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In traditional South Asian culture, there’s a popular saying: “Daughters are treasures we have borrowed.” “Borrowed,” because their ultimate destination is their husband’s home. In this culture, a woman is defined by the man she is with: how handsome he is, how rich he is, how respectable his family is. 

a Pinterest pin that says "A foreigner in the culture I was born into" with an image of a Pakistani woman holding a cup

I belong to a Pakistani family. My father is a Pathan, a caste from the mountainous regions of Pakistan; my mother is a Muhajir, who migrated from India when Pakistan was created. This seems like a minor, or insignificant detail, but even in this day and age, it is encouraged that you should marry within your caste, because they are deemed to be superior to others, and the bloodlines are meant to be preserved.

I never paid much attention to my culture; I was born and raised in Canada, in a culture that is very liberated comparatively.  I moved to Pakistan to pursue my medical studies when I was eighteen, with no idea of how the world functioned outside of Toronto. On my first day of med school, my professor told the class, “I know a lot of girls are here so that they can marry well.”

To say I was angry would be an understatement; In the span of a second, he pushed aside my years of struggle and hard work. When I sought an explanation from the students around me, they laughed and said, “It’s probably true anyways.” Thus my struggle to understand love and marriage began. 

As the years passed by, I would get asked more frequently about when I wanted to marry than about my education. My notions of love were built on Nicholas Sparks’ books, and Hollywood movies; there’s always one grand gesture of love and everything works out; there are no religious differences, no caste differences, no language barriers.

I asked the older women around me, “Why do we get married?” They all replied, “We are from respectable families, it is what we do to preserve our family’s honour.” I thought this was incredibly archaic, but I kept my opinions to myself, …   to preserve my family’s honour.

Already a foreigner in the culture I was born into, there was no need to add fuel to the fire. When I was asked about marriage, more specifically if I would marry the son of so and so, I refused, not only to marrying this virtual stranger but also to marriage in general. I was asked why I would refuse or told the merits of another stranger because of course, that’s what promises a happy life. When I expressed my ‘requirements,’ I was told I shouldn’t be so high maintenance, that nobody would ever marry me. Having a type or standard constituted ‘high maintenance.’ 

In a culture that idolizes males simply for being born, I carved my own path (with the support of my parents, which is unusual). I told my parents I would marry for love, otherwise, I refused to get married. When I met my fiancé, I had just started med school.

Over the years, I seldom saw him, and only said hi once or twice. It all changed in my fourth year. I moved down the street from him and we would often carpool together. On the morning of an important exam, he would review the tougher concepts with me, not satisfied until I understood completely.

After school, we would often stop for tea or ice cream, and find something to laugh about. We would tag each other in pictures or videos we found funny. Several times, my friends or my parents would ask me, “Do you guys like each other?” I would laugh off the idea because I could not fathom the thought of being married to someone who was bound to confine me, all in the name of honor.

He was known as a reserved person. Everyone knew that despite being friends with everyone, he didn’t confide in anyone. One day, he sat down next to me and confided in me some things he was going through. Although we were friends, I was not expecting him to trust me so much; I felt honored and surprised. In hindsight, I realize this brought us closer. I didn’t trust anyone, because I was so sure every guy had an ulterior motive since they too had been taught they have to marry well. But he was different. I know, that phrase is cliché and overused, but it doesn’t make it any less true. 

He became my biggest supporter, even when I failed he was there to cheer me up and critique me. When I felt like I couldn’t accomplish something, he’d give me the motivation I needed to get it done. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I fell in love with him. I know it was a gradual process and one day I woke up and realized I had done exactly what I promised not to do, I never wanted to fall in love.

In my head, it was my foolproof plan to getting out of this culture unscathed.  I could stay true to myself and become whatever I wanted, without the constraints society placed on me. I never planned on finding my best friend. It wasn’t as easy or as simple as it sounds. We realized we liked each other, but neither one of us had the courage to say so, for a variety of reasons. I couldn’t say it, because it would be considered unconventional for a girl to confess her feelings first. He couldn’t say it because he wasn’t sure how I would react.

Dating was out of the question. Dating is a practice that is condemned in Pakistani culture. It is thought to be the practice of people with no self-respect. I grew up in Canada; you can imagine my parents' surprise when I asked what age I would be allowed to date. I was equally shocked by their answer, “You can date your husband when you’re married,” they had said. I found this unusual because if I couldn’t date, how would I even find a husband. 

Fast-forward ten years later, I had to get to know this guy, without dating him. We never went out on an official date, nobody asked anybody out. But we did spend a lot of time alone together, one day we went to the park, the next day we went to the local carnival, the day after that, the dog kennel, and so on.

I realized these were dates, but I believed that if we didn’t voice the obvious, we would be spared from the unrelenting judgment of those looking at us. I don’t know why it bothers me so much. I believe that dating is a normal part of any relationship, but I live in a country where people have been killed for going on dates.

It makes me angry, and it frustrates me because there are so much anxiety and nervousness surrounding it. When we did finally get together, there was no dating period,  no “are we serious now?” We both decided that we liked each other enough to get engaged. There’s a fine line between reckless and responsible, and we were teetering precariously.

Would you marry someone purely for cultural reasons even in the absence of love?

Some girls expect a big event or significant planning regarding their proposal. I had known from a young age that I would never get that, simply because your parents have the final say. That being said, we both agreed we would like our parents to meet, “I said yes if my parents said yes. After much careful planning, we set a date and time for our families to meet. I was beyond nervous, I didn’t know how my parents would react, and he didn’t know how his parents would react. We both wanted to be together, but our parent’s approval or rejection would decide for us.

After a successful first meeting, we arranged a second. After a couple of more meetings, our parents approved us, so we could finally be together. There’s still no dating, no phone calls, and absolutely no physical contact. An unmarried man and woman are forbidden from touching each other, not only in a sexual manner but also in a friendly manner; no hugs, no handshakes, no handholding, no kissing, etc. until they sign the Nikkah contract, making physical contact permissible.

“Being together” in Pakistan means that in a year or so when we have both completed our degree, we will be married. We can text each other, and admit that we like each other, but that is it. I can’t be alone with him without a chaperone, the only time we see each other is in between classes and at each other’s homes, but when we meet in front of our parents, we can’t sit together, or talk, or look at each other; for the sake of culture. 

photo of an Asian woman and a white man laughing together in a daytime photo

I find it difficult to bridge the gap between my liberal upbringing and my conservative culture. Throughout high school, I had seen people getting together and breaking up, the pain and heartache of first love, the struggle of long-distance relationships. The whole thing was normal for me.

Later on, I was exposed to couples that were blatantly unhappy with their marriage but stayed together because divorce is frowned upon in our culture. I had thought that love was a romantic notion, but not practical. When I first realized that I was in love with my best friend, I tried to pass it off as friendship and infatuation for the longest time. That was easier to deal with than love. 

The day I accepted I was in love with him (before we got together), we had gone out together and I was struggling to put my money back inside my wallet. He laughed, and grabbed it from me, he carefully rearranged my change, just the way I keep it, put it inside neatly, and handed it back to me, it was the thought and care behind the gesture that left me breathless. I spent the rest of the afternoon with him, I came home and called my other best friend/roommate, and I started sobbing. She stayed quiet because she already knew what I had just realized. I was in love with him, and this would end terribly and I’d be left to pick up the broken pieces of my heart. It sounds dramatic, even to me, even now. I had spent so long guarding my heart, I had spent so much time carefully healing it from past wounds, and here I was, ready and open to destroy my progress.

As time went on, I noticed the small gestures he did only for me. How he carried my favourite snacks with him, even though they weren’t his favourite. How he made sure I always ate since I have a bad habit of forgetting. He showed me that love exists. He made me believe in it, in the good the world has to offer.

Love is not always in grand gestures and presents; I truly believe love is found in the small things that show the other person is listening and values you as a person. Love is when you leave your soul completely exposed. Sometimes we are divided by culture, tradition, caste, status, religion, etc. but love remains constant. It is the only thing we have that can bridge the prejudices. It is not easy, or always practical, but it definitely makes the world a better place.