My problem with traditional desi marriage

Eds. Note: This is a response to yesterday’s guest post, How I met my son’s mother. Have a perspective to share on love and relationships? Read our guidelines, here.

Update 11/26/13: Congratulations to writer Aisha Saeed on this post being chosen by the editors of WordPress for Freshly Pressed, highlighting the best posts on WordPress. In an email to, WordPress said: “Aisha Saeed’s response to your guest post about arranged marriages was a really powerful and articulate call for fairness and equality. She delivers her points with a great balance of passion and reason, which makes this piece engaging even for those who aren’t intimate with the debate surrounding marriage in south Asian communities. It’s a great post that deserves a wider audience.”



There’s a befuddling conundrum afoot in the desi (South Asian) community. You must first understand a few things:

a) For whatever reason desis typically marry other desis; and

b) While the numbers may be dwindling, many desis (or their parents, on their behalf) wish to find spouses through the culturally traditional arranged marriage process. (If you are unfamiliar with this please read about it here first.)

I’m not saying this is how it should be, I’m just explaining a reality prevalent within many of our insular communities where Jane Austen novels are played out in a different tongue on a daily basis.

But back to the befuddling phenomenon affecting the desi community: there appear to be more marriageable females than males. How can it be? The numbers must be somewhat equal. Why is this not the case? While there are most certainly exceptions to the rule, the issues most cited anecdotally are:

#1 Desi men have more options.

a) A desi man can marry a fellow ABCD

b) Marry outside his culture and not face too much flack – though his sister could risk getting disowned for doing the same. While more women are marrying outside their culture, the harsher judgments on women (especially if the man does not convert) are far from a thing of the past.

c) Desi men can also hop on a plane to the motherland to find themselves a bride.  There are a lot of men going back home to marry. Yet the same parents preferring this for their sons insist on boys from here for their daughters. Why the disparate treatment? Theoretically, a “traditional” Pakistani girl will make parathas, accept the superiority of her in-laws and adjust to the needs of her spouse. (Mind you this all might be false, she might not know her paratha from her pakora, but it is the expectation many men and their families have of their ‘motherland’ bride.) Though ABCD girls can compromise, the thinking is that we’ll have a harder time saying “as you wish” to his and his parent’s every wish. It’s hard to reconcile.

#2 It’s a buyer’s market and the man holds the purse strings. The job of the girl who wants to go through the traditional arranged marriage process is to wait. She waits to be asked, inspected, accepted. The man will go with his family to meet the girl and partake of a dinner prepared painstakingly for him. Some men (read: many men) travel cross-country, eating at homes of different families with hopeful girls, several times a month and then dismissing the girls for one hurtful reason or other. I’ve heard the remarks with my own ears, from people I expected more from, flicking a hand and saying oh their house was too small, or the house was too flashy or she seemed taller in the picture or she seemed shorter in the picture. I know more than a few aunties traveling with their sons to the homes of hopeful girls with zero intent on marriage insisting “dekhne me tho nahin hurj” (no harm in looking). Oh auntie, but there is harm – in turning a girl, a woman like you, into a slab of meat.

#3 Superficiality reigns supreme. Men can be vocal about looks. No one blinks when they say they want a girl of a certain height, or weight, or eye color, but a woman is typically admonished for such thoughts and blacklisted as picky. Pictures of women are sent to men and routinely rejected for any myriad of reasons from smiling too much or smiling too little, and most vexing, if her skin color is not in line with their expectations. Maybe it’s because I’d make a pretty unconvincing Snow White, but the hardest thing for me to stomach is how anyone can so unapologetically analyze and then dismiss a girl for how fair or dark she is (never you mind what shade the boy might be – he’s not the one on trial here!) I should be used to it by now but anytime a mother or a sister approaches me looking for a girl for her brother and asks me to vet for skin color, I have difficulty suppressing my complete and utter disappointment in women dragging each other down. I suppose if you’re shopping for “meat”, you may as well buy the best cut?

#4 The doctor expectation. Guys take a breath, I’m not blaming you here! Here, the blame lies with the parents of women who demand doctor sons-in-law as a value prized above all others. I’m so tired of the mothers of daughters telling me how desperate they are to find their daughters a good, decent husband and then add, humko doctor chahiyai (we want a doctor). It’s particularly frustrating when I know a perfectly good guy their daughter might like but because he doesn’t meet the doctor threshold, it’s a no-go right out of the gate. Some aunties have defended this by saying they’re really seeking stability for their daughters in seeking a doctor. I’d like to know why they think everyone beside doctors live under bridges and forage for food? It’s the prestige, auntie. Let’s keep it real.

#5 God forbid she be intelligent or make more bling. For every doctor-hunting aunty, there are as many men who don’t want a doctor as a wife particularly if they themselves are not doctors. This prejudice applies to other highly educated women and women who are more financially successful than the prospective groom. How many times have I mentioned a girl and heard “Bobullah doesn’t want her to make more money than him.” So a girl with financial success or striving towards her intellectual potential and trying to find a match in the traditional marriage process, is misfortunate indeed. (Side note: This issue is utterly befuddles my spouse who assures me, “Feel free to make all the bling you want, I’ll suffer the exotic vacations and villa in Fiji.” He’s selfless like that.)

#6 Desi men don’t have to conceal a past. It won’t be held against them. A girl with a past is considered used goods. A man with the same backstory? Boys will be boys. What is a ‘past’? Past is certainly in the eyes of the beholder, but can range from a broken engagement, or marriage, to dating a guy in high school, being seen in a nightclub, living away from home for college, or smiling too fondly at someone at the undergrad MSA. I’ve heard all of these used as reasons for why that girl has a past.

#7 Desi men can wait longer and then insist on a girl under a certain age. I have single friends in their 20’s and 30’s who are worried. Very worried. I know men in their 30’s not one bit flummoxed at their single status. A man at 22, a baby. A woman at 22, a soon-to-be spinster who must be wed off lest she own twenty cats at the bitter old age of 24. A man at 32 is an eligible bachelor who can marry a girl of any legal age, though he will likely be uninterested in one his own age or shall I dare say even a few months older than him! I still remember an auntie admonishing my mother at my single status and how she really needs to get the ball going because you know, I was that ripe old rocking chair age of. . . 20.

Finally, this post is not intended to be an attack on parental involvement in the marriage process. It works for some. It worked for me. But it is an attack on the sweeping assumption that persists in the desi community that the traditional arranged marriage process is the best way or the noble and more dignified way to find a partner. Yes, an arranged marriage is an acceptable way to find a spouse – but if done in a degrading manner towards women, then it is unacceptable.

There is nothing noble in treating women like cattle. It should be a source of shame and it is something we as a society must strive to change.

Author’s note: In 2007 Mezba Mahtab wrote a post about why men go back to the motherland to marry. It prompted a vigorous debate and inspired me to write my own perspective. Though the original post is nearly seven years old, I continue to receive comments on that post to this day. After reading Mezba’s controversial guest post on yesterday, I felt compelled to share a revised version of my original post because the topic is as vital and important as ever.

Aisha Saeed was born and raised in South Florida. She writes YA and is represented by Taylor Martindale of Full Circle Literary. You can read more of her writing here or follow along on Facebook or Twitter.  She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons.

50 Comments on “My problem with traditional desi marriage”

  1. […] My problem with traditional desi marriage Love Thyself (Inshallah) […]

  2. qudsiaraja says:

    thank you for this, aisha!

  3. Sabina says:

    Assalam alaikum my dear sisters and brothers in Islam. This is a massive problem, but can we start talking about how to solve it?

  4. sgiado says:

    Assalam alaikum sisters and brothers. We’ve talked about the problem. Now what do we do about the solution?

  5. Sara says:

    Another thing that gets me everytime is that most often it’s a woman the mother or the sister or the aunt who is the harshest. Most times its a woman who passes judgement about how short, tall, dark, or educated a girl is.I have seen multiple times how a guy would intially like a girl with the intention of marrying but as soon the girl is introduced to the family she is rejected for no solid reason.

    A lot of my friends and I have been at the receiving end of such rejections and its psychologically and emotionally draining. I have seen vivacious, intelligent girls loose hope and become despondent to the point where they don’t want to get married or hate guys in general. I have seen parents of such girls get depressed and start questioning the love and upbringing they have provided their daughters. Muslim men and women especially need to realise the scars they are leaving behind every time they go hunting for rishtas and reject girls like they are items to be discarded and not human beings.

  6. Safi says:

    You’re talking about a process that originated in countries that are male driven where they are often times the ones who are dictating social norms. So it should come as no surprise that it is the men who are in the driver”s seat when it comes to this process – even when that process is occurring in communities here in the US.

    Does it make it right? No of course not – but I’d love to hear what solutions we can implement to finally fix this and help those millions of men and women who are sincerely looking for love, have no agenda, have their heads on straight and know what they want. Because whether we choose to admit it or not they are the ones who end up getting caught in the middle and having their good names ruined at the hands of terribly selfish and inconsiderate people and a process that is neither fair nor kind.

  7. Waqqas K says:

    Jazak Allah for the article and sarcastic jokes. I’m glad you pointed out how disappointing it is that some aunties and mothers– instead of being that experienced voice of support and wisdom–manage to be a girl’s worst enemy in this life-defining scenario. It reminds me of the movie “Monster-in-law” where it finally came out that the vicious MIL-to-be was herself a victim when she was about to get married. Is it a cycle that just keeps on repeating? Hopefully not, insha’Allah.

  8. Bakwaas says:

    Reblogged this on Bakwaas.

  9. […] opened the forum to reader response. Aisha Saeed provided a rebuttal in her post, My Problem With Traditional Desi Marriage, followed by Farah Khan’s, Reflections of a “Good” Girl. The topic is still […]

  10. […] His post provoked a huge response because his words jammed a finger into a large gaping wound in our community, and the community – stung by these words – responded. So did I. […]

  11. darknesslites says:

    It’s true that women can be their daughters worst enemy when it comes to courtship and marriage and I’ve seen it in many cultures, even the ones who don’t believe in arranged marriages can slip into the same habits.

  12. Saadia says:

    Interesting perspective on why their are more eligible women than men. I think its also a challenge to be a reformer if your culture is something you feel you need to defend; but somehow you avoided that fate of being made fun of for being a desi.

  13. A great article…very enlightening to hear it firsthand from a woman who comes from this culture. I find it sad that women are still treated as though they are less valuable than men in some cultures. And this is condoned by many of the elder women in the family, which makes it even sadder.

  14. Jean says:

    Thank you for this article on contemporary situation among some (Muslim) South Asians in North America.

    My mother was a picture bride– she met my father by only a few letters, exchange of photos when she was in China and he had already immigrated and was working in Canada for 7 yrs.

    My mother was extremely lucky: she married a man who was kind, didn’t beat her at all, worked hard and who served as a defacto family mediator whenever there were conflicts due to linguistic misunderstandings, arguments between mother and us (6 children who were losing our Chinese fluency). No set of parents on either side, were involved to inititate the letter writing.

    I wouldn’t call it an arranged marriage, but it was a situation if my father was a cruel monster, my mother would have had deep problems with her lack of English in Canada.

    In reading about the stack of traditional societal cards against desai women (still) in the marriage game, it makes me sad…. I just think of women with suppressed potential, joy.. Arranged marriage is fine if the 2 parties didn’t judge so superficially and place such unrealistic demands on the woman.

  15. Cookie Soul says:

    Reblogged this on cookiesoul and commented:
    Honestly written! Everyone should read this to get an insight of the majority of the South Asian mindset.

  16. Anjali says:

    Reblogged this on Blog For Anyone and commented:
    Portrayed beautifully about arranged marriages and the perception of bride’s parents..

  17. Anjali says:

    Great Read!!! And it worked for me too…:)

    Reblogged this on blogforanyone and commented :
    Portrayed beautifully about arranged marriages and the perception of bride’s parents..

  18. bailemma56 says:

    Really very good.Like it a lot

  19. Reblogged this on Siaya County News and commented:

  20. Thumbs up for this post!!! Whole heartedly!!!

  21. Keertana says:

    can i say something here if people dont mind? this is also a problem in India.. maybe mostly because girl’s parents are looking for someone abroad, and also in the US UK only and not anywhere else. they somehow believe that life is great there and are unwilling to take a chance to get to know the rest of the world. we have been looking for matches for my brother and my parents have been looking for me.. the point is to understand that women make adjustments very easily in uprooting their life from one place to another cos thats they way we have been brought up. nothing wrong in this thinking either. back then, men used to bring home the money and women took care of the home. well these days women are capable of doing it all! the solution for this is to stand up for your rights and surge ahead in this world.. no point in saying that we want family traditions as well as a modern independent life. choose for a brighter future and make that choice your own. educate yourself and also take care of the beautiful you. its not all about natural beauty only. me being a girl saying this might be offensive, but thats the hard fact! if you want a good looking guy, then you ought to be good looking and smart in your head too.. i’m saying this after observation from the arranged marriage perspective of seeing girls.. a little grooming never hurt anyone.. 😀

  22. Wow. This was a really good post. Just…you just…you conveyed the issue perfectly.

  23. varunbhanot1 says:

    Amazing post. Holds true in the UK too.
    Follow me for similar posts:

  24. Reblogged this on The world begins with the effort and commented:
    Traditional desi marriage

  25. It will simply never go away.The nature of men, even in modern times is to be dominating. And even if the marriage was not arranged, and it was simply two people being in love, more often than not the men will feel threatened by an independent woman. And that is the saddest part. Why can’t humans be happy for the success of the drive another human has without allowing egoism get in the way.

  26. Christina says:

    This is an excellent post and such a great insight into South Asian norms in seeking a wife, and I find that some of these points ring true in other cultures as well. A lot of readers comment on what can be done to change the way things are. The first step to change is to call out the hypocrisies, which posts like this one do so well.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to please one’s parents or marry within one’s culture/ ethnicity/ nationality. As it stands right now however, there is this stubborn resistance, particularly in the South Asian culture, to marry outside of one’s background, which is a major contributor to this problem. Some of it is racism, some fear, etc. However, a lot of young people and their families in North America are severely limiting themselves by refusing to consider potential matches of other cultures and races and by not confronting the social norms and expectations like those mentioned in this post.

    In all of this there is a choice: Accept things the way they are, conform to the status quo, and continue to complain about the lack of options, the mentality, the double standards, how you’re unhappy that you didn’t marry someone who is truly compatible, etc. Keep that narrow mindset of how a girl should be and go with whatever fate someone else decides for you. I do recognize that in Islam and the South Asian communities respecting elders and parents is of the utmost importance. However, there is a fine line between respecting one’s elders and doing what is best for one’s self, their future children and community.

    Or, you can take a stand and make choices that are right for you personally, for your (future) families, for your Deen, for a future in a country that is very different from “back home” and that has different rules, different norms, different ways of life. The responsibility falls on both young men and women, but especially men, to start educating their parents and communities on this issue and the proper Islamic etiquette on seeking a spouse. This may mean standing up to your aunties by marrying a convert who may not know his biryani from his paratha, but knows more about being a good husband and father and who doesn’t care that you have a past, than would any of their choices. This may mean marrying a woman darker or older than your mother’s preference but has a good education, who makes your heart sing and helps you every day to be a better person. It may also mean being supportive of someone who has chosen to take on the struggle of marrying someone different and having those uncomfortable conversations with aunties and uncles who, for many reasons, are set in their ways.

    This last option is not easy. It risks relationships and may/ will cause family problems. I can tell you from experience as a white, ex-Catholic who converted to Islam, wears hijab, and later married a man whose parents are Indian immigrants. As someone else mentioned, it is a challenge to be a reformer. But nothing will EVER change if more people don’t start doing so.

    May Allah swt make it easy on us all. Ameen.

    Love and peace,

  27. Reblogged this on Suburbian Outsider and commented:
    This is so true.

  28. Aisha, It’s a beautiful and daring post. Hits home. And it’s not even a specific religion. I think your usage of word “desi” is apt and every single point you mentioned, still happens, still happens to a lot of us, and as a society we are not even ashamed to carry on with it. It’s not just now time to change, we are already overdue.

    Keep writing. God Bless.

  29. nazraqueen says:

    I’d like to think that my parents shield me from most of the things you’ve posted (though I know a lot of people who’ve had it bad). It really annoys me, when people completely unrelated to you start asking you about ‘when’ you’re going to get married! I mean if I’m not in such a hurry and my parents are fine with it, why on earth does it bug you? Just wanted to vent, thank you for giving me a chance 🙂

  30. Tanya says:

    As a younger sister with an older brother, who is at this prime age to get married, this is actually very untrue. Of course, my family could be an exception despite the fact that both my brother and I were born in India.

  31. Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    Its an issue not very often addressed and doesn’t only pertain to the Muslim society..but the Hindus too…glad someone is writing about it

  32. I looooved your post..loved it to bits!I m glad u addressed an issue which is usually quite talked about between friends who are being meted out such treatment but hardly written about or discussed at large…bravo!

  33. osskf says:

    Ommgggggg. I LOVE THIS POST. Only if I can print millions of copies and distribute it in the communities and families who treat women like cattle. So how to start this change? You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but we the young people can definitely make this happen, however, we will go through some very rough times with our families but in the end it will be rewarding.

  34. Bashir says:

    The south Asian community, Muslim or Hindo are going through a very accelarated social evolution and it does not matter if they are in south east Asia , UK, USA or any place. The media is opening our minds and visions. I believe the girls will take the lead in this paradime, and time, media, education, will change the out come in few generation of global village . There is no revolution in social value only evolution . Good luck to all of us

  35. Great post here, Aisha! I’m glad that someone is brave enough to deal about this issue. I understand that everyone should respect any culture but I do believe that every girl has the right to decide for herself (esp when she is mature enough) and deserves to be happy too 🙂

    Keep writing Aisha!

  36. The equality of men and women is gone here. But I respect that it’s part of the culture but women should stand and fight for what they believe is right.

  37. Tahsin Chowdhury says:

    Thank you for this Aisha! I recently began a general blog myself and am totally considering writing a feminist break down of this article or just something to complement this =) I also plan on deconstructing our South Asian culture!

  38. Tahsin Chowdhury says:

    Reblogged this on Global City and commented:
    Totally love this article! If you’re a woman of South Asian descent this is a must read!

  39. Reblogged this on passion and commented:
    Very interesting

  40. NiranjanaVipul says:

    Reblogged this on Reinventing Myself.

  41. Great piece. Believe it or not, as a male, I too get frustrated at the Ammi/aunty habit of degrading their fellow females, when evaluating a potential girl for their son (or even just at other times too!). Yes, as you can tell from my profile pic, I’m in the medical field, but to be honest, I would not want to be married or even just considered because of my degree and the potential monetary support I could provide. I think it’s hard to find a spouse for both sides these days. I’m turned off by the idea of going “back home” to find a girl, though the suggestions from my well-intentioned family back in India to do just this are not lacking.
    I do hope in the coming years, we can fight against these traditions (many, un-Islamic of course) and make things more dignified (still need to finish reading Sarah Farrukh’s piece on this topic) for both parties.

  42. akanioki says:

    Reblogged this on miracle.