Last month, I was part of a wedding, which in Pakistan isn’t a matter of a single day. It’s normally spread over a series of days, sometimes weeks depending upon the lavishness of the wedding. There are small ceremonies and events leading up to the wedding and sometimes there are ceremonies and events after the wedding too. This one, thankfully, was relatively small—in Pakistan that means a minimum of two events: the nikah, or the actual signing of the marriage contract, and the valima, a reception originally meant to celebrate the consummation of the marriage.
Both the nikah and the valima are celebrated with gusto—large halls will be booked, a full dinner served to hundreds of guests. The nikah is normally hosted by the bride’s family and the valima by the groom’s.
One of the pre-wedding events I attended for my cousin’s wedding is an affair called jora takai. The translation of that phrase is beyond me except in the most literal sense—jora means suit/dress, takai means sewing/stitching. I don’t know an equivalent English phrase to describe the event. We didn’t, as the name might suggest, sit down to hand-stitch clothes for the bride. One of the traditions of a wedding is presenting the bride with a number of dresses, jewelry, make-up, shoes, including the dress she would wear on the valima. These gifts are laid out in large trays and decorated with rose petals, wrapped in glitter and gold paper and delivered to the bride in as elaborate a manner as possible. Jora takai is an evening where all the girls from the groom’s family get together and package the gifts. Back in the day, before scotch tape, all the parts of a wedding dress (which normally includes three parts: a top, a bottom and a dupatta or scarf) were loosely stitched together and wrapped in delicate lace or silk fabric, hence the name of the event.
We weren’t doing any sewing however, which was a huge relief to me (black thumb with gardening, and balloon fingers when it comes to sewing). Packaging and anything to do with paper is my forte, so I was more than happy to participate.
Besides which, I needed to do some research.
Writing under a pen name means that I can’t walk around freely asking people what they’re thinking under the guise of ‘research for my book’ (saying I need it for research for a design project lacks a certain…authenticity). My observations need to be under the radar, covert, creatively disguised to elicit the information I want without tipping off my targets. I have to engage in random and regular conversations in order to get what I need.
That’s a bit of a problem, because I’m a known loner. I spend as little time socializing as possible, and when I do, it tends to be superficial small talk unless I’m talking to someone I am close to. In a group, I’m the quiet one. So my hosts were understandably surprised when I not only agreed to attend the jora takai, but also sat down to decorate and wrap the gifts. I went because I wanted to know more about arranged marriages.
My research ‘subject’ was a woman who had been forced to marry her cousin (it’s not unusual here, nor considered icky, to marry a cousin) and give up working. Arranged marriages are never about individuals—they’re about family, and it’s rare to find a middle-class girl who will have married a man of her choice. My cousin was no different. She resisted the arrangement as much as she could but family pressure overrode her objections, which were mostly over the fact that her new in-laws didn’t want a career woman for a daughter-in-law. Over the past sixteen years, she has dropped half her body weight and never mentions her once-lucrative career as a banker—to me, these are signs of deep unhappiness. She’s a mother of three and a housewife. She’s my cousin but I rarely see her outside social occasions anymore, so this was the perfect excuse to spend some quality time with her.
After a bit of gushing and small talk over the clothes and jewellery on display, I casually brought up ‘the old days’. A brief memory of our younger selves flashed through my head, to the few occasions when we would hang out and discuss books and movies and politics. But she laughed off my questions, deftly manoeuvring the subject to the task at hand. I got the impression that she was used to deflecting questions about herself.
Throughout the rest of the evening, she either avoided me or pre-empted any possible questions I may have. We sat next to each other when we were trying to pack the brand new clothes into a tiny suitcase without wrinkling them, but I couldn’t bring myself to be more direct—she obviously didn’t want to talk about her life before her marriage and we weren’t on terms where I could push for an answer without being considered rude.
So I switched tactics. I started a general discussion about our peculiar traditions and customs. In between crinkled sheets and confetti, I learned that the fear of an unmarried daughter sitting at home was far greater than any concerns of compatibility or a meeting of minds for a bride and groom. Marriage was the ultimate goal for most young girls, and their parents chose to marry them off at young ages when they were still ‘mouldable’, when compromise was easier to swallow. My cousin had been twenty-five when she married. Now she was the quintessential Pakistani wife from an arranged marriage. Her life was built around her family—her in-laws whom she lived with, her husband and children and her own family, who spent as much time with her as possible.
I got the impression that fitting into the environment was eminently desirable for all young women. That traditions, customs and family were more important than a single person’s craving for change or independence or even happiness.
Despite the heavy conversation, the evening was warm and full of laughter. There were roughly forty women at the party—at least four generations of women—and the noise level stayed high at all times. The sense of community and camaraderie was evident, a tedious task made fun with family involvement. I realized that Pakistani weddings are all about collective participation—homage to the fact that marriages are a social necessity here and not an individual’s personal choice. For a brief moment, I regretted not being a regular part of the community.
My research left me with more questions than answers, however. Had we sacrificed individuals for the sake of society? Was collective support incompatible with individualism (the ‘needs of the many’, etc.)? Were these traditions essential to family values or were they hindrances to a modern, progressive society?
Most of all, I’m left wondering if there is a middle ground between a fractured, disparate society and one that keeps family ties alive at all cost.
Natasha Ahmed is the author of ‘Butterfly Season‘, a romance novella about a Pakistani woman who dares to go against her culture and traditions. Butterfly Season is available on Amazon, Smashwords and on Indireads.