Traversing Self Worth and Potential Spouses

Yuliia Tretynychenko on Unsplash

My understanding of what encased the idea of finding a spouse was limited to the classic Sense and Sensibility. I was emboldened through Austen to imagine that matrimony was quite basic, that is if you remove social classes and beauty.

There is undeniably some amount of disappointment attached to this worn-out, traditional practice of finding a spouse in South Asia. Many South Asian women find themselves at the edge of the cliff when they are forced to measure their beauty, a social construct that is absolutely out of their control, in order to find a spouse.

Young women without the pretty genes are expected to forego any dreams of rising above their communities or seeking better lives in the name of matrimony while they are forced to compromise for the same reasons. Women coming from respectable families are expected to lower their reasonable expectations simply because their skin tone or appearance is deemed unacceptable for an ideal wife. Over the years I have seen how more and more women in South Asia have had to compromise their living standards stuck with partners unable to provide them with the same level of comfort they were brought up in or abusive partners with unmatched moral values. Smart women equipped with the skills to enrich their communities lose their youth in either the hunt for a partner or in dealing with the consequences of a bad marriage. In some houses, there are more dreams put to fire than fuel every day.

The insolence of how the very loved ones who were once extremely keen to find her a righteous spouse attribute all these misgivings to the woman’s fate is remarkable.

I come from a household where not being married by twenty-four is the first violation of the sacred notion that women are very much old by the time they hit the benchmark of graduation and I discovered it much to my grievance at the said twenty-four. What does it mean to be a stay-at-home waiting in oblivion to get hitched you may wonder?

I pray your experience halts at your curiosity. I do not blame Austen; she did warn me. I was brought up to believe that we live in a world where people are neither good nor bad, they are either different or the same: a rosy notion that is now withering up against the wall. My experiences as a prospective wife have certainly scarred me for a lifetime. The very calm of the sea that our family lived at the ebb of, now a roaring sea, waiting for me to get hitched.

Pale skin is an expected mandatory bi-partisan rule between the woman’s and the man’s family. One demands while the other rubs turmeric and other household remedies on her skin until her heart is raw with pain. When did we as a society reduce ourselves to nitpicking at the Decree of our Creator?

The hypocrisy of our community is so well ingrained that we have come to defend these unrealistic ideals rather than holding onto Islamic values. Every transgression in a society foams itself into the institution of marriage. Hence, it is not surprising that many women find themselves at the pinnacle of their emotional breakdowns either before or in the early years of their marriage.

In a society where a trophy wife is now considered obligatory by our men where then, do we find ourselves?

I often find myself worrying over the tiniest flaws in my appearance. The anxiety weighs me down like the iron skillet I use for parathas hanging on the nail. I will leave the rest to your imagination.

Get a wine glass and pour yourself some grape juice, sis.

A question every South Asian Muslim woman needs to ask herself is: How deep-rooted is my disappointment in this system? Where am I projecting it? Have I fallen into this dark pit when none of it is my fault, to begin with?

Is it not that we are quite unconsciously taught to find our worth in our spouse even before we meet him? We are expected to spend hours enhancing our appearance, our ideals, and our household skills: things we may or may not have an interest in. Did our Creator demand this of us?

Why do we scrub our skin until we’ve scrubbed any bit of self-esteem along with it? Why do we starve our bodies until our souls feel dizzy?

Our fight against the system turns into a fight against ourselves. We are let down by our families, then some of our friends who seemingly fail to acknowledge the harshness of this system. Over the years, I’ve been constantly trying to find ways to quell my anxiety.

In a society where good character is an admirable trait only when the physical appearance brings pleasure to the eye, how do we save our self-esteem? Here’s a list of things that made an immense amount of difference for me:

  1. Take a breather. Accept that every part of your body is the way it is meant to be by the Decree of Allah. Our focus is so forced into changing something that cannot be changed, that it empowers the people who demand milky white skin or an hour-glass figure. Understand that your physical appearance is in no way a detriment to your finding a spouse. The right one has been decreed for you by Allah all along. Trust Allah, not the process.
  2. Have a tete-a-tete with your friend. Voice your insecurities out and you’ll soon see how frivolous they sound in the bigger picture. Dive into a nostalgic conversation, and remind yourself what you are capable of.
  3. Rather than investing your mental energy into the spouse hunting process set out a time when you remind yourself of the greater purpose of life. This can be quite tricky when you have a marriage-obsessed family around: but remember every hour you take out for yourself is an investment you make into your future-self while every hour you spend being anxious is an hour you lose to society’s fictional standards.
  4. If your anxieties are pushing you into insomnia, make wudhu and spend some time on the prayer mat. Start with tasbih if you feel too exhausted and scatterbrained to stand up for qiyam.
  5. Join a free Quran course, a personality development course, or connect with a life-coach. Any amount of constant external positive reinforcement may help reclaim yourself. Seek professional help, if you can afford it. Work towards your career goals. Some families are downright abusive and force their daughters to give up any such ideas but don’t listen to them. Do whatever you can to stay relevant to your field and acquire skills. Most importantly, don’t give up on yourself.

If you are someone who doesn’t understand the struggle but have unmarried women around you:

  1. If your friend is struggling and has put in the courage to share her insecurities with you: try not to belittle her struggles with floral compliments. We have all heard some version of, “I’m as dark as you. I’m not that light-skinned.” Or “You are not fat, I am!” If you truly care, hear them out, address their concerns, and acknowledge their anxiety. Remind them that being unworthy of love and being unacceptable by prospective in-laws are not the same things.
  2. If you have a brother or any male relative seeking a spouse through this process, ask them to be kind. For some women, it takes a lot of patience to sit at home for years waiting to get married simply because of skin color or appearance. Use your influence to make your male relative see that their obsession with light skin or a size six is a character flaw within themselves and not within the women they come across.
  3. Remind them of their rights as per Islam and provide moral support if the person is having a hard time with their family. Often times women largely compromise just to get out of the pressure put upon by loved ones but this leads to more harm than good.
  4. Be the one who breaks the tradition. If you are involved in the matchmaking process make the prospective spouse feel comfortable, ask better questions, bring up issues that they may feel uncomfortable bringing up. If you think it will not work out for whatever reason be kind in how you convey your decision.

We have been there in the past watching our aunts suffer the same humiliation, we are here now, with a stoic face as prospective in-laws scathe our self-worth with immodest glances. The question is will we be there, desensitised to this culture when our own daughters are on the verge of womanhood?

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My strength lies in my pen.

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