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Pakistan on the Potomac
Comments () | Published December 1, 2008

Salma Salma and her husband, Arif, met at Columbia University and decided to take matters into their own hands, even though in Pakistani culture, meetings between a young man and woman are arranged by family or friends. The Alis know they’ll have to make decisions about how much freedom to allow their children when it comes to dating and marriage.

“When the only reference to your religion in the media is negative, you cannot avoid being affected,” says my cousin. “This is a burden our kids have that we did not. I feel I have to censor the news that my children listen to. We listen to music rather than NPR, and I quickly recycle newspapers with articles on Guantánamo and suicide bombings on the cover before the kids see them.”

Many Muslims returned home after 9/11, fearing reprisals. Others stayed but did all they could to hide their Muslim identity. The majority, for whom America has become home, recognized that taking part in the mainstream of life culturally, socially, religiously, and politically was the best way to overcome negative stereotyping.

So now there are book groups, business organizations, and networking opportunities that help connect Muslims and provide support; there are cultural and social events that showcase aspects of Muslim culture. And there are Muslims running for and getting elected to political office, such as Minnesota representative Keith Ellison and Maryland delegate Saqib Ali from Pakistan.

I know that bigger parenting challenges lie around the corner. Ranking high on the list: dating and marriage. While all parents worry about the pressures of the teenage years, the anxiety is especially acute in traditional Muslim families where dating is not part of the culture, drinking is forbidden by the religion—I’ve never tasted alcohol and pray that our children never do, either—and drugs are an absolute taboo.

Some families reject any mingling before marriage. In other families, teenagers are free to date. Most parents fall somewhere in between—allowing their children to meet in groups or chaperoned environments or trying to make the first introductions and then encouraging the young people to get to know one another through phone calls and e-mails.

For one of my Pakistani friends, dating is out of the question: “I have told my children that they are not allowed to date. Period.” Another family has a more nuanced approach: “A date at the local pizza parlor is acceptable. There are plenty of people around, so there’s little chance that anything inappropriate will happen.”

“While they’re living in our house, they’re not allowed to date,” says another Pakistani friend. “What they do in college is up to them.”

A few of my friends’ children defy their parents, but most abide by their family’s traditions, with some kids even more conservative than their parents.

I don’t remember my mother talking to me in great detail about dating or marriage. But it was clear that dating was not part of our culture, and I accepted that.

My parents had an arranged marriage—they saw each other for the first time on their wedding day. I knew this wouldn’t be the case for me. Beyond that, I tried not to focus on it too much.

It wasn’t always easy. I remember not being able to go to my high-school prom. My classmates questioned my school spirit, particularly because as a class officer I was expected to go. My mother said I could go with my brother. I preferred to stay home.

During my senior year in high school, my parents started getting inquiries from friends asking about their intentions regarding my marriage. I remember hearing about a Stanford graduate with a Porsche and the younger brother of a family friend who was a doctor. My family hadn’t met any of these young men or their families, but the families had heard about us through the grapevine.

This is typically how it works in Pakistani culture. Once you reach a certain age, usually in your late teens or early twenties, the network of aunties and family friends gets to work. If both parties agree, a meeting is arranged, typically a tea, at the home of a mutual friend or family member. These get-togethers are usually awkward. The girl and boy get only a few minutes to chat and decide whether they want to pursue things further.

My aunt has been arranging such “tea parties” in and around Washington for many years. “My role is just to introduce; then it’s up to them to see if there’s any chemistry,” she says. “After all, it’s all in God’s hands.”

I met my husband in college. We decided to “arrange” things ourselves and avoid all the drama. We met at a dinner organized by Columbia University’s Organization of Pakistani Students. I was not outgoing—I was much more comfortable around books than around boys. But because I was new on campus, I went to the dinner hoping I might meet a Pakistani woman to befriend.

The year I entered Columbia was the first year that the college admitted women, so there was a disproportionate number of guys to girls. The other Pakistani women at the dinner were happily enjoying the odds. I stood in a corner sipping a Coke. Arif approached me immediately—and stuck. In his blue blazer, bow tie, and spectacles, he looked like he was straight off the set of Dead Poets Society or Chariots of Fire; all of the other guys were in jeans and university-logo sweatshirts. He had just arrived from London and had not figured out American college attire.

He was as talkative as I was quiet and spent the evening trying to impress me with his views on world politics, his travels around the world, and his ambitious plans. I wasn’t the least bit interested, but I listened and nodded and excused myself as soon as it seemed polite. He called his mother, in Holland, that night to announce that he had met the girl he would marry.

Over the next two years, Arif and I ended up in several classes together. We shared interests in international relations and political theory—or so I thought. I later learned that he switched majors when he found out I was studying political science. Because I wouldn’t go out with him, he figured the only way he could get to know me was if we were in classes together. Conversations revolved around politics and paper topics. We sometimes shared a Perrier and a bagel on the steps of Low Library, and our friendship developed over game theory and macroeconomics.

Two years later, he asked and I agreed. But the appropriate protocols had to be followed. A letter arrived from his parents addressed to mine. My mother and I were sitting on the top step of our staircase when she read the letter to me: “In the name of God Almighty, I am writing on a very happy but delicate matter, with high hopes,” wrote my father-in-law-to-be. “May I and my wife kindly request you for the hand of Salma in marriage for Arif.”

The letter included Arif’s family résumé: his father’s employment as a senior executive with Shell International, his maternal grandfather’s appointment as chief justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court, his paternal grandfather’s role as a prominent Indian politician and Muslim scholar. I put my head on my mother’s shoulder and cried. She cradled my head with her hand and smiled. We both knew a new chapter was about to begin.

In a twist that only seems possible in Indian movies, it turned out that our mothers knew each other. They had attended the same school in Dhaka and had been friends. The marriage might as well have been arranged. My husband and I sometimes wonder whether it might have been.

How are we going to navigate the delicate courtship dance for our children? Will we allow Zayd more leeway than Saanya? Will we allow Saanya to go to the prom? I doubt we’ll allow one-on-one dating, but I could envision letting our children go to dances and socials in group settings. I think the most important thing we can do is keep the lines of communication open and instill in our children the values and traditions that will enable them to make good decisions—and pray really hard. I also have a trump card: 21 members of our immediate family dispersed throughout the Washington area.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 12/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles