Of love and arranged marriages

Philippine Star

Sunday Life

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Traveling with the APO in 1987, onboard a flight from Jeddah to Riyadh, I found myself seated beside a Saudi woman who was traditionally dressed in an abaya and niqab, all covered up in a black veil. As a visitor to the Middle East, I had been informed about the taboo regarding the mingling of the sexes and was advised not to stare, take notice or even talk to women while in the Kingdom. When I saw this woman beside me, I wondered anxiously, while avoiding looking at her directly, why they even allowed women and men to sit side by side in an airplane. But when I noticed that other women also shared rows with men in the other sections of the plane, I felt more relaxed.

We were seated in the middle-row seats, she was to my left while on my right sat the bass player of the APO band. With nothing better to do, my band mate and I began speculating on what the Arabic writing imprinted on the back of the seat in front of us meant. We laughed as we tried to imagine different meanings. After a while, I sensed that the woman on my left was sitting really low in her chair so that her head was no longer visible from the seat at the back. I looked at her, and I noticed that she had opened her veil and what I saw was a beautiful young woman.

Apparently, she slouched in her seat so she would not be seen by the Saudis seated behind because she wanted to speak to us and help us figure out what the Arabic writing we were trying to decipher meant. She told us what it meant. I no longer remember what it said but it must have been a warning to “keep the tray table folded up during takeoff and landing,” or something to that effect.

As surprised as I was that she joined us in conversation, I was quite delighted that this young woman was trying to talk to foreigners in spite of the taboo on such an activity.

I introduced myself and she did the same. No handshake though. Her name was Ishrak. Our conversation was off to, at best, a tentative start, but as the flight progressed, she became more talkative. I imagined that she envied the Filipina stewardess with whom Boboy, my co-APO performer, was exchanging lively banter and laughter. I entertained the thought that she probably wished she could engage in the same kind of informality with the opposite sex. But the fact she was speaking to us at all was already quite a bold move, and I did nothing to discourage her.

She told us that she was coming home from France where she was a senior at Sorbonne University. She was going home because she received word that her father was ill. She explained that the call for her to go home was something she had expected and dreaded, not because her father was sick, but because she was already of legal age to be married off. Most likely, she said, the entire story of her father’s illness was just a ruse for her to come home and become betrothed to someone she had never met.

I was dumbfounded. I knew such things happened in this part of the world, but there was nothing like meeting someone firsthand who was actually getting into an arranged marriage. The reality of this woman’s situation jolted me. It shattered my sterile intellectual understanding as I was confronted with her real, in-your-face situation, however vicariously.

As I listened to her, I purposely held back all outward signs of empathy. I tried to show no shock or emotion, even as I tried to imagine how such a beautiful woman who was educated in France, where she probably soaked up a fair amount of liberal democratic thinking, could turn her back on all that to participate in a medieval practice that her culture demanded of her.

Clinically, I asked her how she felt about it. She said that she was resigned to her situation, which had been at the back of her mind for years now. It was the Saudi way, and for every Saudi woman, it was a part of life, and that’s how it was.

Prearranged marriage is still practiced in many parts of the world although it has been abandoned for the most part by Western societies. I have imagined many times how this actually works out even though the very thought of it leaves me aghast.

I have spoken to many Muslims, and the statistics seem to prove it. They say that their arranged marriages largely work out fine. There are far less divorces (seven percent) under such a setup than in Western countries, which now have divorce rates of something like 45 percent. Of course, one can argue that if women had more autonomy in Muslim societies, the divorce rate would most likely be much higher than what it presently is.

Nevertheless, what has left me speculating quite often is the meaning of “love” under such circumstances. What we know love to be under our liberal, democratic, largely Christian setup, is that it is freely given, and the bonds of marriage are jointly entered into with full knowledge and full consent. In fact, a marriage can be annulled if it can be proven that at least one party did not give his or her full consent, and was coerced somewhat by societal, parental or any kind of pressure.

It is important to remember that once in Western and church history when society was feudal and when priests, rabbis and religious leaders were not only religious but also temporal rulers who were so powerful, they pretty much arranged the marriages of most everyone. They decided who was good for whom. They were matchmakers, brokers, and every young maiden and young man of any social class mostly went along with their choices. Why? Because that’s how life was back then.

When you think about it, there was nothing romantic about marriage then. It was merely an institution that made sure there were unions that would guarantee the propagation of the species and to keep order in society, as even royalty was matched with other royalty for the consolidation of power.

I stumbled on a book by Ken Wilber years ago called A Brief History of Everything, where he says the onset of personal, romantic love as we know it only emerged sometime in the 11th century in Western civilization. What is meant by romantic love is the pursuit and cultivation of the natural attraction between two people, and in the context of the 11th century, it mostly meant love outside the reach of the marriage brokers. It was love between individuals, pretty much as we know it today. It was the pursuit of the glory of love fed by the natural attraction between the sexes. One can only imagine that, at that time, such a concept of love was highly subversive since it ignored the traditional power structures that governed over such human activities.

Historians say that the troubadours — the poets and musicians of the Middle Ages — discovered and propagated the art of writing love letters, love poetry, songs and expressed emotions that were daring and bold and yes, taboo. They spoke of the lofty ideal of pursuing love at all costs. It was a rebellion of sorts. Many of these love-struck artists were, in fact, killed by the establishment that felt threatened by this romantic movement. But surely, in the eyes of its promoters, to die for love is the highest virtue and glory.

It would be off the mark to think that “true love” as we know it did not exist before the troubadours came on the scene. Surely, it must have. And the same can be said in societies where the free pursuit of romantic love is not the norm. From our Western mindset, it is hard to imagine how love can exist outside the culture of freedom as we know it. How can a woman be married to someone without having gone through courtship? Shouldn’t people feel an attraction, at the very least, or better yet, be swept off their feet and overcome by the sweet expressions of love from the other?

A friend of mine who had a conversation with an old Hindu woman about the reality of love in an arranged marriage recalls being moved by her comment. She said, “In your society, you fall in love. In ours, we learn to love.”

What she said spoke volumes about commitment, patience and devotion — three things that Western romantic love likes to talk about and extol but are quickly discarded when the thrill is gone. Perhaps there are still some things we can learn from ways that seem antiquated, and yes, primitive.

Sometimes, I find myself returning to that stolen conversation on the plane and wonder what has happened to Ishrak, the beautiful and bold Saudi woman who spoke to us. Did she get married then, or was her father really sick? If she did marry under those circumstances, is she happy? I have no idea if she is happy but going by statistics, she is probably still married. That’s more than I can say for many people who “freely” chose their partners.




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TJ Monserrat
12 years ago

Nice read!! Especially the part about “In your society, you fall in love. In ours, we learn to love.”

If we could just learn to love also… no?

12 years ago

To quote: “A friend of mine who had a conversation with an old Hindu woman about the reality of love in an arranged marriage recalls being moved by her comment. She said, “In your society, you fall in love. In ours, we learn to love.”

This really struck me the most – and it’s really something to think about.

Craig Peihopa
12 years ago

Lovely post Jim. Very interesting to see how a section of people live. Thanks for sharing. We miss you here! Don’t be away too long.

hector olympus
12 years ago

made me remember one documentary shown (however, i dont remember if it abs or gma’s) in southern philippines where children, parang mga 8 or 9 years old pa lang yata, were already being arranged to wed.

anyway, statistics show that there are less divorce on that kind of culture-baka naman kasi, allowed ang mga lalaki to wed more than one woman 🙂

i don’t know, however, i still can’t find it reasonable why a real lifetime partner should be arranged.

12 years ago

i did a class on religion and the environment at grad school and it was composed of a large mix of religions: catholics and christians, buddhists, muslim, hindu and even shinto.

i was really struck by a comment of an upper-caste indian when he commented that while he was in tokyo, he was free to associate with women not of the same religion. he was however, resigned to the idea of a forced marriage arranged by his mum when he finally came home to indaia. that completely blew me away, his having 2 sets of values; but he echoed the sentiment your Hindu friend expressed: that he would learn to love his future wife, just as his parents had each other.

i agree that true love is indeed a new concept brought about by the enlightenment. and although i do not look down upon cultures who practice arranged marriages, i find myself lucky to have had the freedom to choose.

12 years ago

I do have married Indian colleagues and most of them had prearranged marriage. What happens is the guy’s parents looks for girls to be paired to their son. The girls are qualified based on education, being domesticated, etc. The girl that is best suited for the son will be introduced to him, that’s after they the consensus with the girl’s parents.

What is interesting to note is this is not really 100% prearranged. Because they have free will to accept or reject the other party being paired. If they are amenable to the match, the engagement will be declared. Only then they will start get to know each other better, go out each other for a year or so. In the process, they “learn” to love each other.

It’s not acceptable for Indians not to get married. It’s not generally taboo, but they find it odd to be staying single. The caste system plays an important part, they are encouraged to marry the one of the same caste. Also, the girl’s parents have to pay higher dowry if the guy is educated and is of better being.

But it still surprises me when an colleague says, ‘mine is love marriage and not arranged”.

12 years ago

@ hector olympus – that was in reporter’s notebook. I saw that episode too. I remember Maki asked the kids if how they feel that they’re betrothed and both kids replied “hindi ko po alam sila po nag uusap”.

Kenji and Shiela Solis
Kenji and Shiela Solis
12 years ago

Wow, Thank you for this post! Greetings from Saudi!

I have a Saudi male friend, a very good friend of mine for more than 3 years now. We been talking about this tradition most of the time. In the male side, he can also not look at the face of the woman whom he was arranged to marry. His mom and sister will join the mother and sisters and the woman he or his family has arranged with and the ‘yes’ or ‘not good’ word will come out from his mother. The only time he can hve a complete stare to his wife is the night after marriage. He also said, 10,000-50,000 Saudi Riyal is the cost of a wife, if you want educated and beautiful women, like Ishrak, you’ll have the pay a dowry of at least 100,000 SR or around 30,000 USD. Too costly!

hector olympus
12 years ago

thanks, emilie. how tragic naman if that happens-you were paired off to wed and not to love.

12 years ago

I’m a Filipina who has been living in Malaysia since 1993.

Malaysia is a country that’s largely populated by Malays (who are Muslims), Chinese (who are mostly Buddhists & Taoists, although some have converted to Christianity, Islam or Hinduism), and Indians (most of whom are Hindu, with a good number who are Muslims and a few who are Christian).

Among the Indians, it is customary for marriages to be pre-arranged. But as witsandnuts said, they usually have the choice whether to accept the parents’ selection or not. But there are also lots of cases where the spouses chose each other. For instance, I have a cousin married to an Indian guy. In fact, there’s quite a number of inter-marriages in Malaysia: Indian and Chinese, Indian and Malay, Chinese and Malay. Squash champion Nicol David is of Chinese-Indian parentage; current prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi’s second wife is a Chinese convert (whom he married after his first wife died of cancer); former prime minister Tun Mahathir Muhammad has some Indian blood running through his veins.

As for the Saudi case, it is more of a customary practice, instead of a religious obligation. See BBC’s article on arranged marriage in Islam here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/ritesrituals/weddings_3.shtml

Most Muslims in Malaysia choose their own spouses although there are still cases where children ask their parents to find them a suitable spouse or cases of parents who give suggestions to their children.


12 years ago

This post is a mind job, the kind that makes you think through out the day (if not the rest of the week). Being told who to get married to is a claustrophobic mental exercise for me as well… to say the least. Although divorce rate is higher in a system where people choose their own partner, I don’t find it discouraging. I think lasting marriage is orthogonal to humanity’s ultimate goal, which is to propagate the species and perhaps pursue happiness in the process.
But you did raise a very interesting point about romantic love. It seemed that society have always had rules when it comes to selecting mates… as you mentioned we have arrange marriages, forbidden inter-racial marriages, forbidden class marriages etc. Each one of these have been overcome through time (mostly). I wonder if same sex marriages can be classified in this category as well.

11 years ago

You forget that it is almost impossible for a Muslim woman to get a divorce in some places.