The Culture of Marriage

My first boyfriend is getting married. He was a year and a half older than me and the son of one of my parents’ friends. He is a first generation Bengali immigrant, like me, the son of two doctor parents. Our romance blossomed over MSN and 3310s, progressing to stolen kisses in the car park of Eid parties. Of our Bengali, doctor-parented peers, we were alike in our love of Kerrang! and our relatively liberal parents. (His willingly so, mine, not so much.) We were each other’s first loves, (well, first somethings) and now, he's getting married. How did we diverge so much?

I used to think it was so perfect that we had found each other: two black sheep of a mostly traditional group. It was so convenient that we had each fallen in love with someone serendipitously of the same nationality and religion, as I knew my parents would prefer. If this wasn't destiny, it didn't exist. Now, I'm not even sure I want to marry. The concept of one true love fades quickly as they multiply and diversify. I'm steeled to parental disapproval and there would be more awkwardness than anger if ever I were to bring a non-Bengali guy home. (A big if - my parents aren't that progressive.)

At the time, even this traditional set-up was considered a rebellion, so my rejection of the ‘family’ path is unsurprising.

We may all have talked about boys and even talked to some boys but I was the first one to take it any further - too far, in the minds of these peers. It was OK to think about it, to talk about it, to suggest, but as soon as the suggestion became tangible, it was dangerous. When I recall it, it seems very innocent: teenage sweethearts, hormone ravaged, sure, but doing everything by the book. We waited for ages before we touched. Even then, we waded slowly through the electric waters of the first adult physicality we would experience. We were in love, and that to us was equivocal to being married. My parents, all Bengali parents, wanted us to wait until marriage because it provided a guarantee that there would only be one. Our decision to ignore them wasn’t because we didn't agree with them - we were just too young to marry. But we would have, if we could. This was no protest to sexual repression: we were in love.

Still, in relation to Bengali peers, we were the only ones who dared to follow through, at least at first. That I have not only had sex before marriage but done so with more than one (!) man wouldn't shock any of the gossiping aunties who thought I embodied sin from my early teens. That harlot, with her tight jeans (drainpipes were in fashion) and loose morals! Our affair was a poorly kept secret, the top of a slippery slope expected to end in hell, or, worse, pregnancy. Puppy love was a transgression in my community, although it might not seem as such without the cultural backstory for context.

I now continue to digress, to defy the expectations and encourage the censure of the aunties with my life choices, particularly those relating to marriage.

At 25, I am one of the oldest unmarried women now from the set.

By this age, most of the other girls had been introduced and married to another first or second-generation compatriot, mirroring our parents’ path with some UK updates. The acceptable professions have been extended: banker and accountant has been added to the list, which previously read only ‘doctor’. More modern still, the betrothed are permitted to spend time together alone. Dating is allowed as long as it’s with your fiancé. One girl, whose parents I remember as being fiercely conservative, moved in with her fiancé once they were ‘married in Islam’. I debated with my mother on this point: they weren't actually legally married though. No, she conceded, I suppose not. The legal trappings are an irrelevance when marriage represents insurance that your body is the purview of only one partner.

Even those who have chosen their own partners without a parental introduction were married by my age. I can't speak for their motivations, but I wonder how much their decisions were influenced by the idea of marriage as a legitimating force. It is a formal attestation to your parents and society of the belief that you've found your one partner. To the Bengali families I know, it's a marker of purity and observing cultural norms of sex as procreation with only one person of the opposite sex. My concern is how much of the decision stems from a desire to legitimise. It's hard, in your twenties, to keep a serious relationship from your parents. But amongst the Bengali people of my age that I know, there is an implicit understanding that your private life remains private until you're sure it's serious. It feels teenage, childish, to keep a relationship a secret. Unless your partner is from the same background, it can be difficult to explain why you feel compelled to. It is treated as sordid and without respect until it’s brought out into the open.

The failure of some Bengali parents to recognise relationships as serious unless they constitute an engagement is driving up the desire to marry younger in order to have your relationship considered legitimate.

My cynical interpretation has been coloured by own experience: I co-habited with a partner for two years and my parents were oblivious. I had the hare-brained idea that we could pretend to be engaged so that he could meet them. I tried to explain that the lie was the only way in which I could convey that we were in a serious relationship without strife. I’d like to think I’m made of tougher stuff now, that I will stick with my decision to marry only if that’s what I want rather than because it’s expected. I’ve even resolved to tell my parents about the next serious partner I have. We’ll see if I stick to my plans. I’m curious to know more about my first boyfriend’s proposal. What’s propelling you to this decision? Is it all love? Or is there any truth to my theory? Either way, I hope you’re happy. You live your life, I’ll live mine.