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Striking A Match The evolution of arranged marriages in South Asian culture 

By: Inshaal Badar

In her bright red high heels and matching lipstick, Meera Shahzad clumsily makes her way across the Toronto banquet hall while mumbling curses under her breath. Tonight the 19 year old hopes to find a soulmate among the 300 guests present at the wedding. “Just nod politely, smile, and answer all the questions like we rehearsed,” says her matchmaker, Sheila Adwani. Earlier that evening, Shahazad had spent three hours getting ready in front of a poorly lit mirror in her middle class house, rehearsing the answers to questions she might be asked. Her mother had notified her that if she did not catch anyone’s eye tonight, she would have to return to Pakistan, where her parents are from, to find a potential suitor. Trembling and scared, she realizes her fate is going to be determined in the next few hours.

Arranged marriages were the norm in many countries until the 18th century and still continue to be seen as the preferred way of finding a partner in many cultures, especially in South Asia. Fifty-five percent of marriages around the world are still arranged by families or a third party. In the past, and even currently in some third world countries, arranged marriages have strict rules which include the man and woman not being able to communicate until the wedding day. However, rituals such as these are now evolving in the western world. Interactions before marriage are being allowed but usually at weddings where both of their families are present. An ideal partner is found by judging a person by their ethnicity, religion, caste, culture, and social background.

Newer generations however are bending the rules and changing old traditions. This is due to the rapid change in how marriages are being perceived in Canada. They have become quite varied; there are same-sex marriages, divorce has become easily accessible, and many cohabit but don’t get legally married. These legal and cultural changes have essentially affected the minds of newer generations.

Arranged marriages are happening all across the GTA, Shahzad is only one of the many girls who have used South Asian weddings as a matchmaking hub. Many South Asian weddings in Toronto, where people of similar faiths, classes, and castes congregate and many young, eligible people and their families are present, have begun to adopt the underground ritual of matchmaking. Well-known women in the community are usually in charge of the matchmaking. While some charge for this service and have made it into a business, others do it for free merely for the sake of helping out families.

“The regulations of arranged marriages are not the same as they once were in my day. When I got married, things were much more strict. We did not have a social environment such as grand weddings to attend in order to find a spouse,” says 45 year old Toronto community matchmaker, Sheila Adwani. She had an arranged marriage at age 19 in India and is currently in the business because of her best friend, Naheed Tanna who has been involved with matchmaking for the last 10 years. Tanna’s business began unofficially in 2003 when she got involved in her first matchmaking process in 2003 by introducing her neighbours son who was looking to get married with a woman she knew.

“I smell butter chicken,” says Tanna sniffing the air. The wedding hall located in Oakville is decorated in purple silk drapes. The large chandelliers hang above, and little kids run around trying to count them. There is chatter and a hint of urgency in everyone’s eyes as they make their way to the buffet table. Gohir explains that she has already been called by families who are here for her matchmaking services. “I have to go around and introduce the famillies to each other, and then they talk to see if they are compatible,” she says while walking off to greet the first people on her list, a family who just immigrated from Pakistan a few months ago.

South Asians who are immigrants to western countries may not always have appropriate networks to arrange a marriage, and this is where matchmakers play an important role. Although the strictness of arranged marriages are dissolving due to the socio-economic development and cultural changes in society, these types of marriages still exist even in modern cities like Toronto.

One-of-her clients, a doctor in Hamilton, Noor Ahmed has been married for four years and claims, “We as the newer generations are not like our parents, we do not follow traditions as well as we probably should. I made sure my parents knew I wanted a little bit of time talking to the man they wanted me to get married to before anything got finalized. “

Western cultures in the GTA usually do not enforce arranged marriages as the opportunity of finding a spouse is considered a rite of passage into adulthood for many.

“I thought my life was ruined once I got married, the first few months were extremely difficult but that is my own fault. I was ruining it for myself by being bitter but my husband Arif and I are now happier than ever. We claim that our parents are not open minded but we actually are not either, we should be open minded not only to modernity but also to old traditions and culture,” says Tanzeela Sheikh, 27.

Although the western world may have altered rituals, many South Asian parents still have authority over the choices their children make, and as far as it can be predicted, arranged marriages is a tradition that will be around for a long time. Whereas some women might be struggling with the prospect of this, others like Shahzad are making the best out of the situation. “I feel like I owe it to my parents to at least try to find someone tonight. Plus, that man staring at me right there is pretty cute,” she says with a wink.

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