My cultural background is Cape Malay South African. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of us, because according to Wikipedia there are only 200 000 Cape Malays in the entire world. This limited supply, combined with the confusing patchwork quilt that is Cape Malay culture, has always left me feeling supremely indifferent at the thought of marrying one. But I am well aware that this indifference isn’t the norm amongst Muslims. Part of the reason Islam spread so pervasively and successfully was because it respected tradition wherever it didn’t directly conflict with Islamic rulings. This means that today culture has endured alongside religion, providing points of both contradiction and intersection.
As long as people stayed in homogenous cultural groups, all was fairly smooth on the marriage front. The cultural rituals of meeting a partner, getting to know them and eventually getting married could be followed with little confusion. People knew what to expect; they were following procedures set down eons ago. But things got well and truly whacked with the complicated stick when our parents decided to pack up and leave their homelands in search of a better life and cleaner air and all that jazz. In doing so, they ensured we would meet a whole of people with vastly different backgrounds to our own. Inevitably, people being people, attachments are going to be formed. But who are they going to be formed with? In case you haven’t realised (crawl out from under your rock if so), I’m a big fan of categories, so I’m going to go right ahead now and list the different attitudes I have encountered in the Muslim community towards intercultural relationships.
1.) ‘No way in Jahannam’
This attitude is still fairly common, even amongst people who were brought up in a land far, far away from their parents’ country of origin. To form this attitude, parental and community involvement will have been paramount. In these cases, parents will have so successfully inculcated their culture into their offspring that they cannot conceive of a life with a person from a different one.
For these people, culture is an anchor. It provides a definitive way of both of seeing the world and seeing those around them. They also find that they tend to relate better to people from their own cultural background on both a social and romantic level. I’ve had many friends tell me they cannot see themselves with anyone but a fellow Indian/Lebanese/Inuit, and while I don’t share their sentiments, I completely respect them. Studies have proven that intercultural relationships do in fact have a higher rate of failure than relationships involving two people from the same cultural background, so they may be onto something there. When it comes down to it, it really is just easier to marry someone from your own background. In-laws can find enough to quarrel about as it is without adding different cultures into the mix!
2.) ‘I don’t care, but my parents will lynch me’
This is a common one too. A lot of Muslims who grow up here are not in fact so attached to their culture that they cannot become attached to someone of a different one. But their parents are an entirely different story. For these people, the choice then becomes one of immense difficulty. Do they walk away from someone they care for or do they displease their parents and push for the marriage to go ahead? I’ve seen both cases occur. I often wonder if the first type of person feels regret, or if they console themselves in the knowledge that it was never meant to be.
The second group, the fight-for-this-love types, are a patient bunch. It can sometimes take years to get things across the parental line, but the funny thing is that often these very same oppositional parents become their daughter/son-in-law’s biggest fan. Even if this never happens, at the very least the parties can keep their distance and thus keep the peace.
*One of the anonymous comments I received reflected a deep frustration with these parental sanctions, so I will be devoting a post sometime soon to how to deal with being on the receiving end.
3.) ‘I’ll take what I can get’
I jest, I jest. This attitude isn’t driven by desperation, just by a simple word: ‘meh’. They don’t mind marrying someone from their own cultural background, but they are just as content to marry a person from a different one. They like their culture well enough without being fanatical about it. They’re not too fussed by the thought of parental opposition; perhaps they have lenient parents and know it won’t be too much of a biggie. Whatever the reason, they’re not going to let someone’s background get in the way of their happily ever after.
4.) ‘Bring on the cute babies!’
This is one I’m hearing a lot recently. For some reason intercultural marriage has become a somewhat hip thing to do. (Well, there are lots of reasons I could suggest, but I won’t do so now because it would involve too much Social Inquiry for this blog to handle.) Suffice to say that it’s become quite unfashionable in some Muslim circles to admit to a preference for a person of your own background. Free love, baby. The hipsters have reclaimed the spirit of the flower power generation and are wielding it like Light Sabers, leaving no gene pool untouched in their wake.
I’ll be revisiting this topic many times in the future, but for now I’ll sum it up by simply stating that intercultural relationships can be very hard work. After all, relationships are hard work, so why would adding another spanner in the works make them less so? But does this put you off, or are you prepared to put in the hard yards if you meet a person you feel is worth it?