Afra Khan, a grad student who recently emigrated from Hyderabad, India, wears jeans and a long-sleeved gray T-shirt that says SDSU across the front. Before I spend an afternoon with her in a tiny two-bedroom house in University Heights, all I know about arranged marriage is limited to a handful of stories told by first-generation American women of Indian descent. Those were the tales of women who detest what journalist Anita Jain once referred to as “horribly crusty notions passed down” from their parents. In 2005, New York Magazine published an article Jain wrote in which she recounts the first time she let her parents set her up with a date.
“I lodged my protest against him and arranged marriage,” she wrote, “by getting ragingly intoxicated and blowing smoke rings in his face.”
Afra Khan is nothing like Anita Jain. Never mind the smoking and the drinking, Afra wouldn’t even allow her fiancé to meet her at the Chicago airport a month and a half before their wedding because she didn’t think it was appropriate to be alone with him without the company of her parents. Despite the jeans she wears and her affinity for computers, Afra seems at times to be straight out of Jane Austen’s era.
She sits, feet curled beneath her, on a wood-framed futon couch in the house she shares with her brother, his wife, their 18-month-old son, and his mother-in-law. She is calm and relaxed, not at all what I imagine for a woman who is leaving tomorrow to go to Chicago to marry a man she’s seen only once — six months ago, during a formal interview between his family and hers.
Instead, she chats amiably, alternating between techie-gibberish about scripting languages and girlie-giggles about the love that awaits her, some two thousand miles and two weeks away.
At 30, Afra isn’t exactly a “girl.” But this is the word she uses as she explains the process of her engagement. She also refers to her fiancé, Fayyaz, as “the boy” (or sometimes, “the guy”) despite the fact that he’s a 33-year-old man who owns four Little Caesars pizza franchises in Chicago. Her use of these diminutives seems incongruous in this context, but I’ll later learn it’s a common way, among Indians at least, to refer to unmarried men and women, especially in the arrangement of their marriages.
The youngest of three children, Afra was born and raised in Hyderabad, the sixth-largest city in India. In 2008, three years after she received her undergraduate degree in computer science, she moved to San Diego to get a master’s degree at San Diego State University. She would have gone to just about any university in the country as long as it was in the same city as her brother Abid and his wife Allison.
Studying in the United States is something she wanted to do for a long time. The schools are good, she says, and there’s a future for anyone in the IT industry. Even if she were to move back to India, her American master’s degree would come in handy.
“American master’s programs are valued throughout the world,” she says, tucking a strand of shiny black hair behind her ear. “It doesn’t matter what university you’re coming from. If it’s a degree from the United States, it’s valuable.”
Not that she’s planning to return to India anytime soon. Fayyaz is also from Hyderabad, but he moved with his family to Chicago when he was 16 or 17 years old. According to Afra, her fiancé claims Chicago as “his city.” It’s where he grew into a man and where his immediate and extended family resides. He has also rooted himself in the pizza business. More important, Fayyaz is a patriotic American. He even planned a Hawaiian honeymoon so that the money they spend will stay in the country. Although that particular plan fell through when his brother promised to gift the soon-to-be-wed couple with a two-week honeymoon in Tahiti, it’s still a fair guess that Afra will make use of her degree in the United States, likely somewhere in the Chicago area.
When Afra came to San Diego to live with her brother Abid, he became her guardian; and so, in the spring of 2009, when a woman called from Chicago to inquire about Abid’s unmarried sister, he spoke on behalf of their parents, who both now live in Saudi Arabia. (After Afra left India, their mother returned to Saudi Arabia, where their father works.) The woman explained that she had gotten Abid’s number from his mother’s cousin and then stated that she was looking for a girl as a match for her son. She asked questions about Afra, what she’s studying, how long she’s been in the United States, what her father does, and so on. Abid asked a few questions of his own, then the two parties agreed to exchange biodata, which are, for all intents and purposes, résumés.
Marriage biodata templates abound online and include space for a photo, all the standard data about education and work history, as well as personal facts about height and weight, skin and hair color, religion, caste, habits, and income. The required familial information is often as detailed as the names and occupations of maternal and paternal grandfathers and uncles.
While all of these particulars are considered important in the making of a good marriage, Afra suggests that the match begins at the surface level.
“Somehow, in the arranged marriages, what I have noticed in India and in our culture is that they first match the physical attributes, like height and color.”
She explains that it would be no good to have a tall boy matched with a short girl. Nor would it be right to match a boy with a girl who’s taller than him.
“The basic criteria,” she says, “is that the boy should be taller than the girl.”
At 5’6” and 5’7”, respectively, Afra and Fayyaz are nearly the same height. Their complexions, however, don’t fall into the same category. She’s considered “fair,” and he’s what they call “wheatish,” or light brown.
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.”
At this point, her laid-back demeanor revs up the tiniest bit. She sits up and her speech takes on momentum. She seems to feel a certain joy in reliving this part of her story.
She clarifies that though she and Fayyaz spoke regularly, they were not yet committed to each other. They were getting to know each other, and as such, she remained properly restrained, never being the one to make the call.
“I felt I shouldn’t call a guy until I’m committed,” she says.
She didn’t have to. Fayyaz made his interest clear.
“He started calling once in the week, maybe on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, between the weekends. He would say when he’s calling next before hanging up. On Sunday, he’d say, ‘OK, I’ll call on Tuesday.’ Or Wednesday. Then on Wednesday, he’d say, ‘OK, I’ll call on Friday,’ then Saturday and Sunday again.”
She giggles at this. What girl wouldn’t love to tell how her man couldn’t get enough of her?
But even though her voice, body language, and the pink hue in her cheeks all confirm her excitement, she emphasizes the propriety with which she has behaved all along.
“We never spoke of anything that involved romance. Never. Until we were committed.”
Fayyaz added more days to their phone schedule until eventually “he was calling me almost every other day. We were speaking for one hour, two hours, sometimes three hours.”
Family is important to Afra, and from their conversations, she learned that Fayyaz spends a lot of time with his, that he treats his mother well, and that he is the kind of man who will sacrifice his own desires for the happiness of those around him. It was these qualities that made Afra know he was the one she wanted to marry. But she had to wait for him to ask.
Since she moved to San Diego, Afra has exchanged data with two or three other men, but she hasn’t met any in person aside from Fayyaz. In September, another man inquired about her. She told her family she wasn’t comfortable even sharing information with anyone else, but she didn’t tell Fayyaz about the inquiry, because she knew it would appear that she was pressuring him to move forward with her.
Near the end of October, Afra mentioned to Fayyaz that her mother would leave San Diego and return to Saudi Arabia on November 1. This information spurred him into action. Though he’s never said so, Afra assumes he made his move then, because it would be easier for their mothers to make plans without the voice-delay of an overseas phone call.
On October 31, Fayyaz’s mother called to say that Fayyaz would like to marry Afra. Afra’s mother accepted on her behalf, and the two mothers debated about the date. Afra’s family was hoping for the summer so she could finish her studies at San Diego State. Fayyaz’s family wanted December. In the end, they settled on January so Afra could complete the fall semester and make arrangements to take project-based courses that would allow her to finish spring semester coursework from Chicago.
After the engagement was set, Afra and Fayyaz began to talk twice a day, sometimes three times.
“He calls me first thing in the morning at eight or eight-thirty, depending on his schedule and my schedule. We speak from a half-hour to one hour, two hours sometimes. And in the daytime, we speak for ten or fifteen minutes once in a while when he’s free. Or when I’m on my way to the college, I give him a call, just to know what’s happening in the day. Then again at night he calls, after he finishes all his work. Just before going to bed he calls me.”
Again, she blushes and smiles, hugging her knees to her chest.
The tone of their conversations has become more romantic, at least on his part. He speaks of their future and everything they will do together. He tells her about Chicago, the places he wants to take her, the things he wants her to see. He describes the house they will share, leading her on imaginary tours from one room to the next so that when she arrives, she will feel at home. He tells her that all his hard work has paid off and that she is his reward. Afra clearly enjoys his attentions, but she remains restrained in her responses.
“I just say thank you,” she giggles. “That’s my usual reply to whatever good he says. I say thank you.”
Even when he tells her he loves her, she won’t say it to him until they’re married.
“I do love him, but I won’t say it. So many times he asks me to say it, but I tell him not every emotion needs words. You should just understand what my feelings are.”
In November, over the Thanksgiving holiday, Afra flew to India to shop for her wedding dresses and jewelry. It’s custom for the groom’s family to purchase the bride’s wedding and reception dresses, but since Afra was in India and would have more options than they would in Chicago, Fayyaz’s mother asked her to buy them herself. The arrangement pleased Afra, who felt lucky to have her own choice.
Red is the traditional color for the wedding-day dress, and green for the reception day. But these days, people vary their colors from maroon or pink and purple or blue. For her wedding, Afra chose a dark maroon dress with a green border. It is heavily beaded and embroidered and weighs nearly 30 pounds. Her reception dress is a deep green, equally ornate with beadwork and embroidery.
During her time in India, where she stayed with extended family, Afra spoke to Fayyaz on the phone every day, but she kept their conversations a secret.
“In our culture, it’s considered too bold to speak to a guy like that every day before the wedding.”
This is a cultural rule rather than a religious one. Islam, she says, allows a person to see and speak to their prospective spouse before the marriage “because you’re making such a big decision of your life. Even looks-wise, it shouldn’t be that you’re marrying someone you don’t find attractive.”
The believers in arranged marriage, versus love marriage, claim that love does not have to come first. They say it can grow inside of what has already been determined a stable match, strengthened by compatibility in the areas of education, religion, and socioeconomic class. As such, they say, divorce is less likely than in places like the U.S., where love marriage is the rule. An article written on professorshouse.com, a website dedicated to all things family, states, “India is the perfect example of a society where arranged marriages are still the norm and where the divorce rate is very low.”
Most Americans probably think of arranged marriage as synonymous with forced marriage. Although forced “child bride” marriages do exist, they’re far less common than those wherein the parents select a suitable match and then give their children the power of veto. But some people believe so highly in the wisdom of their elders that they willingly give the decision-making power over to their parents. Afra’s sister is one such example. She and her husband not only let their parents choose their spouses, they also chose to follow the cultural tradition of not seeing or speaking to each other at all before the wedding. According to Afra, they are happy in their marriage.
Traditionally, couples who do speak to each other prior to the engagement stop once the date has been set. Afra would have been fine with that, and might even have preferred it, but Fayyaz, she says, is “not rigid about the culture.” In fact, he has a tendency to question many cultural customs.
“He’ll say, ‘I don’t care for that,’ ” says Afra. “ ‘Who says this is a rule, and who wrote this rule book?’ ”
She goes on to say that he’s “too much American,” but she says it with a half-smile, as if her fiancé’s wild American streak amuses her.
“I like that about him,” she confirms, “but there are a few things which I think are still good in our culture.”
Afra is more careful with cultural customs, not just for the sake of the rules themselves, but also because she’s all too aware of the gossip that abounds in Hyderabadi society.
Abid’s marriage to Allison rocked everyone’s expectations in a big way. Abid is the only male in his immediate family, and his 13 cousins by his father’s two brothers are also all girls. Out of 16 children on his paternal side, he is the only one whose children will carry the Khan name.
And he went and found a white American girl.
Abid, however, is not the entirely renegade son he was made out to be. Allison spent a great deal of time getting to know his parents before the two became engaged. In fact, later, when Allison asked his mother about other “love marriages” in their family, his mother responded, “Yours wasn’t a love marriage. I chose you.”
Despite the way the immediate family feels about Allison and Abid, their marriage was cause for rumors and gossip. Abid’s two uncles even refused to attend the wedding.
“It was a topic in the family for a long time,” says Afra.
If people knew Afra and Fayyaz had spent so much time on the phone prior to and after their engagement, the gossip would likely not reach the levels it reached over her brother’s choice of bride, but she doesn’t want to give anyone reason to talk.
As the airline gods would have it, Afra changed flights in Chicago both coming and going from India. Fayyaz wanted to see her, but she said no. She wasn’t comfortable meeting with him alone and without her parents, not even when she had a three-hour layover on the return.
Afra has resumed her languid pose on the futon, with one leg dangling over the edge and the other tucked beneath her. When I ask if she’s excited about everything that’s happening, she smiles and twists a lock of hair around her finger.
“Yes,” she says. “I don’t want to be the center of attention always, but I feel this is my time, and I should just enjoy it.”
This time tomorrow, she’ll be on her way to Chicago. For good. The wedding isn’t for two weeks, but she has plenty to keep her busy.
“I have a few things to shop for,” she says, “and I have a few appointments at the salons: nails, manicure, waxing, facial bleach, and hair.”
As our conversation winds down, Allison and her mother sneak in through the back door. Allison, pregnant with her second child, tiptoes through the living room holding her sleeping son in her arms. I ask Afra if she, too, wants children.
“Yeah, of course,” she says. “It’s not a question to have children in our culture. It’s just a question of whether to have them right away or after some time.”
A fluffy, beige-colored cat darts in from the open kitchen door and slinks toward the futon where we sit. Afra shrieks and pulls her dangling leg up quickly.
For a second, I watch, amused and baffled. Her fear of cats seems silly in this moment, 24 hours before she boards a plane to live a new life in a new house she’s never seen and with a man she’s met but briefly.
As the cat continues to advance, Afra appeals to it in a small, scared voice, “Please, not here.”
I laugh and stomp my foot to help shoo the furry creature away.