What I Know About... Having An Arranged Marriage

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, 35, searched for a husband for 10 years
Saturday , 16 July 2011
What I Know About... Having An Arranged Marriage
Arranged marriages

“I’ve always known I would have an arranged marriage. Although my parents never forced me into it, I felt it was the best way for me to meet someone. I’m a British Muslim who grew up in London and I spent the majority of my early years dreaming about finding my Prince Charming – who doesn’t? No matter where you’re from, East or West, or what your religion is, we all want our Hollywood happy ending.

I wanted to find love, but I also knew I wanted a successful marriage. I had my first introduction when I was 19 when my family were approached by the parents of a man who thought he’d be suitable for me. Although I’d never met him before, I knew he’d grown up near me so I thought we’d at least have something in common. The day we were formally introduced was terrifying. Choosing what to wear was the biggest struggle. I wanted to be attractive, yet modest. Each of my headscarves (hijab) were carefully draped and pinned in turn, but none seemed to work. I finally chose one in pink silk; looked at myself in the mirror and smiled. Fortunately, I was having a Good Headscarf Day.

The first meeting is a compulsory rite of passage. I remember thinking, naively as it turned out, that my search could be completed within a matter of minutes and there my Mr Right would be, waiting for me outside our front door.

The fact that I was even allowed to meet my suitor to see if we liked each other was considered by some to be very modern. It took place at my house with both of our parents sitting either side of us. It was a very formal affair and I was terrified of spilling the tea and desperate to know what he and his family thought of me. I looked at the guy in front of me and tried to imagine my life with him. But I couldn’t. Looking back, I think it was because he didn’t look like the Prince Charming in my head – and I felt that we just didn’t have any chemistry.

As time went by, the introductions to potential husbands became less formal. Our families were still very much involved but we’d meet in public, like at a coffee shop. Like all women, I had my fair share of bad ‘dating’ experiences. I remember one guy coming to our home and spending the majority of his time staring at the books in our living room, then promptly announcing that he hated books and anyone that read them! Another man ended our meetings and explained why he hadn’t been in touch lately by emailing to announce that his “house was struck by lighting and his computer had exploded”. Yeah right!

Time continued to pass and I began to think I would never meet The One. My parents worried about me, but they were mainly concerned for my happiness. They wanted me to find someone who would support me and love me for ever. As I was introduced to more and more guys, my initial list of requirements in a husband changed. I was no longer looking for the handsome Prince Charming, but someone kind and gentle and, most of all, someone I could talk to but also be happy just chilling with.

It took me 10 years to find my husband and if I could do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing. My journey to finding someone helped me become the woman I am today. It made me realise what’s important in life and, most of all, what love is. I started off with a two-dimensional Hollywood version of love. I wanted to fall head over heels, like Leo and Kate in Titanic (without the drowning part). But you realise that life isn’t like that. If I had any advice to give, I would say this: be honest to yourself and your family about the type of man you’re looking for. Know that it’s great to have that spark between you, but a sense of companionship is more important. Also, understand that your family do have good opinions, but that you need to make your own decisions.

My husband and I are now very happy, but it’s not the fairytale happily-ever-after – it’s real and lasting. Rather than strolling off into the sunset movie-style, we’re sorting out who does the laundry and paying bills, but we’re taking the journey of marriage together. By the time you read this, I will have given birth to my first child.

I don’t know what sex it is yet, but whether it’s a girl or a boy, I will tell them this: love is universal. It cannot be defined by religion or movies, or by how many introductions you have or what any other person thinks. It is deeply personal, and it is forever changing.”

Shelina’s book, Love in a headscarf (Aurum Press), is available from Magrudy’s across the UAE at Dhs72.