March 14, 2018

Of Arranged Marriages and Young Love: Aisha Saeed's Written In The Stars tackles important things

It’s very hard to review this book because there are just so so many ways to look at this story.

As a desi, I think it’s so important for us to see representation, and as a desi from an upper middle class family, I can tell it’s important to talk about the kind of horrors of arranged marriages that occur in small villages in Pakistan. But as a reader of international fiction, I worry about what the non-Pakistani reader takes away about our country from this novel: do they believe all Pakistanis are intolerant of love marriages and willing to drug girls into saying yes? And in continuing this conversation, isn’t it upon the reader to not expect a book to represent everything about a country, in all of its complexities and contradictions? Is the author to blame if our country is not publishing enough fiction to represent all the different ways of living in Pakistan there are?

And even more: does this book do a good job in representing how helpless girls can be in the face of overwhelming sexism and patriarchy? Or is its heroine a weak character, resigned to her status until the hero swoops in to save her? Is Naila naïve and poorly drawn, or does she represent innocence and a hope that things will get better? Does the short page length keep the reader hooked, or is it a disservice to not give more depth and time to such an important topic?

All these questions and more are worth discussing, but I think what’s most important is that a book like this exists in the first place. While arranged marriage versus love marriage is a pretty old argument which has been rehashed countless times, some aspects of it – the complete lack of agency girls have – are still significant because things like honour killing still exist.

Life is full of sadness. It’s part of being a woman. Our lives are lived for the sake of others. Our happiness is never factored in.”

Our protagonist in this story is Naila, a Pakistani American teenager in her last year of high school – good lord she is so YOUNG – who is part of a very conventionally desi household. She has to attend lunches her brother gets to skip, she might be two year older but her 15 year old brother gets the driving lessons, and so on. But these are injustices most desi girls learn to swallow because that’s just the way things are. Soon Naila will be going away to college, something she looks forwards to because she will finally be able to spend time properly with her boyfriend Saif.

I hate keeping secrets from her. But how can I explain that I see the world a little differently and my way of looking at the world isn’t bad, not if it means their daughter has found someone she loves, someone who makes her completely and unbelievably happy?

For Naila’s parents, the idea that Naila could conceivably have a boyfriend is beyond the realms of possibility. This particular aspect of the story felt very true to life, because most Pakistani parents are like this. I say most, because there is great variation amongst the types, of course. Some might not care at all, or might actually encourage their children to find their potential partners, while others are ready to kill their own children who dare to fall in love without parental permission.

“You can choose what you want to be when you grow up, the types of shoes you want to buy, how long you want your hair to be. But your husband, that’s different. We choose your husband for you.”

This obsession with marriage might seem weird to a person who hasn’t grown up in this culture, but in desi communities or Islamic ones (and the crisscross between these two is too tangled up to properly make clear, even to our own communities) marriage is seen as a representation of community, of good will. A marriage doesn’t only bring the bride and groom together but also their families. Joint living systems encourage more than two people to have stakes in the marriage, with elders considering it their responsibility to solve disputes, and daughters seen as representations of the family honour. In such settings, it is the right of the elders to choose who will marry whom amongst the young, since the young are considered too naïve and inexperienced to make such a decision on their own. Questioning this system isn’t encouraged.

“My parents knew it was a good match, and they were right. You’ve seen others, your third cousin Roohi, who chose not to listen. Look at her now, divorced with young children. Her parents can’t even leave their home without hanging their heads in shame. Who wants to marry her now?”

I repeat again, this is not true for all families. I know people personally who fell in love, introduced their parents to their respective choices, and are happily married now. I know people whose marriage arranged by their elders fell apart. All these various digressions show that it is the people in the marriage who ultimately matter. But the idea that love marriages end in ruin and unhappiness while arranged marriages lead to ultimate bliss is too strongly entrenched in the Pakistani mindset for it to be shaken by a few youthful ideas.

It is precisely these kind of ideas that lead Naila and Saif to believe that things between them can work out. Unfortunately for the reader, this young relationship isn’t as strong as one could hope. I never shipped these two, and neither did I feel the passion and excitement Naila feels when it comes to Saif. For someone whose existence is the catalyst for this book’s conflict, Saif remains a blurry, vague figure whose only purpose is to want to be with Naila.

“They think there’s only one way to do things because it’s all they ever knew, but they’re not bad people, Saif. They can be reasoned with. One day we’ll show them there’s another way to look at all of this.”

Naila is convinced that she can reason with her parents, that she can convince them to give Saif a chance. Things fall apart when she sneaks away to prom, where she’s promptly caught by her parents, dancing in Saif’s arms. Horrified and disgusted, they drag her back home.

“Boyfriend?” he yells. “My daughter has a boyfriend?” His words reverberate through the house. They shake the walls. I shudder. Boyfriend is a dirty, shameful word.

I vividly remember a time when one of my friends told me that when her mother discovered she had a boyfriend, she slapped her. For my friends and me, corporal punishment was a distant reality. Our parents had never raised their hands on us, and we always believed they never would. But for my friend’s mother, the real life existence of her young daughter’s boyfriend had been a turning point. Moments like those are representative, because they teach you that some issues are bigger than your imagination could conceive. Even though for years and years we are told to sit properly and not laugh loudly and stay away from boys because boys will be boys and it is on girls to protect themselves, the misogyny of Pakistani society is still hard to digest in all its extremities.

“For generations my family lived in this village. People looked up to us. They came to us to resolve their disputes. And now? The respect we built up over the generations, you are trying to ruin all of it!”

Naila’s decision to fall in love with or marry whoever she likes is a representation of her disobeying her parent’s complete authority over her, which is the one thing some families cannot stand. Parental control, a girl’s submissiveness, her lack of interest in her own sexual activity, exhibiting no desires, all these things are tightly bound within the circles of honour. Of course, this is not only the case in Pakistani society but in traditional family norms all over the world, but it is true that we have lesser tolerance for when these circles of honour are broken. Honour killings – known locally as Karo Kari and which anywhere else would be called plain murder – have their name for a reason. In cases repeated again and again and again, we find that women who dare to disobey traditional norms or who attempt to control their own destiny in sexuality, love, and marriage are rejected and killed in brutal ways. In many cases the killer(s) stand unapologetic and even proud, saying that the women’s death is what has restored honour to her family.

“We love you. We want what’s best for you. If we see you doing wrong, we have to stop you. Even if you hate us, and I know you do right now, one day, you will see we did what was best for you. That is what we have always tried to do.”

While Naila’s story never steers that far, it still falls uncomfortably close to the fault line of such a mentality. Her parents, who see what they are doing as ultimately good for their daughter, take her to Pakistan with the sole focus of getting her married off. There, Naila is shown to a various number of families with prospective bachelors without her consent or even awareness. Once she finds out, her attempts to escape are thwarted, resulting in physical violence, drugging her and forcing her into a marriage, and then onto the villainy of horrible in laws, marital rape, and unwanted pregnancy.

“We’re husband and wife,” he said. His words leave me cold. How can this be a marriage? I am here against my will. He is not my husband. He’s someone I must endure. Nasim is not my mother-in-law; she’s just a warden. This is not a home. It is a cage.

Admittedly, this book takes the route of the extreme in showing how horrible arranged marriages can be. As someone who’s been happily married through the same arranged route, I can say that not all of them are horrible and vicious. A million examples exist around me which refute the statement that all arranged marriages are deadly, but that still doesn’t deny the fact that the opposite of an arranged marriage is viewed with horror and derision, and in some cases as a reasonable cause of murder. Those who dare to marry for love may not always end up killed, but there’s still the societal stigma to face, having to contend with your parent’s betrayal, and the oft-quoted criticism of a marriage made for love: ‘if things go wrong, who will you blame but yourself?’ The logic being, of course, that in an arranged marriage you’ll still be miserable if it doesn’t work out, but at least you’ll have the savage satisfaction of saying that your misery was other people’s doing.

What it all comes down to, in the end, is in the degree of consent of both the parties involved. In the real life situations I have seen, parents are the ones who pick their children’s prospective others, but then these children have the agency to meet these people and talk to them. These kids had the right to say no, and they exercised it, and so what we are witnessing in this book is a subset of the arranged marriage formula which we can call the forced marriage. Unfortunately for us, how this book fails is in showing Naila’s arranged marriage, one which has been thoroughly and completely forced, as the only type of arranged marriage this is. What would have made this story remarkable, and much more balanced, is an example of a marriage that was arranged, but that was also happy. 

“You’re gone, beta. We have to help bring you back. We’re your parents. It’s our responsibility.”

Ultimately Naila’s story is one of agency, and who has it, and who doesn’t. We all of us exercise our agency to an extent and in different ways every day, testing the boundaries which limit us. Sadly enough, even the ‘good’ characters in this book are those who tell her heroine that she must learn to bear the unhappiness of her marriage. Selma, a cousin Naila’s age, tells Naila that she must learn to move on after her forced marriage, while Faiza, a sympathetic sister-in-law, only goes as far as to pat Naila on the head and say something along the lines of “I know it’s tough, but what can one do?”

“Do I want this life? Living here and seeing my husband a few times a year, raising my daughter alone? I don’t know what it was like for you in America, but this is how life is. This is reality.”

When the characters depicted as good do nothing more than accept the system, it makes the situation appear all the more unfair. Unfortunately, such a thing happening would be pretty common in Pakistan, where even those who mean well are unable to understand how such an entrenched system of patriarchy can be fought against.

“It’s good to accept what is. I try not to dwell on what I don’t have. When you get married, things change. I’ve learned over time to accept this.”

In a book that depicts any and every character as being ruthless when it comes to support for arranged marriages, it would have been nice to see people representing the opposite end of the spectrum. The only proponents of the love marriage, Saif’s parents, barely appear for half a page, and are rushed through quickly. In fact, almost all the characters in this book rest solidly on the negative side of the misogyny scale. Not even one major character, with the sole exception of Saif, who’s in it for his own interest, believes that what has happened to Naila is wrong. Within this book of one-dimensional characters, it is ironically Naila’s husband who proves to be the most complex.

“If you think I want this, I don’t. How can I be happy when my wife finds me repulsive? When she will never trust me again? But what can I do? Not only would your life be in danger, we would bring shame to both our families.”

Amin is one of the good guys, but he’s also most definitely a bad guy. Unaware that Naila has been forced into her marriage, he is both upset at her lack of response to his presence, and eager to please Naila in any way he can. He is both charming and considerate in the beginning, giving Naila her space, protecting her from his mother’s slow-boiling wrath. In Pakistan, sons are the apples of their mother’s eyes, and for most mothers it is their daughter-in-law’s rightful place to worship the ground their husbands walk upon. In this case, Naila’s mother-in-law is horrified by Naila’s unending defiance of these societal norms, and determined to make her crack.

It is in these situations that Amin is the hero. But once he finds out how Naila was forced into this marriage, he falls back on the ‘divorce is shame’ route. And while he can be defended for being a product of his times, he is still more complex than other characters - spoiler alert for further discussion - because that isn’t his only crime. It is in his rape of Naila that he proves his true colours. Convinced by his mother that Naila will leave him, he forces himself on her one night, and then feels regretful the very next day, but what is done is done. When he finds out that Naila has met Saif and is planning to escape, he doesn’t stop his mother from beating Naila up and kicking her out of the house, but does eventually step in when the beating starts to get out of hand. He is also the one who eventually lets both Naila and Saif walk away from the house in one piece. In all these ways, he is both good and bad, and it is up to the reader to decide how far they are willing to forgive him.

In conclusion, a friend of mine asked me why I so vehemently argued against arranged marriages if I myself had gone through the same process. My response was that I’m for the system when it’s a system the girl chooses. For me, the arranged marriage route was convenient because I was too lazy to find someone on my own and too busy to take out time to do just that. For me, it was easier for my parents to find someone for me whom I could later meet and approve of. It was an arranged marriage, done with the consent of both the parties involved. But in places where the girl, after expressing a desire to marry someone of her own choice, is shunned, violated and beaten, in cases of honour killing and excessive parental control and the direct coorelation of a family’s esteem with a girl’s virginity, I find that I’m not such a proponent after all. That is what one would call a forced marriage. It all comes down to the amount of agency we give our girls, and this book shows that in the majority of places in Pakistan, we still don’t give them enough, or even a little. So this might be a weak book, but it’s an important conversation starter, and for that it goes on the recommended list.