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Traversing Self Worth and Potential Spouses

by in Identity on 15th October, 2021

My understanding of what was involved in  the process of finding a spouse was limited to the classics like Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Through Austen’s writing, I was emboldened to imagine that matrimony was quite basic, if you remove social classes and beauty that is.

As a South Asian Mulim woman when it comes to finding your other half, the contrast between expectations and reality cannot be more stark. 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 genes that would deem them conventionally pretty are expected to forego their dreams in the name of matrimony. Some women are expected to lower their reasonable expectations and compromise 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 my community are advised to compromise their living standards, stuck with partners who are 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, either in 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.

I come from a household where not being married by twenty-four is the first violation of the sacred notion that women are too old by the time they hit the benchmark of graduation. Much to my grievance, I discovered this at the said twenty-four. So what is it like to be a stay-at-home woman waiting in vain 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 fast withering. 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 ocean, 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 it is raw with pain. Why as a society, have we reduced ourselves to trying to undo  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 upholding Islamic values. The insolence of how the very people we consider to be our loved loved ones, the same people  who were once extremely keen to find us a righteous spouse, but who now attribute all these misgivings to our fate, is remarkable. Every transgression in a society manifests itself in the institution of marriage. It is no surprise 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 a prerequisite  by our men, where then do we find ourselves as women if we do not meet the impossible standards set by them? Why is it 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 soul feels dizzy?

From skipping meals to lose any post pandemic weight to smearing retinol over stress acne, I often find myself worrying over the tiniest flaws in my appearance. The anxiety weighs me down.

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?

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. How do we save our self-esteem in a society where good character is an admirable trait, only when physical appearances also bring pleasure to the eye?

For me, coming to terms with this conundrum and finding an answer to this question required some soul-searching. I have compiled a list of lessons that I learned in this journey that have made an immense amount of difference to 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 tête-à-tête with your friend. Voice your insecurities 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 Qur’an course, a personal development course, or connect with a life coach. Any amount of constant external positive reinforcement may help you to reclaim your sense of self. 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 with friends who are going through this struggle, this is how you can support them:

  1. If your friend is struggling and has been courageous enough to share their insecurities with you, try not to belittle them  with flowery 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 other conventional beauty standards  is a character flaw within themselves and not within the women they come across.
  3. Remind them of their rights that  Islam has already granted them,  and provide moral support if the person is having a hard time with their family. Oftentimes, women will  compromise just to get out of the pressure put upon them by loved ones which leads to more  harm being done 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, and 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 judgemental  glances. The question is will we be there, desensitized to this culture when our own daughters are on the verge of womanhood?

Rouhi Kateb

Rouhi Kateb

Rouhi is a former educator with a degree in Applied Sciences. She is currently pursuing a Diploma in Shariah and Islamic Sciences. This in-depth study of her faith has had a huge influence on her work and she takes interest in writing on spirituality, faith and cultural commentary. In her spare hours, you can find Rouhi brewing another cup of chai or curled up with a good book. You can read more of Rouhi's writing over on her website and IG: @rouhilearns