First Comes Marriage, Then Comes Love

Arranged marriages are often presumed to be cold by nature, but my family taught me how loving they truly are.

Under the Arch

First Comes Marriage, Then Comes Love

Arranged marriages are often presumed to be cold by nature, but my family taught me how loving they truly are.

An illustration of two hands touching, holding two small figures by strings made of leafy vines. One of the figures is a woman wearing a long blue dress, a head covering and a veil, and the other is a man wearing a long yellow garment and a yellow hat with brown shoes. They are linking arms.

Exploring how people marry someone who is, on paper, a stranger and fall in love (Aaliya Luthra for WSN)

Safia Ahmad, Contributing Writer | Feb 26, 2023

My friends had their weddings planned by the third grade. They had everything from the dress, to the theme, to the venue, to the perfect man. My friend Sophia had even found her perfect partner — her desk partner. They would be wed in a church among the company of her family and friends. Her dress would be long and white, with a large tulle skirt. She would wear a crown as opposed to a veil, and hold a bouquet of pink roses as she marched down the aisle. I never dreamt of the specifics of my own wedding; no ideal dress, no dream venue, no perfect soulmate. 

When my friends asked me about my wedding, all I could describe with any sort of certainty or longing was the cake that would be served: four-tiered, vanilla, with chocolate ganache frosting and bavarian cream filling. I saw it on an episode of “Cake Boss,” and it has been cemented into my mind ever since.

Weddings, as one might traditionally think of them in the United States, often involve a ceremony in which a bride walks down the aisle, vows are shared and rings are exchanged. These are what my mom would refer to as “white weddings.” These celebrations are different in a Muslim family. There are a few ceremonies that lead to the Nikah, the official ceremony during which a religious text is read, and the bride and groom sign their wedding papers in front of a religious leader. Then comes the Walima, a reception during which food and desserts are served —  my personal favorite part. 

At times, my traditions led me to feel isolated from the experiences of my peers. We are Pakistani, and we are Muslim, so things are just done differently in our family. Sometimes I worried that I was missing out on something that all my non-Muslim and white friends and their families experienced.

There are few moments to celebrate romance and love in the Islamic marriage process. As a child, I took this to mean that romance isn’t important in Muslim marriages. This feeling merely furthered my feeling of otherness, and I began to feel like I would never be able to understand what a “normal relationship” was, something I felt my friends had already learned. 

I hated using the term “arranged marriage” when talking about my family, because it’s a phrase that typically brings an archaic idea of marriage to mind. When telling people my parents’ marriage was arranged, I often imagined that their minds were conjuring up visuals of my mother being blindfolded, thrown into a sack, then shoved down the aisle, crying as a ring was shoved onto her finger.

I tried to mix it up by saying that my parents met through a mutual family friend or while in college. These half-truths bothered me because I knew my parents had a loving relationship, despite the fact that the story of their meeting was not exactly ripe with romantic excitement. I began using the phrase “arranged marriage” again, this time making sure people knew it wasn’t a dirty word. 

Just because my parents’ marriage was arranged, that does not mean it was forced. My mother and father were introduced through family friends for the purpose of marriage, and they later decided to get married on their own. To this explanation, people usually sigh with relief and say, “Oh, OK.” It still bothers me, though, that even as a child, I was burdened with the responsibility of explaining away cultural stereotypes to uninformed people.

When my uncle was getting married, my family went to Detroit for the ceremony. The Nikah was separated into two rooms: one for men and another for women. My now-aunt sat next to her sisters, and my mother and other women played a drum circle. I was sitting with the drummers and singing along, but I couldn’t stop glancing over at my aunt. She was so quiet and nervous, even as people congratulated her. Isn’t a wedding supposed to be the happiest day of your life? 

An “auntie,” a much older friend of my Dadi, or paternal grandfather, called me over. I sat next to her, and she told me about how she introduced my mother to my father, and my uncle to his new bride. I feigned interest in her story and hoped she would finish soon, as food was about to be served. She ended her recollection by telling me that she would find my husband one day. 

My first thought was that I didn’t think she would still be alive by the time I got married. My second thought was much scarier: Were people already thinking about me getting married? No longer did marriage feel like a silly party my friends planned in their girlhood — at that moment it felt like an imprecation. Older women in the family are usually the ones that arrange a marriage, but the notion in Islam is that God will lead you to the right person if you are actively exercising your faith. At 12 years old, marriage began to seem like a curse, and I attempted to quiet this realization at the wedding by eating — but with each bite the thought still remained.

Islam teaches that premarital love is dangerous, and that “love marriages” can cause blindness to a person’s less desirable qualities. Arranged marriage is taught to be an equal partnership, in which the bond begins after marriage, not before — although it sometimes felt like women in my family sacrificed more than the men. My mother gave up on graduate school after marriage, and I had an aunt who stopped practicing law after marriage. I became increasingly aware of the limitations placed upon me as womanhood encroached. For the next four years, I held an anti-marriage stance, and I made sure everyone in my family was aware of it. 

As I grew out of adolescence, I began to believe in the idea of God less and less. The idea that there was an omniscient figure overseeing me in life was a comforting one, but once I stopped believing in it, the world, and every choice I made, became much more nerve-wracking. I began to feel alone in each decision I made. 

I thought about my aunt more and more as I questioned religion. I remembered the look of contemplation on her face at the Nikah, and I finally understood: Though she was surrounded by her friends and family, she felt alone in that moment. 

When I was 15, my family moved, and my mom got an early jump on the process by cleaning out her room. Years before, I had stumbled upon a card addressed to me that contained $100 in my mom’s closet. With this in mind, I happily volunteered to help, in hopes of finding some more forgotten birthday money. 

I went through years’ worth of documents, photos and cards but came up with zilch. In the last box though, I found a pile of letters from both my mother and father, dating to the 6-month window between their first meeting and their wedding.

They corresponded about their interests and shared jokes, dreams and life goals with each other. I remember the final line from a letter my mother wrote that said, “I think I can see myself falling in love with you.” I come from quite a secretive family, so it felt pretty standard that my parents would disregard this part of their story — but part of me was proud and impressed. I had never seen my mother, a woman I wouldn’t describe as overly confident, be so bold and forward. Her courage inspired me, and what I read in those letters sticks with me to this day. 

Though the rest of the world can’t read these letters to witness how my parents felt about each other when they first met, reading them made me feel content. I finally came to understand what love is like in the arranged marriage process. Potential spouses don’t share their love with the world; rather, their love is a private affinity between the two of them — a partnership. 

In the end, the grandiosity of a wedding, or proposal or engagement will fade away, and what you’re left with is a spouse — someone who hopefully has the same goals as you, whether those involve children, a career or travel. You need someone who, as my mom always puts it, wants the same things out of life as you do. Those goals and dreams my parents shared with each other are things they accomplished together; they had three kids, moved to California and did what they wanted professionally.

The idea of my own marriage is still one that causes me nausea and a throbbing headache, but my family taught me an important lesson about love: The promise of “Til death do us part,” or any lifetime commitment, is a scary one to make. It takes courage to find love and choose it, whether it is romantic or platonic. So find someone who will be at your side as you jump in and explore the unknown, and choose to grow together.