The Link Between Marriage & Misogyny On-Screen
Have you seen The Big Sick yet? Recently released, critically acclaimed and featuring Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan as an interracial, Pakistani/American couple, who escalate their romantic relationship off a one-night stand. The film is based on Nanjiani’s real-life events with his wife, Emily V. Gordon. I’ve come across two pieces of writing that revolve around the same topic. Writer Nadya Agrawal’s piece on Quartz, and Aditi Natasha Kini’s piece featured on The Muse, via Jezebel. Both pieces speak against the representation of brown women on the big screen, speaking specifically about Kumail Nanjiani’s ‘The Big Sick’, Aziz Ansari’s ‘Master of None’ (Season 2) and Hasan Minhaj’s ‘Homecoming King’. After watching all three myself, I can agree with the writers sentiments regarding the misrepresentation and cliched misogyny played on Nanjiani, Ansari and Minhaj’s part. The number of Pakistani men I’ve known to fetishize white women, while disregarding and even disrespecting brown women, is a count too high. “Brown America” doesn’t feel like it’s giving brown women any credibility, or appreciation, and South Asian men who seem to be making “the cut” ought to have our backs. Two South Asians can fall in love on-screen, and it doesn’t have to be Bollywood. However, while we decide to highlight the unfairness of our representation in media, we’re completely disregarding another equally important issue: Pakistan’s ‘Muslim Guilt’, and most of South Asia’s marriage culture.
As enjoyable as the film was, it paints the picture a lot prettier than it actually is. We need to start addressing how problematic ‘Muslim Guilt’ and arranged marriages can be. Muslim guilt and arranged marriages go hand in hand; as depicted in The Big Sick, Nanjiani’s mother refuses to speak with him simply because he desires to marry someone of his own choosing - and in doing so, was not living up to his parent’s expectations. Expectations where they believed he “owed” them, for being a good Muslim after giving up the comfort and luxuries of Pakistan, in order to provide their children with a better life and better education in the U.S. By coercing your children into arranged marriages, love marriages are ostracized. We live in a patriarchal, feudal, militant and colourist society, where someone may either be too dark-skinned, too foreign, too inappropriate, too liberal or too ‘poor’. All of these factors tend to end in the blame game, where one unintentionally tarnishes their family’s so-called honour.
But I’m missing out the most important, most crucial aspect of marrying someone against our parent’s wishes:
But what will people think?
Love marriages, or marriages made without the consent of one’s family, are ostracized and because of this, have resulted in the deaths of many in Pakistan, even those who weren’t directly involved. Take Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s documentary “A Girl in the River” as an example: Saba was honour killed for attempting to elope with a man of her choosing. Uzma Sarfraz Khan, a woman who is like family and a close friend of my mother’s, had to deal with the agony of her husband’s murder. Fazal Khan’s murder was caused by an axe to the neck - why? Simply because he stood for what was right, in that he protected a young woman who worked for the family, from her savage father and brother who had come to kill her for choosing her own marriage partner, and wishing to elope with him. These are just two examples out of thousands of women.
Religion and culture are two separate entities that have, unfortunately, been intertwined and distorted. When combined, basic tolerance and understanding seem to be non-existent or minimal. It simply just doesn’t work. As someone who doesn’t want to get married, especially on religious grounding (i.e., Sharia Law), the possibility of ending up with a Pakistani seems far-fetched to me now. As someone who is open about her progressive values and belief, no Pakistani family would want to see their sons marry me. And this is where it’s truly problematic - society in general convinces us to label everything, that everything can and will fit in boxes.
However, feudalistic and militant societies like Pakistan are a bit more constrictive than general society. Many of us are described, in great detail, our pre-planned life paths by our parents. And if it we attempt to go off the course that has been intricately designed by our peers, then you’re going to hear a lot of “taubas” and “astagfirullahs” before facing an aftermath of events. Or will you? We were raised as young children with this innate fear instilled within us. But, in my opinion, if your parents love you a little less conditionally, then regardless of their disappointment, they will accept the path you’ve chosen, as long as you’re happy. A similar connotation is depicted by Nanjiani’s real-life parents. My father disowned me after I published an article on VICE about my personal experiences with Pakistan’s unspoken sex culture, and we didn’t speak for several months. But eventually after all his rage and shame subsided, he came around and apologized, while mentioning the words “father” “daughter” and “unconditional love”, as it should be.
There is an inherent air of xenophobia in our society (British colonialism is the root of all our problems), and thus we endorse arranged marriages (some of which are consanguineous, but let’s not pretend like cousins don’t marry each other in the US, either) which are mostly based on the wealth and social status of both parties, and even though polygamy is declining, and even though in such cases a man requires their present wife’s consent - why would a woman refuse him this, given the inherent lack of independence we, as Pakistani women, are raised to live without? We are conditioned to believe it is a man’s responsibility to cater for us, be it our father or our husband, and for us to please him at every whim. We may grant him permission to remarry begrudgingly so, but knowing without his support (spousal/child support is not obligatory under Sharia law) we may not be able to function in society without familial help. But more importantly, once again - What will people think? Our priorities are innately messed up. Women are entitled to an education, independence and freedom as much as anyone else.
A gentle reminder for brown girls, and all girls: You are so worth it. And I hope one day we can all be free to build our own lives and no longer be subjected to judgement. We are not in eternal debt to the patriarchal societies we’ve had the misfortune of being born into.
I’m tired of aunties labelling a girl as a failure if she hasn’t been married off by her late twenties. What if I don’t want to get married? What if I don’t want to adhere to conventional standards of society (the standards of an outdated society that I am expected to blindly follow)? What if I don’t want to have children, but instead, adopt a child who needs love and care, as opposed to unnecessarily bringing one into this world. A child I may or not be confident about raising, because I rushed into a marriage too quickly, or one I was coerced into? Yet, the harshest rebuttal I face if I refuse, is some aunty judging me? The world isn’t going to end. There is no impending doom attached to the refusal of marriage and children, how dare you label me as unworthy? It’s not my responsibility to make my husband daal while he is in charge of all our finances, giving me little to none financial independence. Nope, that’s not going to cut it. We can both have our financial independence while we both work, and while one of us makes the daal and the other, the chaawal.
Last but absolutely not least, our LGBTQ community is just as important but gay marriage, sadly, will remain obsolete and taboo until love marriages between a man and a woman become more widely accepted. None of us is better or lesser than the other, and none of us should be more susceptible to judgement. We are different in our own unique ways, but we are all equal.