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July 9, 2009

My Big Fat Muslim Wedding

muslim wedding traditions

Asra Nomani, the shell-shocked bride.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Asra Nomani

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Nine months later, I boarded a Pakistan International Airlines flight to our wedding in his hometown. Sure, I had doubts, but I felt I was finally meeting the expectations that my religion, my culture, and my family had for me.

The day of our wedding, I sat in a chair at the Mee Lee Beauty Parlour in Islamabad, run by a Chinese immigrant, Mrs. Lee Chu Liu. "Now we wax your arms and bleach your face," the hairdresser told me. I passed. That night, my husband and I were married, although I didn't stand beside him to say my vows; we were wed in separate rooms, per tradition. Some 300 guests came, most of them strangers to me.

As my wedding flowed into my honey-moon in Paris and the first few weeks of marriage, some issues I'd ignored throughout our brief romance started to haunt me. My husband, charming with friends by day, would simply shut down at night. We would have rather passionless, perfunctory sex, and then he'd roll over, turn his back to me, and fall asleep. I had naively thought this would change over time. It didn't.

When I would try to gently talk with him about it, he'd cut me off. He had been raised in a family where it's just not the sort of thing you discuss. To avoid the growing tensions, I started working late at my newspaper job instead of hurrying home to see him. Our conversations became increasingly disconnected. I began crying myself to sleep.

Within three months, I'd had enough. Depressed, I retreated to my parents' home to regain my equilibrium. I feared their wrath—after all, they'd had an arranged marriage and made it work—but they saw the gloom on my face, and understood. My father said, "We want to save you, not the marriage."

After a couple of weeks, I returned to meet my husband at a Houlihan's restaurant. When I began to talk with him about our problems, he literally bolted, jumping over the steel railing of the outdoor patio where we'd been sitting.

His father is the one who ended the relationship. He called me one day to announce, "It's over." Later at my office, I got a piece of mail, which my husband had signed with the three words "Talaq, talaq, talaq," meaning "I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you." According to traditional interpretation, a Muslim man has to simply utter this word three times to divorce his wife.

Then I realized—I had loved with prejudice, basing my affections not on inner compatibility, but on external markers like race, religion, ethnicity. Over the years, as I grew to become an activist in the Muslim world, I understood that one of the most fundamental ways Islamic legal traditions control women is through love, with a ban on marrying men who aren't Muslim. Today, thankfully, some women and clerics are challenging the practice. To me, that's a good thing for the Muslim world, because I believe a society's ability to accept marriages that cross racial and religious lines is a direct expression of its tolerance.

This year, my convictions were put to the test. I had met a wonderful man in Washington, D.C., where I now live. A U.S. Army officer specializing in Islam and South Asia, he knew the religion better than many born into the faith—but he wasn't Muslim. He had traveled along the Ganges River in India and through the Khyber Pass in Pakistan—but he was born and bred in Tennessee. Could I love him? Marry him? He gave me red roses, love letters, scarves in pink (my favorite color). One night, he played me "When Love Is New" by Dolly Parton and Emmy Rossum. The bluegrass music hit a chord with the West Virginia girl in me.

On Valentine's Day, we climbed over the boulders leading to Sky Rock, one of the highest peaks in my hometown of Morgantown. Then he knelt down in front of me and, gazing up into my eyes, said, "I love you. Will you be one with me?" I smiled and spoke from my heart: "Yes." And snowflakes fell like confetti from the sky.

Asra Nomani is the author of Tantrika and Standing Alone in Mecca. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

For more on Asra Nomani's battle for women's rights in mosques, go to themosqueinmorgantown.com. To listen to Nomani win a debate on the right of Muslim women to choose whom they marry, go to thedohadebates.com.

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