by Areej Hassan
This feature is from the Verily teaser issue.
“He should at least know how to speak English,” I told my mother, who kept insisting that the Sudanese man—one whom I had never met—asking for my hand in marriage was the most suitable match for me.
According to my mother, I was being shallow in stipulating that my future husband have a college degree. Apparently, decent morals and an awareness of one’s religion are all that is required for a man to marry me.
“You will never find anyone better suited for you”, my mother insisted. Full of doubts about our level of compatibility, I conceded to give the man—let’s call him Adeeb—a chance.
My fears were not unfounded. It turns out that Adeeb expected me to marry him as soon as possible, despite my remaining years left in college. When I mentioned that I would never consider marriage until after graduation, he was very confused and asked for a reason. (Was it not obvious?) Once married, he expected to be the sole breadwinner in the family, while I would assume a position in the home. It became clear that he did not take my schooling or plans for my future as seriously as I did. Needless to say, I ended the “relationship.”
I argued quite a bit with my mother, because she truly believed that Adeeb was perfect for me. Never, of course, would she think to force me into such a marriage, and never would she succeed if she tried. Though I understand she was counseling me to undertake what she believed was best for me, I must admit that I felt hurt and misunderstood. I cringed at the thought of my hard work and ambitious pursuits resulting in marriage to a foreign stranger who spoke no English and possessed no higher education.
So why did my mother push me to accept Adeeb’s proposal with such vehemence? Although my family has lived in America for many years, my parents still view much of life through the lens of their Sudanese heritage and likewise think that I should make choices in the same way. Inside, I am torn. I feel caught in a delicate balancing act between respecting my origins while embracing the American culture I have come to value.
And the two are vastly different.
Firstly, in the Sudan, girls attend colleges and universities—but their top priority is to marry as soon as possible. Therefore, most girls do not take their college education seriously, and if they’re still unmarried after graduation, they simply wait for suitors in hopes of getting married.
In many Muslim communities, women experience pressure to marry at a relatively young age while men may marry whenever they please. Some elders even encourage the men to marry later. If a woman desires to pursue a career, she can be certain to experience constant pressure to find a husband “before it is too late.” This double standard is troublesome, not to mention frustrating.
Yet, without any doubt, this mentality is the one with which my mother was raised and it is the same one with which she continues to live. As a result, it’s difficult for her to realize that, because I grew up in the United States, I have vastly different expectations for myself. I grew up in a society that values women working outside the home and that regards my education with utmost seriousness, and so I too have come to expect and value the same. While I understand where my mom is coming from and can even see how that might work well for some women, I question the Sudanese system that disregards the very realizable and noble dreams of women like me, who long for greater and more diverse options.
Second, my mother wants to preserve her culture and ensure that her grandchildren are Sudanese. She came to the United States as an adult and continues to feel as if she is living in a foreign land. As a result, she expects that I should seek to marry a Sudanese man—and discussions where I indicate otherwise never go well.
But the practicalities of such a demand are incredibly confining—there are relatively few young Sudanese men and women living in the United States, so to require that I marry only someone of Sudanese descent limits my options considerably. Because America is where I grew up, it is the more dominant of the two cultures that I so dearly value. I have dreams and expectations for myself that a traditional Sudanese man just doesn’t understand. What is the solution to marrying—literally and figuratively—two seemingly disparate cultures?
This clash between different cultures and between religion and culture creates an internal struggle within many young Muslims hoping to marry but whose parents are unwilling to listen to them. There’s no question that we want our parents’ approval, but unfortunately it’s not always clear whether they realize this.
A close friend of mine is going through a similar experience. She’s dating a great guy and knows that he’s the one she wants to marry. There’s just one problem—he isn’t Arab. Her parents were initially unwilling to accept this, but I’ve noticed that with time, the issue is slowly becoming less and less sensitive; her parents are beginning to accommodate her opinions and expectations as well.
I can only hope that this is the start of a shift in our parents’ perspectives that will allow us to integrate the reality of our heritages with our lives as Americans. In the meantime, I feel caught between the throes of a somewhat distant culture and my lived reality as an American; a veritable “rock and a hard place.” In appeasing my parents and getting married, I fear abandoning my personal aspirations that I’ve worked toward my whole life.
Nevertheless, I’ve decided to remain resolute in resisting these cultural pressures. If I cannot marry on my own terms, then I would rather not marry at all.