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.