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A Westerner's Guide to Arranged Marriages

Updated: Sep 30, 2018





‘How did you meet your husband?’- An exciting question that does not always have an exciting answer- especially for women like myself who have had an ‘arranged marriage’.  The phrase alone is enough to conjure in one’s mind a picture of third world cultures, child brides and young women forced out of education and into marriages with strange men.

Indeed, it can seem bizarre that any educated woman would want to give up on the dream of marrying for love in preference of such a marriage. And yet, each year there are countless young Western -born women who willingly enter into this arrangement. Women, who like myself, have an intellectual preference for this time old tradition. There is a great deal of misunderstanding and stigma associated with arranged marriages and it is my intention in this post to shed some light onto its  process and dispel some common myths surrounding it.


Forced vs Arranged- The Process

‘Arranged’ marriages are often confused with ‘forced’ marriages, which is far from the truth. A  forced marriage involves forcing a man or woman into a marriage that they do not want; and often involves the family choosing a bride or groom and imposing them on their sons and daughters- self- explanatory, right?


Arranged marriages, however, tend to follow a certain cultural pattern that will vary from country to country.  For the purpose of this post, I’ll be discussing one format for arranged marriages in the Gulf.


Let's begin with the groom’s side of the process:


a)      Young man decides he wants to settle down and lets his family know about his intention -this usually involves the females in the family –mother, sisters, and aunts.


b)      Females in the family ask the young man for his criteria (what is he looking for in terms of character and looks etc.)


c)      The detective work begins. The women go on the prowl in search for women that fit these criteria. In other words, they attend many weddings and invent excuses to visit the families of eligible bachelorettes. It can be a very exciting process.


d)     Once the detective work is finished, women report their findings to the young man-this is usually a list of possible girls.


e)      The young man chooses the girl he finds to be the best option and gives the females the green light for them to call the girl’s family to ask for her hand.


f)       The women call the mother or grandma etc. of the potential bride to ask for her hand.


And now the bride’s side:


1)         The potential bride is told that a certain man has come to ask for her hand in marriage. If she is interested in getting married and wants to give this suitor a chance, the male members of the family are called upon to conduct their own detective work (Basically they try to dig up any dirt). Is the suitor eligible?  What kind of person is he? Who are his friends? What’s his education/ career like? How does he look like? Is he crazy?


2)        Once it is established that the suitor is not a psychopath and seems to be a decent sort of guy, the potential bride can move to the following stage: exchanging some pictures with the suitor and getting to know him over the phone or internet or both. The couple can also meet each other face to face a few times prior to their engagement. This can take a few days or several months depending on the families and the couple.

The couple have the power to discontinue the process at any time if they feel unhappy with one another.


3)         The next stage is getting engaged. The couple have a party and sign a marriage contract and are hence Islamically and legally married. However, they are not considered to be fully married in the eyes of society and are expected to continue living apart and not consummate the marriage until the actual wedding night. The length of the engagement period varies greatly. It can range from a few weeks to a few years, depending on the couples’ circumstances (e.g. the bride wants to finish university first/ the groom is looking for a job).


4)        The couple get married or break off their engagement if they are not happy with one another.


Busting the Myths


a)      In arranged marriages  the bride does not know her husband

The defining principle of arranged marriages is the fact that the family searches for the bride and not the suitor himself. However, this doesn’t mean that the women being suggested as potential brides are unknown to the suitor.  A mother can suggest a close family friend that the suitor knows personally but had never considered romantically.


b)      You don’t choose your wife or husband. The family does this.

The family only provides the groom with a number of potential brides. But in the end, the groom has the power to choose the girl that seems more compatible with him. In many ways, the process is similar to having your sister set you up on a date with a girl she thinks you’ll like- except that after the dating process you get to really take the girl home, if you know what I’m saying.


c)      This is how Muslims get married

Although many Muslim cultures have an arranged marriage system, these systems have a cultural basis and not a religious one. In fact, many Muslims get married for love. Islam imposes rules on how courtship is conducted, and as long as couples stay within Islamic boundaries, they can get to know one another personally and show interest in one another.


The Pros and Cons


Pros


1-You are able to make very wise and rational decisions

Because couples have no emotional attachment to one another, they can assess their compatibility rationally.  Yes this is very unromantic, but it works.


2- Guaranteed commitment

In arranged marriages, you never need to ask questions like: ‘Is he serious about me?’, ‘Where is this going?’, ‘Is he ready to commit?’, ‘Am I ready to settle down?’ The fact that you are willingly entering the process of an arranged marriage means that you are committed and ready to settle down.


Where is this going, you ask? The answer is marriage.


3- You mess with her; you mess with all of us

One of the advantages of having one’s family involved in the marriage process is that it offers women a lot of protection if things start to go pear shaped. It’s like meeting your girlfriend’s dad on the first date, and knowing that if you mess things up, he’ll come after you. This can cause privacy issues, but also reminds the groom that his future bride is backed-up by an army of male relatives that are ready to attack should he choose to misbehave during the engagement period or during their marriage.


4- The convenience of having men come to you (I guess this one would be an inconvenience if you're the guy) Why go on endless dates when you can simply wait for Mr Right in the comfort of your home?  We are living in the age of online shopping after all.


5- So many to choose from!

Not only does finding a spouse require almost no effort (excluding the regular exhibiting of yourself in front of potential mother-in-laws if you're a woman); but you can also count on getting more than one match. Some popular girls get around over 10 suitors before saying yes. If the dress doesn’t fit this time, you can wait for the next one.


Cons


1-      Very unromantic

Admittedly, arranged marriages are extremely mechanical, dry and unromantic. It can give marriage an almost ‘market-like’ aspect and involves assessing individuals as though they are merely a piece of merchandise. Not nice and at times even dehumanising.


2-       So stressful

Getting to know a man for the purpose of marriage can be extremely embarrassing and stressful. You can’t simply tell yourself:


‘This is a nice person, let’s get to know one another and see where it goes’, because you already know where it’s going. Casually talking to the potential also becomes very difficult because there’s a lot at stake, and it’s hard to block out the thought that this person could potentially become your spouse.


3-      Lack of privacy

Because arranged marriages involve families and not merely individuals, this can affect the privacy of the couple. Details of their relationship can become public knowledge as family members are always very keen to know the particulars of how things are progressing. In some families, members can also impose their opinions and involve themselves in the couple’s relationship.


4-      Meeting female stereotypes

Because women are the ones who go about searching for brides, they only pick girls that meet female standards of beauty. Therefore, women considered less attractive who would otherwise easily find spouses in mixed settings are continually excluded.


5- If it doesn’t  work for you, you are in trouble

This is only an issue in countries where there is no alternative to arranged marriages. Women who, for whatever reason, don't attract the attention of potential mother-in-laws etc. end up never getting married because they can't find husbands themselves.


Seems like a scary place to be in, but for the most part, arranged marriages can and do lead to countless successful marriages. You might not get a great, romantic 'how I met your mother' story out of it but you just might find the love of your life. And that's what's really important in the end of the day. Right?