The exterior of Park 51—you may know it from scandalized media reports as “The Ground Zero Mosque”—didn’t look promising. Park 51 was supposed to be a 13-story community center featuring cultural programming, classes, and a fitness center. Right now, it’s an undeveloped, mostly-abandoned building with no signage located on a deserted street most known for its proximity to the Amish Market. The only way you can even figure out which building belongs to the center is to look for the police car perpetually parked out front.
I’m supposed to meet my husband here.
I don’t know what I’m thinking. I am liberal, independent, Western. But after several romantic disappointments and increased parental pressures, I’m beginning to accept that life would be better if I could find a culturally compatible mate. It’s not the only option, but it’s the one that would ensure a harmonious relationship between my parents and myself. As I get older, I’m realizing that making my parents happy is becoming more central to my own satisfaction—and sanity.
A quick note about arranged marriages in South Asian Muslim culture: They’re not forced, “blind”, or mandatory, especially not in 2012 New York. Gone are the days when girls would strut in front of a man’s family, serve chai, and share a special talent to impress her possible in-laws. Professional matchmakers and house visits still exist, but the internet has made it easier for men, women, and (of course) their parents to cast a wide net and connect with people from all over the country who share their values and interests. There’s also the alternative track: a “love marriage,” in which two people meet, fall in love, and marry without any assistance or interference from their families. This is what the average American would expect out of marriage. My parents are not thrilled with this idea.
So after reading a mediocre review in The New York Times, I gave Millanus a shot. Millanus bills itself as a “premier professional matrimonial service.” Its motto: “Muslims marry Muslims.” For a fee of $100, I could talk one-on-one with eligible Muslim men for five minutes each. In that time, I’d have to extract enough information about them to determine if they had husband potential. My parents were along for the ride—they had paid an additional $100 to sit 20 feet away and watch me do it.
When we arrived, I signed an ominous waiver promising not to ask for a refund no matter the outcome of the event. One by one, the other participants piled in. They were all women. I soon found I was one of the youngest there—though at 24, I’m bordering on “too old” for marriage, according to some members of my family. I was also the only one dressed in a traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez—the invitation suggested business attire, but my mother insisted, and I deferred to her superior knowledge of arranged-marriage etiquette. No one else had brought their parents along.
Over the next 90 minutes, the guys trickled in. We waited because we didn’t have a choice—even after everyone arrived, the female-to-male ratio approached 4 to 1. More than half of the men were old. Like, old, old. Divorcees-my-dad’s-age old. While I respect the need to find companionship at any stage of life, the gender and age imbalance of the event meant that there would be no groupings by age—everyone would talk to everyone. With two or three physically attractive, well-dressed exceptions, these guys just weren’t my type.
Some of the women were ready to riot. One or two walked out before the evening’s activities had begun. I now understood why the event required a waiver. I sat in my traditional clothes and looked up at my parents, my face burning red with embarrassment. Not only was I speed dating, I looked like the weirdest person there.
One of the organizers kicked the whole thing off by telling us to smile and be nice, even if we weren’t enthusiastic about the person we were chatting with. She also informed us that a camera crew from Lisa Ling’s Our America, a show on the OWN network, would be filming the event for an upcoming episode. The crowd let out a collective groan. We did not want our faces shown on camera. The crew spent the rest of the time videotaping our backs.
To break the ice, we separated into small groups to discuss a few open-ended prompts like “A man’s job is to bring in the dough. A woman’s job is to bake it. Agree?” After an hour of small talk, the women were instructed to sit in a row of plastic chairs while the men settled across from us. I pouted at my mom across the room. She mouthed the words, “I know, I know.” The dating was about to begin.
In Islam, dating is a bad word. When you’re a kid, you’re taught that Muslims don’t date and that boys and girls should stop forming close bonds with each other after puberty. Then you graduate college and your mom says, “Why aren’t you married yet?” When I ask my mom to resolve that contradiction, she says stuff like “Allah knows best” and “It is already written.” When I snarkily retort that I should rest and live my life until it happens, my mom insists that I need to put in the work. Currently this means subscribing to sites like SingleMuslim.com, attending mixers, or fielding e-mails from different aunties in the community with photos and “biodata” of their suggestions.
Usually, I forward out the potential suitors to my four closest friends— collectively known as “The Committee for the Arranged Marriage of Sadia Latifi (CAMSL)”—to weigh in on the selection. I reject guys who are too overweight or short or boring. They reject me because I’m not skinny or tall or traditional enough. It’s shallow out there. I’ve had zero success.
Still, I’m more studied at the process of co-ed communication than most. Going to public school made gender segregation difficult to enforce. Working with a boy on a school project always required an explanation. If a male voice ever called the house, my parents would pick up the phone in the middle of the conversation (I could hear the click). Once, I rode with a friend to a co-ed birthday party at a TGI Friday’s. When I came home, my dad told me he had followed me in his car.
I was furious, but my parents were right to be suspicious. I liked boys a lot, and boys liked me. I was a rebellious teenager in the most brown way possible—a straight-A student, alcohol- and drug-free, enrolled in a million extracurriculars. But I liked to flirt with boys and show off my ankles, so I was “a handful.”
Back in the chairs, it was clear to me that many of the men and women in attendance had not gotten out much. One of the first men I met told me the single most important quality in a wife is “that she be pretty.” A 50-year-old man started our conversation by batting his eyelashes, smiling creepily, and asking, “Do you like me?” A young man with low self-esteem told me he was an engineer, “like everybody else here.”
Not all the women were sparkling conversationalists, either. A businesswoman sitting next to me interrogated each and every male with the same battery of questions: “What are the most important qualities in a partner? Are you ready to get married in the next year? What qualities do you find attractive and unattractive?” I watched as man after man squirmed under her scrutiny.
In our quest to resist temptation and remain pious, our community has left its youth confused and unsure about how to approach the opposite sex. Some have dated behind our parents’ backs and moved far away from our cultural and religious roots, while others have abstained entirely and missed out on some important socialization. Our parents and religious leaders have set the boundaries but have failed to give us any practical guidance on how to follow them. When we are finally let out on a short leash to begin finding spouses, the pressure can be too much to handle. I figured that if condensing this whole process into “speed dating” didn’t make it any easier, at least it was brief.
Then I met Amir. He was one of the few good-looking dudes at the event, and I knew all eyes were on him. Tall, lean, and sporting a soul patch I would have to remove later, Amir worked for the government and lived in the D.C. area, near my relatives. Our families both came from the same city in Pakistan. We bantered easily, exchanging printouts of our quick bios to scan and search for conversational topics. There were many. We both enjoyed arts and culture, and we loved city life. Under “Religious Views,” Amir had checked “liberal.” I was intrigued. Liberal either means you have committed a few more sins than the average Muslim—or that you’re not very serious about religion at all. Our five minutes ended too quickly, but Amir promised to catch up during the post-event dinner. I felt giddy.
Later, we chatted and exchanged contact information. He met my mom. She mom-flirted for a few minutes, invited him over for dinner at her house, and pulled him over to talk in private as other girls squeezed my arm. I beamed, especially when I overheard Amir say, “I’m definitely going to be in touch with your daughter.” Out of everyone in the crowd, this guy picked me. Maybe this whole thing was actually worth it.
We said our goodbyes, and my parents and I set off back to my place in Brooklyn. I smiled at the police officer in front of the building. I had tears in my eyes. After more than a decade of deceptions, big and small, this was the first time I ever got to “introduce” someone to my parents. It was an amazing feeling, for both me and my mom.
Amir never called. This time, my parents and I were in agreement—we would never go through this again.