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.