Mate selection and religion

Houston Chronicle readers were introduced last week to the fact that a first generation Pakistani Muslim woman has values and preferences for a life mate that look an awful lot like a lot of Christian American women. She also faces a lot of the challenges all Americans face in general in finding a suitable life partner.

But one wouldn't necessarily know that from reading the article because it attempts to introduce the reader to Pakistani-Islamic traditions while at the same time showing us that the article's subject is different from that tradition. But the mate selection process used by the article's subject is still different from what we're supposed to believe is practiced in the American tradition. Is it really though?

I am also not so thrilled by the article's headline:

Muslim woman tries to avoid the life of a spinster

The headline's use of the term spinster is clearly a pejorative term that connotes an attempt to avoid degradation and disapproval by society by maintaining single-status beyond the time that society believes is appropriate. And with the woman portrayed in the article at the age of 30, the article attempts to show that her societal view -- based on Islamic and Pakistani traditions -- is so obviously different from the larger American society in which she now lives:

You see, Ali is 30 years old. And for a first-generation American with family and faith roots in Pakistan and Islam, 30 is not the new 20 when it comes to matters of marriage.

"In our culture women are expected to be married by their mid-20s," said Mona Baig, Ali's childhood friend -- her married childhood friend.

"In American culture, being single at 30 is no big deal, so by those standards she's on the right track," Baig added.

Ali's tracks to marriage have gotten a bit crossed. Like many young first-generation South Asian-Americans, Ali is committed to marrying within the traditions of Islam. But it's a tradition twisted for the life of a bright, witty, supersocial Sugar Land resident with her own business.

The challenge this article presents is its attempt to define American culture as opposed to Ali's efforts to remain within her culture. Instead of attempting to portray Ali's attempt to straddle American and South Asian cultural traditions as somehow different or unique, a better approach would have been portray Ali's efforts to find a life mate as exactly what many human beings do regardless of the specifics of their religious background or the culture in which they live:

For example, Ali doesn't date. She doesn't get gussied up for sexy evenings of dinner and dancing to meet potential mates.

But Ali's parents also won't choose her husband. She expects to find him herself, with the knowledge and blessings of the two families, of course.

The setup is more an "assisted" than an "arranged" marriage, Ali said.

Until the right level of assistance meets Mr. Right, Ali must be courted.

She knows what she wants and is not afraid to be upfront about it.

Hanging out is fine; getting physical is not. She is clear from the get-go that the goal is marriage.

"It's kind of old-fashioned, where suitors used to come to people's homes and take the women for a walk in the garden," she said.

Ali's approach is not that far off from many women in the United States of Christian or Mormon faith. And regardless of faith, I'm sure there are non-religious individuals out there that prefer a similar no-nonsense process for finding a life mate.

A few paragraphs later the article states that "Ali doesn't bear the battle scars of dating American-style" such as the lack of "drunken first dates or bad breakups and certainly no walk of shame" but why is that the definitive style of American dating? That's certainly a popular portrayal of it, particularly in Hollywood and the stereotypical impression many have of secular American college campuses. But that doesn't mean it's the rule for "American-style" dating. This also implies that the only way for attractive, intelligent, successful women in America to find spouses is to go on drunken first dates, experience bad breakups and experience the "walk of shame." Really?

In general, the article treats religion and Ali's religious faith as a cultural backdrop that suggests many of the stereotypes that inform American impressions of Muslim-Americans. Ali's approach to life and dating is portrayed in some nuisance, but only in the sense that it is different from those stereotypes:

Ali's tale of heartbreak concerns a love who caved when his parents demanded he call it off so he could marry a woman from their hometown in Pakistan.

Her dream guy is worldly and educated, he appreciates different cultures, and he possesses wit and humor to rival hers.

"I'm looking for a best friend, someone I can click with, I can hang out with all the time," Ali said.

I would have liked to know more about what it means for Ali to marry "within the traditions of Islam" beyond the fact that the man would have to be of the Islamic faith.

Another aspect the article fails to address is divorce and Americans' relatively high rate of the practice. Some interesting comparisons would be whether divorce rates -- or the functional equivalent -- have any statistical comparison between the United States and Pakistan.

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