Our obsession with marriages is unrivalled. It is a serious affair in Pakistani households — far more fixated upon than matters like education, poverty and global warming. A respectable match is often one arranged in a drawing room. Conveniently, it is referred to as one made in heaven. In such a marriage, the onus is always on the woman to make this fated match work and to keep at it forever. Keep in mind, we’re talking of a marriage proposed by a dubious looking rishta aunty, initiated in a drawing room meeting, and finalised over a series of phone calls between the elders of the two families.
A marriage arranged through such an arguably laughable manner is still deemed socially acceptable, even preferable. That said, there are some optimists out there who think these age-old customs can change. But change doesn’t come easy.
Unfortunately, though, the general focus has not been so much on changing the narrative itself, but rather on its presentation; maybe because of the belief that an arranged marriage is essentially the only form of respectable matrimony.
Ruba Humayun, owner of Door of Awareness (matchmaking), seems to corroborate. “Parents do not want to go down the drawing-room rishta route any longer, but they still want to be able to choose their children’s life partners for them.” Humayun runs a WhatsApp group of people looking for a match for their children. On the condition of anonymity, one of her clients says she sees this as a last resort with time running out for her 31-year-old daughter and no money to acquire the services of a marriage bureau. Her daughter had already been rejected by a plethora of drawing-room rishta wallahs before she decided to join this community.
A recent online series produced by Sadia Jabbar and titled Shameless Proposals made waves for highlighting how desi parents are still okay with the objectification of their daughters in presenting them as products when a marriage proposal is being considered. What makes it more ridiculous is the fact that an arranged marriage, no matter how warped it may become in the future, is still preferred to the ‘terrifying’ alternative, aka the infamous ‘love marriage’.
As a society we often forbid our better sense to prevail. Years of misery have not been enough for us to wonder what exactly went wrong with the arranged marriage culture and what can be done to rectify it.
“It is important to give the power back to the real stakeholders – the boy and the girl,” says Areeba Atif, owner of a matchmaking Facebook page Skip the Rishta Aunty (STRA). According to Atif, the page is a small step towards shattering the drawing room rishta culture and revolutionising social norms. “We live in a society where marriages that originate outside of drawing rooms are looked down upon, and there are hardly any options available for young people. Their only choice is to succumb to institutions that do not work well anymore with the changing structures of modern society.”
The point is to provide more options to people so as to reduce the awkwardness of having their life partner being chosen by anyone other than them – a strangeness embedded in and readily accepted by our culture. “The formation of matrimonial groups on social media is not a complete novelty. People often come up with alternatives, but there isn’t a lot of focus on empowering the stakeholders to make them feel comfortable and more in charge of the process than the traditional rishta route,” says Atif.
She is hopeful that the rishta institution will improve in the digital age. “I feel that, with time, seeking rishtas or a probable/suitable match will become like using an app and its reliability will increase.” She says that being online makes the process more transparent, but only if it is managed properly. Otherwise, it can take a turn for the worse. “People will take time to warm up to it, but our generation and the ones after will naturally be more inclined towards an online rishta process,” she says.
This might be easier said than done, according to Sabahat Zakariya, a journalist who is currently running a group for single, divorced or widowed men and women, where they can interact without fear of judgement.
“The concept of a rishta – going to see a girl as if she were a product – is hard to update and modernise,” says Zakariya, who is also writing a book on the rise of single women in Pakistan. “Most of the society doesn’t see anything wrong with this open bidding on girls based on their looks and parents’ financial status. The stigma attached to dating means that the rishta culture rages on and destroys the self-esteem of many a smart girl. Marriages that result from this rishta scene are bound to be traditional and a bad bargain for women.”
Zakariya says the rishta institution itself needs to be destroyed for any change to take place. “Or it should be altered so much so that it is nearly unrecognisable. In the current scenario, however, where a girl is expected to move into a boy’s house, where women don’t have enough financial independence and savings before marriage, where they never live on their own but are handed from father to husband, the situation is bound to remain unbalanced,” Zakariya concludes.
Children today want to know how their parents met. They cannot wrap their heads around the idea that their parents’ marriage was decided by the elders of the family in a drawing room. “But what do you mean it was decided by someone else? How could you marry someone you did not know before?” These are some of the questions they ask. Our answers are often not enough to satisfy them. They, unlike us or the generations before, have started questioning things that were once unquestionable. This is a small percentage, of course, for ‘well-behaved’ children seldom ‘talk in grown-up matters’ in our part of the world.
This is just a beginning. But who knows it might just be the beginning of something bigger, of the change we need in order to eradicate the age-old custom that has plagued our society, unchecked and incontestable, for as long as one can remember.
“I am not your cupid”
A story of a man who closed his marriage bureau frustrated with society’s unending demands
I used to run a marriage bureau but now I have shuttered my business for good. People expect too much from marriage bureaus. To top it off, they do not want to pay for the services. I was really disappointed at the impossible demands. I was very meticulous in my ways — maintaining Excel sheets with data of boys and girls whose families wanted to find spouses for them. I tried to satisfy all the requirements of both the parties, spending long hours on my computer trying to make matches. Then I would arrange an introduction between the two families. But I was getting cheated.
Also read: The cost of a ‘perfect match’
Families would sit in the drawing room and one of the members of the guest family would get up with the excuse to use the washroom and amember of the host family would get up with to show the way. I would be left sitting in the middle of their drawing rooms, and they would simply bypass me and share details and contacts. I made many matches but the families involved would use my services without acknowledging my role. I rarely got paid. Not a single family paid the fee that they had agreed to at the time of hiring my services. Many did not even invite me to their wedding. A couple sent me 70 per cent of my initially agreed fee, after they had their first baby. They had apparently started feeling that I deserved something for what I had done for them.
I no longer give a hoot about this business. Find your spouse yourself.
Saeed Ur Rehman