I have a friend. Let’s call her Aya.
Aya’s incredibly smart, talented, tall and beautiful. But, despite all that, one of her biggest flaws is that she’s 27 and still unmarried. Why is this such a big deal? Well, if she was a gori larki (non-Muslim white girl), it wouldn’t be an issue at all. She’d have plenty of time to settle down. But, unfortunately, she’s not.
Being Pakistani comes with a certain set of cultural expectations. Slowly, she’s becoming too old and undesirable for marriage. No matter how’s wonderful I think she is, that’s the biggest issue. Potential rishtas (suitors) haven’t looked at her twice after finding out her age. But that’s now. She has had three engagements before.
The first time was about four years ago.
Aya went overseas to visit her parents. Unbeknownst to her, her cousin, Zeek, had asked for her hand.
Now, her family is very close. They all adored Zeek. But he wasn’t her type. Aya had said over and over again that she wasn’t interested. She wasn’t attracted to him. She didn’t feel like she could ever grow to love someone like him.
They didn’t listen. Not because they didn’t want to, but because his family wouldn’t let them. They pushed and pushed and put so much pressure on her parents that, without her consent, they showed up at her front door with rings and announced the engagement.
Aya was mortified. How could she say no? What could she do now? They had officially trapped her and no one knew what to do.
Upon her return, Aya spent months desperately trying to form some kind of relationship with Zeek. It was proving difficult.
Zeek didn’t have many interests outside of his family and food; Aya was struggling to find common ground.
Frustrated with her, Zeek became angry. Angry that she wouldn’t tell him where she was all the time. Angry that she wouldn’t tell him who she was with. Angry that she would avoid his calls and ignore his texts.
Aya became sick from stress. She stopped eating and would cry herself to sleep, trying to accept that this was her life, or risk shaming her family name forever if she ended it.
When she couldn’t take it anymore, Aya finally called her parents and cried. She told them everything.
Her parents’ support was everything when Zeek’s family cut ties with them over this failed rishta. It was a dark time for her family, but it was something they tried to move past.
Then, three months later, it happened again.
His name was Hamza.
Initially, everything was great. Sure, she didn’t find him very attractive and it had all been a bit rushed, but at least they had things in common. That’s always a good start, right? And it was just an engagement.
It started with little things.
Don’t be out too late.
Who’re you texting?
Look at me when we’re talking.
He needed to know where she was all the time. He didn’t like her friends. He didn’t like her around other men. He got aggressive and she grew sick again. She was scared. What could she do? She’d broken off her last engagement for similar reasons. No one would believe her if she said the same things again.
With great difficulty, she ended it. But, this second broken engagement scarred her. She was desperate to avoid any more rishtas.
But Pakistani society doesn’t care about the psychological damage, they care about her age and her childbearing appropriateness. Rishta after rishta was pushed to her, without giving her time to recover from the last one.
And then, one day, she dared to fall in love with a Pakistani boy she met.
When Ahmed proposed, her father refused while Aya cried and begged him to reconsider. He wasn’t good enough.
“She was out of his league,” he said.
Ahmed was from a good, loving and well-educated family, but what does that matter? He wasn’t a doctor like she was. He wasn’t fair skinned like she was. He was too lean and looked too young. He wasn’t settled. How could he provide for her? What would people say when they saw them together? Ebony and ivory!
But the crazy, overbearing and controlling rishtas from before? Well, her mother tried to convince her to reconsider them. They were doctors. They were fair skinned. They looked their age. They were settled.
She had to understand. “Social, educational and family background must match,” the adults say, “Then the couple will work.”
Pakistani society puts very little value on a woman’s choice if it damages her reputation.
Aya still cries to me, swearing off marriage. “What’s the point?” she says, “If I’m not happy?”