the woman is a victim of a situation and waits for the hero to rescue her — the emerging reality is quite different. Urban men and women do not consider themselves victims of a situation. They want to take more informed and ‘involved’ marriage decisions, with the consent and blessings of their parents. Thus a power shift is evident, eroding orthodoxy in marriage decisions. Parents now trust their children in making decisions for themselves because “they have to live with their partners for the rest of their lives,” says Sajid, father of two daughters.

In a more conducive environment, where parents are more receptive to their children’s demands for compatibility and mental affinity in a marriage, happy yet pragmatic endings are perhaps more possible now than ever.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 17th, 2019