I always assumed that what I saw on sitcoms, where characters would have a new girlfriend or boyfriend every week or two (or sometimes several in one episode), was purely fiction. Or, if not fiction, then more a product of American society, and not at all reflective of my image of pure, pristine Canada. A completely different world, I thought! In Canada, any relationship between a boy and a girl was just the precursor to marriage and traditional, suburban life. Kids, minivans, and problems that are solved in thirty minutes minus commercials.
I am not sure how I managed all those years being so aloof. What really went on around me, among my friends and classmates at the time, was quite far off from my understanding. Eventually, friends would confide in me with their stories, and I was quietly horrified by the clearly foolish decisions they made. I didn't understand how people could be so negligent of their own realities.
As I grew up and began living on my own, I became much more appreciative of the traditional rishta system of family and marriage; when executed in conjunction with the rest of Islamic principles, it actually worked. During my early university years, there was no pressure, and I was free from the stress that complex emotional relationships bring while navigating through my engineering degree. I understood that everything had a time, and my time was not soon. I didn't need to worry.
Of course, things changed, and MSA began consuming a good chunk of my time. And of course, late night discussions with fellow MSA brothers would invariably lead to discussions about marriage. The popular opinion was that the system was "broken" in North America, or that it was, at best, an unsolved problem. I observed with great curiosity as others took their steps on that path, many unsuccessfully. I kept myself comfortably distanced, making mental notes of every mistake I caught and every good idea I witnessed.
The stories I heard were not uncommon; issues with potential in-laws, conflicting ambitions, incompatible cultures, distance, et cetera. None of these seemed all that threatening to me, having heard much worse from my high school days. I didn't find the system to be broken, per se, as rarely did any of these incidents leave lasting emotional scars. In the entire journey, they were mere blips, frustrating only for those who expected instant results.
A broken system, in my mind, involved men and women scouting singles bars, drowning their inhibitions to score for a night, without much thought about the days or weeks after. A broken system makes "commitment" a bad word. A broken system involves suppressing your good conscience via intoxication or ignorance, letting animalistic desire take over. A broken system includes "relationship experts" who can't get their own act together, let alone advise others. Just by providing me the foresight and tools to avoid all this, I qualified our pseudo-Islamic-but-largely-cultural system, even in North America, as functional and credible.
I remember watching an episode of Frasier one day. The ongoing storyline in that series involved the infatuation of Frasier's brother Niles with the housekeeper Daphne. Eventually, Niles won the object of his affection, and at some point had this conversation with his brother:
Niles: I think we may be taking our relationship to the next level.According to this exchange, the sequence is as follows:
Frasier: Oh, my God, Niles! You're going to propose?
Niles: No, not that level, the level before that.
Frasier: You're going to ask her to move in with you?
Niles: One more level before that.
Frasier: Well, you're already dating...
Niles: No, that's two levels.
Frasier: Oh, for heaven's sake, just tell me!
Niles: Well, you know. We're going to... consummate our relationship.
- Living together
- Engagement / Marriage
I would have thought that, at some point, people would have re-evaluated this process and realized it needed tweaking. No high-performing business would maintain a business model that yielded such a high failure rate. In any productive society, the family is the most fundamental structure, and should thus be built on the most solid foundations. Exposing the family to this much risk is not enlightenment, it is simply poor planning.
When I think about the quality of most of the Muslim brothers and sisters I have known over the years, particularly those born and raised in the West, I can only conclude that the traditional system works reliably. These wonderful people I have known are the products of this system, and many have already established families of their own. Yes, we complain about the actual search for a spouse being difficult and convoluted, but this is only one stage in a much larger process. In the context of the lifetime influences this system has on us, we should feel extremely grateful. Life could have been so much more complicated.
The West introduced first generation Canadian Muslims like myself to a system which appeared liberating, exciting, and emotionally gratifying. In reality, it's not any of these things. It's much more of an unsolved problem than Muslim marriage in the West, inefficient and prone to failure. While things are not always perfect in every Muslim household, the traditional Muslim family structure is still something to cherish and be proud of. Certainly, things can always be improved, but nothing in life is easy; furthermore, if things were too easy, we would have no appreciation for it. The day we recognize how fortunate we are to have our convoluted system is the day our own journey becomes smoother.
The steps to achieving that realization, of course, are not always smooth in itself. A few stories in particular helped shape my understanding, and continue to help forge my path forward. To be eventually continued...