Arranged marriages are common throughout the Muslim world -- primarily because dating before marriage is a big "no-no" and also because "parents know best." While some, very few, fall in love after marriage, other wealth-driven traditional marriages are nothing but a recipe for disaster.
A 31-year-old Pakistani bachelor from Karachi told me that he has no qualms about an arranged marriage. But since he wants to be sure that his bride-to-be is the one that he wants to spend the rest of his life with (without a shred of doubt), he doesn't accept the decision with the nonchalant attitude of "let's see if it works out or not." Being pushed into marrying a girl who he's not the least bit attracted to, he is unsure how to deal with his family members as they aggressively lobby for that girl.
"I don't ask for much," he said, adding that "the push is due to the fact that she's from a 'good family.'" In explaining what constitutes a good family, the would-be bridegroom says: "what else, they are moneyed and politically well-connected and that has blinded nearly everyone in my family."
Though the priorities may differ from one family to another, wealth remains a factor that is integral to the choice of a marriage partner, regardless of which strata of society you look at. The gardener at my family home in Karachi cried bitterly as he narrated how his daughter's marriage was called off because he couldn't meet the groom's increasing demands for dowry. The dynamics remain the same when you look at the educated and wealthy classes, the only difference being that they use the code words "good family" or "socially acceptable" as euphemisms for "wealthy."
A marriage between individuals of differing socioeconomic status could benefit one party or the other, or a marriage between equals could be a merger of two giants aiming to further climb the social ladder. Whatever the circumstances of an economics-driven match, there's certainly nothing wrong with marrying into wealth if the couple is agreeable and is able to lead a happily married life. But more often than not, I've seen such arrangements, in which compatibility is overlooked in favor of economic gain, lead to a debacle.
Though divorce is religiously permitted in Islam, it is considered the the most abhorring thing by God.
According to a 2011 report, "more than 100 divorces are registered in [Lahore] family courts in a day." Besides the ego that influences two people to split apart, "forced marriages and early marriages" contribute to failed marriages in Pakistan, said psychiatrist Najeeb Zaheer. Other Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are witnessing a similar trend.
"The [Jeddah] court registers 40 marriages and 20 divorces a day," Somayya Jabrti, now deputy editor of Arab News, wrote in an article published in 2003. "The situation has only worsened," a Saudi said on grounds of anonymity. In addition to polygamy and illicit relationships that fuel breakups, lack of compatibility is also to be blamed for failed marriages.
When I asked around, friends in Saudi Arabia claimed that they knew divorcees in every other household in their social circle, despite the social stigma attached with divorced women and the enormous pain a woman has to endure in separating from a spouse unwilling to cut the marital cord.
In Egypt, while I was teaching high school Social Studies in an American curriculum school, nearly every other teacher said that I was wasting my breath in pushing my female students to challenge themselves in order to realize their true potential. The reason I was given was that most of the girls that I taught would be married off after high school or college and divorced soon thereafter -- at least that's the trend.
On my parting note, I implored my students to realize their dreams. When I had joined the school, shortly after the Egyptian revolution, most of them replied with blank stares when I asked, "what do you want to do with your life?" Five months later, almost everyone had something to say. Interestingly, one of the 10th graders, who perhaps understood my emphasis on "doing something constructive in life," said "don't worry...I will not marry a rich man and end up divorced soon after...I will become an architect and make you proud." Well, I truly hope so!
Even though the correlation between marriage for money and the increasing divorce rate cannot be backed by quantifiable data, one cannot reasonably expect marriages devoid of love and respect to stand the test of time.
Being coerced into marriage -- because wealth, power and tribal ties are good for you -- is the beginning of a slippery slope towards renouncing all autonomy in life decisions for those willing to sell their souls for material gain.
For those looking for a lasting relationship with their mate, they may want to investigate what they really want in a spouse. If you want buff, you'll get buff, but, hey, don't expect emotional support. If you want fair and lovely, you'll probably find someone, but how long that romance will last is a question that you have to ponder.
"A marriage based on the desire for security, money, privileges, culture, beauty or lust can never be a fulfilling marriage," said Maryam Agha, 27, from Karachi.
Marriage, as a union between two people, tends to last when it's predicated upon profound understanding of the spouse, coupled with unconditional acceptance of each other, and underpinned with patience to endure through thick and thin. Anything less will not likely endure.
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