RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's an idea so entrenched in our culture in America that we learn it as small children. First comes love, then comes marriage. And in some places, it's the other way around. Bride and groom may barely know each other as they begin life with a spouse chosen by their parents. For Muslims in the U.S., those deep traditions often clash with a younger generation's desire for freedom. Today, we begin a series on Muslims and arranged marriages with this profile of a young woman's conflict between her own wishes for the future and those of her parents. Here's NPR's Jamie Tarabay.
JAMIE TARABAY: Sitting in an internet cafe, texting away on her phone is Mediha Sandhu. She's 25, and you'd think she has all the time in the world. But her parents do not. To them, her clock is ticking. She's still single, and her whole family is freaking out.
Ms. MEDIHA SANDHU: Everyone is, like, obsessed with me. Ever since I got back from Pakistan, they were like, oh, why didn't you get her married? I'm like, I didn't want to get married. And they're like, what's wrong with you? OK, leave her here, and we'll talk some sense into her.
TARABAY: She looks like your typical modern Muslim girl. She's in jeans and high heels. Her dark eyes are lined with makeup. But she's also wearing a veil. And that, she says, makes her seem too conservative to the men her parents have tried to marry her off to.
Ms. SANDHU: They think I'm old-fashioned. That was another thing they didn't like was because I covered my head. They were like, is she religious? They don't want someone who's religious, and they want someone who's modern.
TARABAY: They are not men here in Bayonne, New Jersey. They're back in Pakistan, a country she left when she was five years old. Her parents still travel there regularly hoping to find her a match. But living in the states all this time has made Sandhu feel more connected with her religion than her native culture. And she feels more American, too.
Ms. SANDHU: Pakistan is just too different. It's like a very - it's like having my arms like being taken off or something. There's very little for a girl to do but stay home and cook and clean.
TARABAY: Still, her parents want her to marry someone from the old country. So you're listening and thinking, she's 25, all grown up, all American. Why doesn't she just leave home? Sandhu is like so many young Muslims. Their parents have come from overseas to start a new life here while keeping traditions they left behind. She loves and respects her parents and wants to be a good Muslim, so she goes along with their wishes to a point she feels trapped between the two cultures.
Ms. SANDHU: I don't have a problem with arranged marriages, you know, where one's parents picks out a spouse for their kid.
TARABAY: Earlier this year, Sandhu put together an animated film. She called it "Arranged," and entered it in a competition. In this scene, she describes how a young bride has to keep looking down during the wedding ceremony. It's meant to show she's sad to leave her family, but the groom can look wherever he wants.
(Soundbite of animated film "Arranged")
Ms. SANDHU: Have you seen the guy makeupless? Yeah. He looks his age, exactly about 10 years older than her. Do you see him? Yeah? Well, she doesn't. She won't see him until she's allowed to look up. She has yet to see him, ladies and gentlemen. This is an arranged marriage.
TARABAY: Sandhu won the competition. But then her parents saw the video, and scenes like this one upset them.
(Soundbite of animated film "Arranged")
Ms. SANDHU: They still want twig, skinny girls in their teens with a college education not to work, but to be housewives and have many, many kids, preferably sons. She must have a great figure that, of course, now is covered because he married her, and he's insecure and possessive, and she must be obedient and not argue.
Ms. SANDHU: And my dad was like, oh, I can't believe she said all that stuff. And I'm like, well, it's the truth.
TARABAY: I asked to talk to Mediha Sandhu's parents, but she said they would refuse. For many families like Sandhu's, a marriage arranged by the parents is the best way they know to guarantee a solid future for their child. Havat Latif(ph) is Sandhu's local spiritual adviser. He does a lot of pre-marital counseling for young Muslims. He understands what parents like Sandhu's are coming from.
Imam HAVAT LATIF (Spiritual Adviser): When you have something that you've been accustomed to, and it's worked for you in a certain way, and your parents told you that's the way it gets done, and their parents told you that's the way it gets done, you know, how can I go against tradition?
TARABAY: In some cases, the two families are related, so they share similar traditions. That, they believe, makes the couple try harder to make the marriage work. Imam Latif says most of the arranged marriages he's seen have been successful much more so than other marriages because of the parents' involvement.
Imam LATIF: You would see that, you know, families would go very much in detail to see, you know, what kind of person is it, you know, I'm going to be giving my daughter to or even giving my son to?
TARABAY: When Mediha Sandhu meets the men her parents want to give her to, she has to grit her teeth. The men in Pakistan tell her she isn't up to scratch. ..TEXT: Ms. SANDHU: First, like, there's a lot of criteria they ask for, especially, like, Pakistani men. They want someone who's fair, which means like white. So the whiter you are, the better.
TARABAY: Sandhu has olive skin.
Ms. SANDHU: So then they wanted someone who was skinny. They want skinny girls. When people would see me, they were like, oh, she's healthy, which means fat.
TARABAY: You're not fat. Let's just be clear.
Ms. SANDHU: Yeah.
TARABAY: She laughs it off. But when her parents agree with the criticism, that hurts.
Ms. SANDHU: Because, you know, they'll be like, oh, you're - this is wrong with you. This is wrong with you. And then, you know, you have your parents agreeing. They're like, this is what they want. You don't fit it. And you know, thus, you have to fix yourself or, you know, no one is going to want you.
TARABAY: She doesn't write the whole arranged marriage thing off completely. In fact, she thinks it helps to enter marriage with a clear-eyed realism she thinks other people miss when they're head over heels in love. Her biggest fear is she'll be forced to live in Pakistan and give up her art, her drawing. Some of the men she's met have told her they think it's against Islam. It isn't.
Ms. SANDHU: There's a lot of people that are like, if you get married, I don't want you to draw. And so I'm like, I don't know about that. I don't think I can do that.
TARABAY: For now, she's stuck at home. She's only got one semester of her fine arts degree to go, but it's been continually postponed because of her parent's mission to see her married.
Ms. SANDHU: Every time I tried to start, my parents sent me away. So it's like I've been two years bumming around, and I'm like, oh great, my classes are never going to end. I'm never going to graduate.
TARABAY: Even though her parents are on the verge of taking her overseas again, she signed up for classes and hopes to finish. Ultimately, she wants to work as a digital artist. She hopes whoever her parents have in mind for her will be OK with that. But she also hopes the marriage is years away. Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.
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