Reshma Melwani is Publicity and Rights Associate at Beacon Press.
Today, U.K. author Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s memoir Love in a Headscarf will be released in the U.S. As Shelina’s publicist at Beacon Press, I’ve been spending the last few months working on ways to publicize her irreverent and witty book about her journey to find a husband through the arranged marriage process.
While chatting with a girlfriend, I mentioned I was going to blog about this book but couldn’t quite figure out what to write. “I suppose I can write about my mom’s arranged marriage,” I told her “or my aunt’s on-going, slightly manic search to find my cousin a suitable husband.” But then my friend suggested I write about how I was a “liberated” Indian woman, not condemned to an arranged marriage like the other women in my family.
That’s when it hit me—arranged marriage, or the idea of what an arranged marriage is, unfortunately continues to get a bad rap in our society, which is more or less unfamiliar with this still common South Asian and Middle Eastern custom. And this is precisely why a book like Love in a Headscarf is so invaluable. Many Westerners likely hear the term arranged marriage and assume it is a coercive, anti-feminist practice straight out of the dark ages. But for Shelina, my friends and family members, and countless other bright and independent women who opt for an arranged marriage, the process is only filled with love and the best of intentions. An arranged marriage, as Shelina explains in her memoir, is “something very different from a forced marriage.”
When the good news of my engagement spread throughout our community, the first question many friends curiously asked my parents was not when the big day was, but rather, if my match was “arranged or love.” A “love marriage,” as it’s referred to, may have been taboo during my grandmother’s generation and possibly even my mother's, but today there is really no right or wrong answer to the question. As for me, I had a “love marriage,” not because I was ever opposed to the idea of an arranged marriage, but it just so happened that my husband found me before my family had the opportunity to find him.
My mom, who recently celebrated her 30th wedding anniversary this September, still gets a kick out of sharing her two-day courtship story with friends. My parent’s first “date” was a family dinner and their only solo meeting was drinks at a coffee shop followed by an awkwardly silent rickshaw ride. The next time they met, September 12, 1980, was their wedding day. And while my mom’s quick courtship was the custom at her time, she was in no way forced into the marriage. She always had the choice to pass on my dad, but I am glad she didn’t.
With humor and heart, Shelina perfectly recounts what it’s like to find a husband with your parents, siblings, “buxom aunties,” extended family and friends along for the ride. When your loved ones are your matchmakers, only the best and the brightest men make the cut. And with so many potential suitors to choose from, there is no chance of wasting months or years in a dead-end relationship. In her memoir, readers go on countless, sometime disastrous, dates with Shelina. She was not coaxed to say yes to the first man presented to her—she took her time, almost ten years, until she met what she calls her “Muslim Man Travolta.” Her experience personifies the modern arranged marriage process—a process my single and searching cousin compares to being on a dating game show where her anxious mom and lovingly meddling aunts set her up on blind dates with various “contestants.” And one day, one lucky winner of her choosing will get her hand in marriage.
These days, it seems like it has become even harder to meet “the one.” With so many of us relying on online dating and social sites, where’s the harm in welcoming some friendly matchmaking from those who know us best and love us the most?