Note: The names in this story were changed at the request of the sources in exchange for their candor on this topic.
By Michele Khilji
Sarah Aziz and Imran Khalid’s first anniversary is quickly approaching — not their wedding anniversary, but one year since they started dating.
Imran attends Rice University in Texas, but flew to Philadelphia to spend time with Sarah while they worked on their exams together. While Imran sits alone in Canaday Library, at Bryn Mawr College, Sarah sneaks away to the library stacks to work on Imran’s anniversary gift.
Being secretive is not new to this couple; this anniversary also marks a year of keeping the relationship a secret from their parents.
Sarah and Imran are just some of many children of South Asian immigrants who find themselves stuck between the American and South Asian ideals of love and marriage.
Marriage in South Asia is viewed as a binding relationship between the two families of the wedded, and traditional arranged marriages have been part of the culture for thousands of years. In an arranged marriage, the parents choose whom their child will marry. In South Asian culture, it is believed that an arranged marriage preserves cultural and class traditions, as well as serves as a “knot” that ties two families together.
Sarah and Imran both are children of Bengali immigrants. They share the same background and fit their parents’ criteria for potential spouses. So why do they hide that their relationship?
Imran’s parents are against dating because they view it as a possible distraction from studies. Imran’s father wants him to focus on studies and believes that his son is not in a position to take on a relationship. Although Sarah’s parents are not opposed to her dating, they would rather “save her reputation” by formalizing the relationship as an engagement. Sarah and Imran know they want to marry each other but have agreed that after Imran completes medical school they will reveal their relationship to their parents. “We have a two-year plan”, chuckled Imran.
When children of immigrants do not submit to their parents’ authority, they are described as being “too American”. So while individuals like Sarah and Imran end up choosing potential partners who are the same ethnic background, the way they made their choices and the timing still depart from traditional arranged marriage.
To find out more about views on arranged marriage, a recent survey of South Asians, most of them students at Bryn Mawr and Haverford, polled them on their views on dating and marriage. The survey was distributed via the email list serves of South Asian affinity groups, such as Bryn Mawr College’s South Asian Women (SAW) and Haverford College’s South Asian Students (SAS). In addition, an open Facebook event was created encouraging South Asian students to participate. Sixty seven responses were received, 59 of them women and 8 of them men. Their responses were anonymous, but respondents were able to leave comments.
About 65 percent of those surveyed were born in America and 65 percent the total said they do date or have dated. About 75 percent said that their parents had traditional arranged marriages. Close to 80% of the participants’ parents currently live in America.
The survey asked the respondents to rank their views on the general practice of arranged marriage. They were sharply divided on the issue. Two percent said they were “strongly in favor” of having an arranged marriage while 41 percent were in favor. Forty-seven percent were against arranged marriages and another 10 percent listed themselves as ‘strongly against’.
The respondents view of marriage fell into three categories: traditional arranged marriage, “soft arranged marriage”, and love marriage.
In a traditional arranged marriage, the parents pick whom their child marries by meeting with the potential spouse’s family and the potential spouse first. The parents of the couple plan everything, such as when and where the wedding takes place and where the couple will live after they get married. Basically, the couple is not involved in any part of the planning of the wedding.
“My parents just spoke on the phone once” said Ajay Patel, a freshman at Penn State who is currently in a relationship with Karina Patel, a senior at Bryn Mawr. “While my parents are happy, I could never imagine marrying a complete stranger.”
A second type could be called a soft-arranged marriage. Again, the parents take the lead in finding a prospective spouse, but the child makes the final decision. It works very much like the process followed on the popular MTV show “Parental Control”, in which parents interview potential dates for their child.. Once the parents narrow the candidates down to two, their eligible child goes out with the candidate, and at the end, decide whom they would like to see again. This limits the field of candidates to someone parents pre-approve of.
The general consensus of individuals who favored arranged marriages or “soft arranged marriages” believe that parents are working with their child’s best interest in mind, so they make sure they find the right person. Some perceive it as a good way to “meet many people that you may not have met and you never know who you might meet”.
Karina’s parents did not have an arranged marriage, in fact they threatened to elope as Karina’s father was of a different caste and her mother’s parents did not approve of him. They both met in college and fell in love.
“Since my parents did not have an arranged marriage they don’t have a right to pressure me into one”, said Karina. Karina’s mom has been supportive of her several relationships since high school. One reason why her mother is supportive is because Karina has dated with a filter, specifically only dating boys who fit both hers and her parent’s criteria for a potential husband.
“He has to be Gujarati, possibly going into a medical career and at least as religious as I am,” said Karina. “This criteria just happens to agree with my parents, I came up with it on my own because of my close connection to my culture.”
Even though Ajay is younger than her, she knows that her family will accept the relationship since he is Gujarati and planning to become a dentist.
Recently Karina’s mother forwarded her an email of a young man who was currently completing his medical residency. Attached to his “bio-data” which was basically his personal resume, were a couple of his photos. Karina’s mom requested that she send a couple of her own photos and drafted profile.
“My mom knows that I’m in a relationship with Ajay, and she loves him…but she thinks I should still keep my options open,, said Karina as she searched her computer for pictures of herself.
Pooja Mehta, a senior at Bryn Mawr College, is currently dating a non-South Asian but noted that she still welcomes her parent’s suggestions.
“I remember in high school my mom introduced me to this hot guy who had his own business…the only problem was our huge age difference,” she said. Though Pooja is currently in a relationship she believes “it is possible that my soul mate is still out there” and she gives the several suitors a chance.
According to the survey nearly 59 percent said that they would date someone suggested by their parents, while 45 percent believed that they would potentially marry someone they are or have dated.
In many cases, parents do not explicitly prohibit dating but their children understand that it was not allowed. In the survey, 70 percent of the participants said that their parents frowned on dating. Comments indicated that this was because of the parents’ disapproval of non-marital sex that South Asian parents believed was part of the dating process.
Some of the participants indicated that they did not date at all in high school due to a combination of shyness, social awkwardness and parental disapproval. The participants who have dated said they began in their undergraduate experiences.
The described their dating situation as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with their parents. Their parents didn’t really want to know what they were doing as long as they were responsible. While Karina and Pooja openly talk to their mothers about their dating history they would never dare bring up the topic with their fathers.. At this point they did not feel comfortable discussing their relationships with their fathers. partly out of fear that he may pass judgment on them.
The survey comments hinted that South Asian parents have a double standard for their daughters. Especially when it comes to enforcing dating restrictions.
Ajay and Imran recalled that their parents often turned a blind eye to their close friendships with the girls and approved of them to school dances and the senior prom. “I think it partly has to do with me being a guy,” said Ajay.
This double standard stems from South Asian culture’s emphasis on marriage for women. Many believe that in order for their daughters to be good wives they must be protected from the conflicting American practices. This results in South Asian parents granting their sons more freedom than their daughters.
“My older sister was a saint, she didn’t date, but I think it was partly because my parents were stricter with her than me”, said Ajay. Although Imran has no sisters, he noticed that generally he and his male relatives had later curfews than “our female cousins in our teenage years.”
This double standard also extends to the concept of dating in its form in America and in South Asia.
Of course, South Asian women do date. But this double standard asserts that “good” South Asian girls do not date or engage in any pre-marital relations, because it is expected that they will marry whom their parents choose. In South Asian culture, it is expected that women carry the traditions, morals and values of a family.
Farha Ternikar, an assistant sociology professor at Le Moyne University, research focuses on gender and religion with a special interest in South Asian immigration. In a lecture at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in August 2004, she discussed the changing marriage trends in South Asian American communities and the implications for women. “When a women deviates from the traditional norms, supposedly these “immoral” acts reflect badly on the character of her family”, said Ternikar.
Even though South Asian men date more liberal South Asian or white women, commonly they do not marry the women they date. Some are open to the idea of returning to the motherland to find a more traditional South Asian bride. “Most South Asian men view the western South Asian women as liberal, promiscuous, and confused about their identities as South Asians,” said Ternikar.
“Sarah is the first South Asian girl I have ever dated, and she is the only one that I have seriously decided to marry one day”, said Imran. Imran claimed that he never dated in high school and only started in college. Imran has casually dated, but was never in love with, or serious about the white girls he dated. He did not allow himself to get serious because “I knew that there was no way in hell my parents would let me marry any of them.”
Part of the reason why Sarah and Imran have decided to wait before informing their parents about their relationship and intent of marriage is because Sarah just recently got out of an engagement with her ex-boyfriend Ahmed. Although she and Ahmed had dated for four years, she felt that “by involving her parents, they attempted to rush the relationship.”
Sarah’s mother was worried about what the Bengali community would think if they found out about Sarah and Ahmed’s relationship. “I think a girl’s reputation is more fragile than a boy’s,” said Sarah. Not completely comfortable with the idea of marrying Ahmed, she agreed to get engaged last year, when she was only 20 and he was 22.
The engagement only lasted a couple of months as Sarah could not keep up with college and the demanding relationship. When Sarah finally decided to break the engagement, her decision became the new gossip of her Bengali community.
In addition, her decision severed her family’s relationship with Ahmed’s. “It was really hard on my mom as Ahmed’s mom was literally her best friend.”
Finally the last category of “love American style” marriages is where the respondents date whom they want and marry whom they love. No filters, no ‘bio-datas’, no compromises.
Children are choosing who they want to marry, whether or not the parents approve.
Neha, another senior at Bryn Mawr College, has dated nothing but non-South Asians. “It doesn’t make me less South Asian if I end up marrying someone different”, she said. While Neha admits that she would want her potential spouse to be open and always available to “eat some good Indian food and curl up to a Bollywood movie” she thinks it is superficial to impose any criteria on whom she dates.
“If people are looking for true love then they have to accept it in its original form that love is blind”.