Friday, October 05, 2007

Culture clash, part 1

Imagine you're a 16-year-old girl. Originally from a different country, you've grown up here, enjoyed some of the independence promised everyone. You study, do your homework, start thinking about college, a career. In English class, you read about love, about possibilities and rebellion. You start thinking for yourself.

Then ... your parents inform you that they've found a partner for you. He's older, lives elsewhere, and even though they haven't met him either, they know he's from a good family. The wedding will take place as soon as you graduate. No, you can't put it off until after college. In fact, your husband-to-be doesn't need you to be educated.

Over the years, I've met several young ladies in this situation. I even went to a wedding that fits the situation I described. (In that case, the girl assured me that her parents had given her the right to refuse, but she spoke to the guy and agreed to the marriage even though it meant she'd have to move to London. I had a great time at the wedding, even though there was no alcohol served. Also, the groom was very awesome and a lot less traditional than his bride.)

Girls respond differently to arranged marriage. Many are resigned to it. Some panic, want to run away. Many justify it, say that these kinds of marriages often end up happier than "love marriages." A few ask for help.

My second year teaching, I ran into a former student. She was wrapped up in traditional garb, something she hadn't done when she was a senior. She told me she had recently returned from her home country, where she had married a man she had never met before. I didn't know what to say, but managed a "congratulations ... that is, if you're happy."

She started crying. Told me about some guy she loved but could never see again. "In fact, I shouldn't be standing here talking to you," she said. "If anyone sees me alone with a man, I could get in trouble."

I honestly don't know how to feel about the situation. On one hand, as an American, all this is foreign to me and doesn't seem right. On the other hand, I realize I have no right to impose my culture or beliefs on anyone else. On the third hand, I just read a poem by one of my students, and I know I feel bad for the writer. I'll share some of the lines with you, with a tiny bit of editing by me:

3 different minds in one family
father on a side mother on another and the
children on the side sticking together.
I feel like being born as a female is torture.
Can't shine, because we are told to get married at a young age.

I noticed that other parents want their kids
to go to college. But mine try to keep me
away from college. I just want to just
give up on everything and just say "fuck it"*

but soon I realized that giving up is
not a choice. I'll keep on doing
what I have to do to give my kids
the freedom that I never had.

I know my parents want the best for us,
but I feel like I'm not or never going to
achieve what I want to be in life, because
they already planned my future without
my permission.

But then again hey ... what do I know
I'm just a "girl" ...

* When I had assigned the poem--which was supposed to be about either the American Dream or contrasts with parents or both--the girl asked if she could include some curse words. Not knowing what she had in mind, I said, "Only if there's absolutely no other way to express yourself. Even then, keep it to a minimum." I think she's justified in saying "fuck it."


mr. christian said...

Touching post. I think you really go out of your way to be understanding. It's pretty clear how you feel though, and I have trouble viewing this kind of female subjugation in a positive way.
I'm sure there are really good reasons for this tradition originally developing but human culture should be used to move us forward and uplift people, not to limit their potential.

Anonymous said...

Recently I was a guest at a "love marriage" Pakhistani wedding. Given that the whole arranged marriage is a distant concept for a European girl as myself I was very surprised when one of the friends to the bride told me "I am going to have an arranged marriage. I don't believe in love." I just stood there shocked not knowing what to say trying to soak in the belief she portrayed in her facial expression... I thought to myself "Are you serious??? You really don't believe in Love?"... I still don't know what I could have answered...I felt sad for that which she couldn't even feel sad about... Just took a sip from my glass and remained quiet.