Arranged Marriages in the cause of patriotism? How to do Britain a favour? A helpful suggestion by an Asian Briton which should be of interest to British Nationalists up and down the country:
To those who scoff at arranged marriages I only have this to say: look at your own dilemmas of family breakdowns, divorce, human despair and what your children are up to. And if you want to secure ongoing continuity of love, comfort and support in your old age, go for an arranged marriage. You could save yourself and do Britain a favour at the same time......
Arranged marriages fascinate people in the UK 'like watching horror films'. Don't scoff, says Ziauddin Sardar, British society could learn a lot from the Asian experience
I have always been married. My mother harboured a specific plan for my marriage before I was even born. I was married generations before my birth, just as my wife, Saliha, was destined to be my companion before we ever met. We met but briefly and never alone before we were married. As it was, so it is and ever will be, because it works.
Arranged marriage fascinates people in Britain. Rather like watching horror films, you are attracted for shock value. Or maybe it's just because you like to sniff and turn up your noses at something considered so irredeemably backward it makes you feel superior. But given the state of family life in Britain today, with binge-drinking adolescents, gangs and teenage violence, the time is ripe not to scoff.
The Asian family is not a nuclear unit of parents and 2.4 children. It is an extended social unit that includes grandparents, in-laws, aunts and uncles and a long list of relatives, each with a specific title in relation to everyone else in the family. And Asian family values are focused on keeping the unit together - in one physical place if possible - and providing mutual support. The corollary is that you have to accept them on the same terms. It can be onerous, inconvenient, not to say downright demanding.
Arranged marriages work in this framework of extended family. They are the heartbeat of Asian tradition. Without this pulse coursing through our lives, everything we know and think as British Asians atrophies and starts to die.
A certain amount of debriefing is necessary at this point. Arranged marriages are not forced marriages. That is quite another phenomenon related to tribal customs. Some of these tribal customs are alive and well in places such as Bradford and Manchester. It is for the honour of the tribe that Asian girls are kidnapped, brow-beaten, tortured into marriages. It is due to obnoxious tribal customs that honour killings have come to be part of the British Asian experience. But tribal customs have nothing to do with Asian tradition.
So what is an arranged marriage? How is that man deemed an appropriate life partner for that woman and vice versa? The process involves a lot of to and fro and both parties are free to reject or accept. Once the parties have reached a consensus, then both their families and the principals come to agree a marriage should take place.
So arranged marriage is a social act because it is not personal and individual. It never involves just two people, each alone with their own angst and dreams. Marriage is much too important to be left to so precarious and potentially perverse and headstrong a basis as the dreams and delusions of a would-be bride and groom. Arranged marriage is not just a marriage between two individuals, but two families.
Arranging a marriage is probably the most important social skill. It is also an art form. And its main practitioners are women. The art involves a subtle reading of human character and insight into the needs of those involved - not just at one stage of their lives but as it bears on the entire journey of their lifetime.
Consider the case of two sisters whose lives are thrown into turmoil by political events. The partition of India was mass trauma. The sisters were uprooted from all the normality they had known and had to trek to Pakistan along with their extensive family. But making a new life in a new place sent family members hiving off in all directions to find jobs and opportunity. The bonds of family seemed to be weakening, indeed on the verge of destruction. So the sisters hatched a plan to countermand the forces that were shattering their tradition. If their first-born children were a boy and a girl then they would arrange their marriage to one another. In this way they could preserve the family and pass on to their offspring the solidity and support the sisters had once known.
How could two women conceive of such a scheme for two people they had not yet conceived? And why would they imagine such a premature arrangement could possibly have a chance of succeeding? Well, consider that as sisters they shared a common heritage of values, socialisation, education and all the nurturing that goes into giving people a similar outlook on life and requirement of human behaviour. Who better to trust to pass these most cherished values and grooming on to a new generation than one's own sister?
The force of events sundered the two sisters with a new partition: one emigrated with her husband and settled in Britain, taking with them her first-born son who was destined to become that new creation, a British Asian. The other sister remained in Pakistan, where in time she gave birth to a daughter, as a citizen of the "land of the pure". This new generation was shaped in different nationalities, circumstances and seemingly disparate times. And neither sister had ever mentioned this scheme to the offspring concerned. But the time came when the arrangement had to be put in place.
There was, however, a problem. Having grown to manhood as a British Asian, the young man was far from content to learn of the future so long planned as his destiny. When he was taken on a purposeful visit to Pakistan and confronted with this choice, he rejected the suggestion. But when he saw his potential bride, he was immediately attracted to her. Would he, he asked her directly, make a suitable husband? "Yes," she replied, "but not for me."
So there was a paradox: he rejected the idea of arranged marriage but wanted the person with whom the marriage was arranged. She accepted the idea but rejected the person. When his brother was presented with a similar choice, he rejected everything and simply walked away. But as the eldest son this easy option was not available to him.
Arranged marriages can be a long, drawn-out affair. So, over three years, with letters flying between London and Lahore, endless discussions and much angst, minds were changed. Eventually, both parties were convinced that this was their best option. And that is how I came to be married.
Arranged marriages are not about setting two people adrift together. Those who arranged my marriage did not depart from the scene. My mother still lives with me and has played a vital part in rearing my children. And my extended family is ever present, ever ready to share and ease the burdens, to support and encourage and to provide the safety net that does not permit the married couple to fall through the cracks.
What I learned through my own experience is that marriage begins as commitment - love, sex, mutual respect, affection and friendship are the benefits that accrue over time. Instead of beginning at the pitch of pheromone intensity, arranged marriage gives time and space to appreciate another person without the insecurities of transience.
In Britain, arranged marriages are exceptionally popular among young British Asians. But why would someone born and bred in modern Britain go for a traditional arrangement? I asked a young woman called Farzana at a cultural gathering in Bradford. "Because," she replied, "I don't want to humiliate myself by dancing to the tune of the dating game." Everywhere in Britain, Farzana told me, women get the same message: dress, dye your hair, make up your face, buy the right perfume and, most of all, be shapely, diet yourself to misery or starve yourself to death in a land of plenty, and all to get a man. It is inherently demeaning. In contrast, many young Asians think that arranged marriages enhance their personal freedom and dignity.
Instead of learning womanly wiles to please and entrap men, they can become themselves and be introduced to men equally intent and committed to the concept of a life-long relationship. There is many an affront to human dignity that can be avoided by sharing the burden of finding a partner with caring relatives.
Behind every arranged marriage is a story. I discovered many while writing Balti Britain, a book about the British Asian experience. But I also discovered that arranged marriages are not static, immovable objects in the flow of time. Like many other marriages, they are flexible and adept, malleable and serviceable to time and changing circumstances. The principles on which they work, the objectives they seek to fulfil, endure through time. Almost everything else is open to negotiation.
So it is not surprising that the newest generation of British Asians, who are indeed more British than their parents and grandparents, have reinvented the whole concept of arranged marriage. The process now involves finding a partner first and then getting the family to arrange the marriage. And if education, work, membership of societies and clubs or the network of family gatherings does not offer the opportunity to encounter who is out there in need of a wife or a husband, there is always speed dating.
At an Asian speed dating event, where the whole family is welcome, you can check people out without the embarrassment of being lumbered with the greatest bore, most insufferable scoundrel or impossible narcissist for an entire evening or longer. As my daughter, Maha, who ran an Asian speed dating company as a side line, assured me, it fills a vacant niche and gives young British Asians the means to honour the meaning of tradition, with modern modifications.
And so it was that my daughter presented me with an immensely personable and exemplary young man and required me to arrange her marriage. Like the parents of her chosen one, my wife and I were a little at a loss about exactly what arrangement was required. But eventually our children gave us the prompt. What our children wanted was the arrangement of family, the cementing of bonds between two entities that would always be part of their lives because they could not conceive of being alone.
The wedding provided all the nervous tension, angst and drama in the preparation one would expect. But in my in-laws I have acquired new family members, people who share a common outlook on life and on whom I know I can rely to be as interested and concerned as I always will be for the welfare of my child. The wheel turns, the meaning endures.
To those who scoff at arranged marriages I only have this to say: look at your own dilemmas of family breakdowns, divorce, human despair and what your children are up to. And if you want to secure ongoing continuity of love, comfort and support in your old age, go for an arranged marriage. You could save yourself and do Britain a favour at the same time.
Ziauddin Sardar's Balti Britain: A Journey Through the British Asian Experience is published by Granta, £20. To order a copy for £18 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875