On Matters of the Heart

One of the fringe benefits of my mom and dad’s move is receiving some gems of books. Some are old favorites, others are brand new. I began reading one of my new treasures this weekend and, as sometimes happens with books, found myself grabbing a pen so I could underline those phrases and paragraphs that put words together in perfect packages, like presents to be unwrapped by my heart and mind.

The book is An Uncommon Correspondence, described as an “East-West Conversation on Friendship, Intimacy and Love”. It is a book that would be deeply appreciated by anyone who has friendships that span cultural boundaries.

It is a series of letters written between Ivy George, a professor who is Indian by birth, but living and working in the United States and Margaret Masson, a third culture kid, also a professor, who is living and working in England. The correspondence spans a one year time period from 1989 to 1990. While the book is primarily about love and relationships, more specifically a look at romantic love versus arranged marriages, it brings up the many cultural trappings that surround those two areas; values, expectations and cultural views integral to how they play out. The result is a unique and readable discourse on the dynamics of love and relationships both sides of the globe.

“How deeply we are written by our culture” exclaims Margaret at one point, as she recognizes that just because she can analyze her reaction to her experiences with romantic love doesn’t mean she is free from falling into the cultural “pitfalls” that are part of the package. And later in the same letter: “It seems that neither of our cultures has got it quite right. But I’m sure that each could learn something from the other. Even if it is simply the acknowledgement, the realization that ours is not the only way, that there are alternatives to what our cultures seem to conspire to convince us is the ‘inevitable’ the ‘natural’.”

Ivy left India to study in the United States, partly to escape the pressure and path to an arranged marriage. But as she observes her peers and others in the United States, the concept of romantic love, carefully cultivated in her life through novels and myth, is shattered, the pieces scattered through stories and on faces of those she meets.In an early letter to Margaret, Ivy says “While I was horrified at my prospects as a married woman in India, I was disappointed at my prospects as a single woman in the U.S” Ivy’s observations of “dating and mating” as she describes it fill her with anxiety and fear. “Alone as I feel” she says “I am still trying to understand ‘loving and losing’ and the worth of it all. The anxieties are deep, the stakes too high. While I came to the West believing in ‘choice’ for one’s life, I am struck by the absence of it. What’s so different from India? Thinking about it as a Christian sheds little further light on this. I can see the workings of God’s grace perhaps, but little perception of God’s will in these matters. There’s far too much human manipulation….”

As far as opinions on physical contact and touch between the sexes, Ivy learns to appreciate more and more some of the traditions she grew up with in India that stress no touch until after marriage. “After living in the west so long I can see the importance of this value in my tradition when I see how many hands, lips, bodies and beds have been shared before one chooses to marry. Surely such serial giving of oneself has an impact on so much of one’s present and future being!”

An area that comes up in the correspondence is close same-sex friendships. Friendships that are not sexual but intimate and life-giving. Both women are concerned that the west has not given enough credence to the importance of intimacy in these friendships. They fear there is no longer any vocabulary for friendships like these in the west; that “all of our longing for intimacy must be focused on a sexual partner”. This is contrasted with the deep and intimate female friendships that Ivy experienced growing up in India.

For as long as I can remember I have analyzed and thought through both eastern and western traditions as they relate to love,marriage and friendship. I have often felt  the west displays a cultural imperialism and ethnocentric attitude toward some of the values and views of the east, namely arranged marriages and the concepts of extended family and their involvement in one’s life. This book was freeing and I found myself nodding and speaking to it, like I would to a person; it gives words to so much of what I have thought, seen and felt.

Full of insight, wisdom and some humorous moments, this book challenged me to think further and farther about love, marriage, intimacy and friendship across oceans and cultures. Is it that there is something better than what both sides of the globe present? Can those of us who want to seek a better way; an attitude that transcends both cultures? As Margaret says in the introduction, being offered a different perspective can be disturbing. And it can also be “profoundly liberating”.

What do you think?

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In Defense of Arranged Marriages

In the 2009 film “Arranged” two women from distinctly different backgrounds become close friends as they navigate their work and personal lives. A defining similarity? They are both going through the process of having arranged marriages.

Nasira is a young Muslim teacher from a Syrian family. As a conservative Muslim woman she lives with her family and wears the hijab. A colleague of hers, Rochel, is from an orthodox Jewish family. As an orthodox Jew, she too lives with her family and keeps both faith and cultural traditions.  They are in their first year as teachers at a  public school in Brooklyn.

The film challenges the viewer to consider their bias to conservative expression of faith as well as to arranged marriages.  The two women are smart, beautiful, and passionate about their work. In the eyes of the principal, a seasoned educator, they have just one flaw: they are conservative. “Look at you!” She says in one interaction. ‘You’re beautiful. You’re my best teachers…. but…this” and she waves her arms toward their clothing and the hijab; “What’s going to happen? In a year or two I’ll lose you (Nasira) to the mosque and you (Rochel) to Yeshiva school!….There was a woman’s movement! I was in it” Her meaning is clear and one can see the two victims become increasingly uncomfortable with her blatant disdain and disregard for their life choices. It leaves the viewer uncomfortable as well. The principal is a professional at a diverse inner city school in Brooklyn – surely she has confronted differing belief systems. One realizes as they are drawn further into the film that she is extremely open-minded and tolerant – except in matters of conservative expressions of faith. The tolerance becomes intolerance.

I have known about arranged marriages since I knew the meaning of the word ‘marriage’. Most Pakistanis that I knew had arranged marriages. As I got older it was my friends who had arranged, and wonderful marriages. There were Samuel and Mariam; Reuben and Martha; Elizabeth and Cedric and far more. These marriages were healthy unions that reflected commitment and a growing love.

What I think the west doesn’t comprehend is the difference between the words “arranged” and “forced”. An arranged marriage is a marriage where the union of two people is agreed upon by other members of the family. In arranged marriages both parties consent to the marriage. This tradition has been in play since Biblical times. It’s a recent western phenomenon that has bought into “love” marriages. The arranged marriage recognizes that a successful marriage demands family support on both sides.

By contrast a “forced” marriage is a marriage in which one of the parties does not consent to the marriage for what could be a variety of reasons, but is married anyway against their will. It is crucial to recognize these differences – consent in a forced marriage is absent (and often the situations are extreme) while in an arranged marriage consent is considered a vital part of the process.

Consider this story of two of our friends.To protect their identities I’ll call them Sadia and Mahmud. They are both educated, he with a master’s degree and she as a medical doctor. He is Pakistani but was raised outside of Pakistan in boarding school. She was raised in a large city in Pakistan and went to medical school, becoming a successful psychiatrist. On a trip to Pakistan, one of Mahmud’s sisters had told him about Sadia.  She mentioned that she was lovely and that she though Mahmud should think about her as a future wife. Mahmud pursued this, through his parents and her parents. He began speaking on the phone to her, long calls where they talked about everything. The formalities began and a short time later the couple had an engagement party. They did not date, they did not kiss, they did not hold hands before getting married. This couple has now been married for over sixteen years. They are happy, they are successful, and they love each other deeply.

Contrast this with today’s traditional love marriage. As young men and women get to college age they are encouraged to explore their sexuality. That may mean one encounter, or it may mean fifty. It is the choice of the individual. Often after college they may find someone that they feel they really love. Wanting to be careful, after all many have seen the death of the marriage of their parents, they decide to live together to make sure they are compatible. For many in the west, it may be safe to say the majority, the idea that you could get married without first testing out sexual compatibility is, in a word, unthinkable. But let’s be clear – In the words of my friend Cathy “it’s a social experiment”. This cultural pattern is less than thirty years old and the the data is not promising. Here are a couple of statistics about living together:

  • Research indicates that people who live together prior to getting married are more likely to have marriages that end in divorce. The Boston Herald
  •  A recent study on cohabitation concluded that after five to seven years, only 21 percent of unmarried couples were still living together. ” The Boston Herald
  • 55 percent of cohabitating couples get married within five years of moving in together. Forty percent of couples who live together break up within that same time period. Annual Review of Sociology

A key difference between arranged marriages and love marriages is that in an arranged marriage love takes second place. The marriage is a contractual agreement made for economic and societal reasons. Intrinsic in the arranged marriage is the idea that love can grow. It may not be present on the wedding day but at heart, marriage is an act of commitment and as such will produce love.

So before we point a finger of judgment on arranged marriages, it seems like it may be wise to look at the three fingers pointing in.  Both arranged and love marriages take two imperfect, flawed humans and ask them to do something that demands a courage and commitment beyond human understanding until death parts them. That is one thing both can agree on.

But there’s another thing at play here, and it is glaringly obvious in the movie “Arranged”. It may be important to ask why it irritates people so much when a person decides to live out conservative values? It’s beyond believe-ability.  The intolerance from the tolerant is clearly something to be researched and dissected because it defies logic.