It doesn’t matter, though, because they meet the basic criteria there, too.
“For guys, it doesn’t matter,” she says. “They can be wheatish, they can be black, they can be white or very fair. But for girls, they usually want fair.”
A frank article in the Albany Times Union in 2003 confirms Afra’s emphasis on the importance of skin color in many Indian marriages: “Marriage ads, which consume a large part of many Sunday newspapers, are filled with requests for fair-skinned brides. Or for the particularly choosy: ‘Very Fair.’ ”
Bleach creams are big sellers throughout South Asia, and many salons that cater to South Asian women offer facial bleaching treatments.
Afra sits sideways, facing me, one arm draped along the back of the futon couch. I’m struck by the openness of her face and the lack of self-consciousness in her voice as she tells me that when she lived in India, she went for a facial bleach every three or four months. She doesn’t do it so often these days, partly because it’s so expensive and partly because she doesn’t have quite the social life she had back in Hyderabad.
Abid forwarded Fayyaz’s information to his parents in Saudi Arabia, and although Afra knew what was going on, she wasn’t initially interested in the details. She’d been through this several times before.
“We keep getting photos. We keep sending photos,” she says with a casual flick of her hand. “I usually don’t care to know more details until things move to the next step.”
It wasn’t long before they did.
In June, Afra’s mother and father came to San Diego for an extended visit. Abid informed Fayyaz’s family of his parents’ presence in the country. Fayyaz and his mother arranged to fly in from Chicago to meet the prospective wife and her family. Were his father still alive, he too would have been in attendance.
Afra and her mother cooked food for the guests ahead of time. They dressed in what Afra calls “party-wear,” which for her was a cream-colored and sparkly salwar suit (a pair of loose pants and a long tunic with side seams left open below the waist). She also wore a long dupatta (scarf) over her shoulders. Gold jewelry adorned her wrists, neck, and ears. When Fayyaz and his mother arrived, Afra was sent to the bedroom to wait until it was time for the presentation of “the girl.”
Fayyaz, Abid, and Afra’s father, all dressed in button-down shirts and pressed slacks, sat on one side of the room, while Abid’s wife Allison and the two mothers sat on the other. The men conversed with each other, and the mothers introduced themselves by way of lightly probing chatter in Urdu.
Afra stayed in the bedroom during these introductory conversations. When I ask if she was nervous, she shrugs her shoulders. Back in Hyderabad, she tells me, she’d gotten this far in the search for a suitable husband a few times. She knew from those experiences that it may not turn out.
“Earlier, I met three or four boys,” she says.
One had been promising. He was from Australia, and she met him in Hyderabad.
“We later inquired and found out that, in Australia, he had a girlfriend.”
Another suitor had demanded a large dowry.
“They want this and they want that,” she recalls. “My father is totally against it, because it’s not what Islam says. It’s not allowed in Islam to give away your money like that. They were Muslims, but they weren’t aware of Islam. Or they just ignored it.”
A third time, she says, “I didn’t like the boy. Even though we didn’t speak or anything, I said I’m not comfortable. I just had some feelings.”
Each “no” was a family decision. Even when Afra had no concrete reason to object, Abid told her she had the right to do so. The family stood by her. But if not for Abid, would she have been able to say no on her own?
“Maybe I wouldn’t have been that strong,” she says. “Because he always supported me, I was strong enough to say yes or no.”
Allison, too, has been a big support. “Usually, in our culture, we ask the girl at a later stage,” Afra says, “but [Allison] wants us to know it at the beginning stage, so that things don’t unnecessarily move to a later stage at which I might be pressured to say yes.”
That June afternoon, Allison fetched Afra from the bedroom and brought her into the living room to meet Fayyaz and his mother. Afra greeted the balding, sweet-faced Fayyaz with “Salaam,” the way she did with everyone else, and she has not looked at his face since — nor will she until the day they are married.
“I didn’t feel comfortable looking at him,” she says. “We never spoke.”
Instead, she spent the afternoon answering questions put to her by Fayyaz’s mother. Questions that, according to Allison, “she already knew the answers to.”
After some time, Allison and Afra’s mother served dinner. Although Afra had made much of the food, the family agreed that they would not make mention of this.
“We all decided that we couldn’t say I cooked it. It would look like we were unnecessarily trying to impress them, saying I can cook this and I can cook that.”
The group remained segregated while they ate, the men still on one side of the room, the women on the other. After three or four hours, Fayyaz and his mother left. They flew back to Chicago the next morning.
“After they returned to Chicago,” Afra recalls, “his mother called and said, yes, we liked your family and the girl. My mother said, we liked your family and the boy. So they said the next stage will be to let them speak to each other and see if they are comfortable. After that he started calling. He used to call every weekend, Saturdays and Sundays. We used to speak for an hour, just in general, to know each other as a person.”