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July 9, 2009

My Big Fat Muslim Wedding

Asra Nomani ditched the guy she loved and wed a man she hardly knew. What went on behind closed doors would change her life.

muslim wedding traditions

Asra Nomani dressed as a bride, as part of a tradition that sets Muslim girls on the path to marriage. She would tie the knot 25 years later.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Asra Nomani

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On the night of my wedding, I sat stiffly on a red velvet sofa in the main hall of the Margala Motel in the city of Islamabad in Pakistan, a picture-perfect image of a traditional South Asian bride. With an embroidered chiffon scarf over my hair and a cascade of shiny 24-karat gold necklaces around my neck, I kept my kohl-rimmed eyes cast downward, following the instructions of my hovering aunts. I caught a glimpse of my face, caked with makeup, reflected in my bangles. I didn't know the woman who stared back at me. I thought, What am I doing here?

The journey had begun when I was a little girl, growing up in a Muslim family in the city of Hyderabad in southern India. There's a photo of me as a toddler, my sullen face peeking out from layers of bridal finery—part of a tradition that sets Muslim girls on the path to marriage. When I was 4, I boarded a TWA flight headed for America, where my family and I would start a new life while my dad pursued his Ph.D. I went to school in Morgantown, WV, and did modern things like run cross-country, but lived by traditional Islamic rules regarding love and marriage. I believed I had to marry a Muslim—better yet, a man with South Asian roots.

To me, abiding by the dictates of my culture and religion meant finding a love that would be halal, or legal, according to Islamic law. As a girl, I had learned to live by the hudood, or sacred boundaries, of traditional Muslim society: I never dated, and I never went to the junior high school dances. My senior year at Morgantown High, standing by my red locker, I politely refused the class president when he invited me to the prom. "I can't," was all I could say. And I couldn't. It would be haram—unlawful.

Eventually, I crossed the sacred boundaries by falling in love with a student at West Virginia University, where I was an undergraduate. He was a clean-cut Special Forces National Guardsman with a can of Skoal in the back pocket of his Levi's. A Catholic of Polish ancestry, he wasn't the man I was supposed to love. The day we consummated our relationship, I cried, having surrendered my virginity before my wedding night. When my mother found out about the guy, she gave me a command: "Stop."

I didn't, of course. We continued to go out for four years. Then, during graduate school in Washington, D.C., I dated a blond surfer from California and celebrated Christmas with his family. A year later, I found myself in Chicago, smitten with a Lutheran from Iowa. One spring Saturday afternoon, I sat on a bench in Lincoln Park with him after almost three years together. "I love you," he said. "I want to marry you." He should have been Mr. Right. I loved him deeply. But I looked away.

It was a defining moment—my desires doing battle with the cultural expectations surrounding me. I repeated the mantra I had internalized: "I can't." He protested, saying he would learn my native language of Urdu and even convert to Islam. I shook my head, "No. I can't." I broke his heart, and my own.

Not long afterward, I received a call from a guy I'd known at grad school. He was Pakistani and Muslim, but living in America, fully assimilated into the culture. My heart leapt. We talked and flirted deep into the night. By morning, I was punch-drunk happy at the prospect of a love that wouldn't be forbidden.

On Valentine's Day in 1992, we met for dinner. An employee of The World Bank, he was a former cross-country runner, just like me, with two cats—again, just like me. A week later, we got engaged. After a month, I moved into his high-rise apartment in Chevy Chase, MD. My parents weren't thrilled that we were living together before marriage, but at least he was a Muslim.

NEXT PAGE: Nine months later, I boarded a flight to our wedding in his hometown.

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