Lubna’s wedding was only six weeks away and the planning was in full swing. As the specially selected maid of honour, Samiah was expected to be involved in every detail of her sister’s wedding plans, from the dress and make-up, to décor and wedding favours and even down to the cravat that her beloved Daniyal would wear. Lubna dragged Samiah into every Asian bridal shop across the south of England in search for her perfect outfit and the perfect bridesmaid’s dress for her sister. Samiah was also given the responsibility of organising her hen-do and her mendhi and the hundreds of gifts for the hundreds of relatives that Daniyal seemed to have.
It didn’t take long for Lubna to transform into a bridezilla and for Samiah to realise that her prestigious title of Maid of Honour was really only a guise for a personal assistant, and that when Lubna would flutter her pretty lashes and say “How can I make any decisions without my big sister’s approval?” it was actually just Lubna’s way of getting Samiah to do things for her that Samiah would never have done otherwise. Of course Samiah was pleased for her sister and was even willing to forgive Lubna’s insensitivity towards her own spinster status; so she helped wherever she could, lest she be accused of being jealous or bitter that her younger sister was getting married before her. She felt overstretched by all the organising on top of school reports and the looming exam period she was currently preparing for, but she could only pray to God to help her through this wedding without losing her sanity.
Aside from Lubna’s tantrums and other dramatic performances, when Samiah saw the joy that shone from Lubna’s pretty face, she couldn’t help but feel that, despite the trauma of the rishta search and manipulating her mother to call it all off, deep down she still wanted to get married. It was no longer a desire for steamy romance, but just for plain companionship. There was something disgustingly old and wise about this feeling, and yet she welcomed it.
* * *
There was an uneasy quietness to her mother ever since Samiah had bullied her into setting a date for Lubna’s wedding. Her mother’s sadness hurt Samiah but nothing that she said or did appeared to appease her.
About a month before the wedding, she turned to her eldest daughter and said “If you had married Farhan like I had told you to, you wouldn’t have to watch your younger sister get married before you. But you were stubborn, like you always have been. Like your father”.
Pain and anger washed over Samiah but she said nothing and locked herself in her bedroom for the rest of the day. She had always been one to accept fate, never allowing herself to linger on mistakes, regrets, never pining for the past. There was safety in living in the moment. The Now. Not the past, not the future. It had always kept her going: there was freedom in only having the perspective of the next few steps ahead.
But Samiah’s mother would not let her forget what she had let go of. Each time the rishta search became particularly frustrating, she would say to Samiah: “You should have married Farhan.” Samiah knew that her mother only said this out of frustration, but somehow, this time, it felt worse because both Samiah and her mother had accepted defeat.
She had met Farhan at a Muslim marriage event. A friend had dragged her along after becoming fed up of the drama that came with the Rishta Hunting Forces. She had even explored the world of matrimonial sites that had thousands of profiles from around the world with lists of bio-data and mini personal statements, making it terribly easy to find what you were looking for. Although she had felt a little more in control in the online situation than relying on the Forces, it felt very much like online shopping and she gave up after she had her fair share of weirdos, perverts and psychopaths.
Her friend had described this marriage event as “halal speed dating” and since anything seemed better than The Forces, Samiah had agreed to go. It wasn’t exactly what she had in mind when fantasizing about the birth of a beautiful romance, but it was certainly a more efficient way of meeting a number of men in a shorter space of time. Certainly, it was better than being forced to spend the whole evening with a guy she would rather have closed the door on as soon as he had turned up at her doorstep.
The first half of the event had been not just tedious, but awkward and bizarre. Like having a year full of blind dates all in one sitting. And the men she spoke to were actually no different to the ones that her mother had introduced her to.
As soon as the thought of sneaking out crossed her mind, a tall, darkish man sat down. He wasn’t particularly attractive, but there was so much character in his face. He said “I have no idea what I’m doing here.” She smiled for the first time that day and said “I think I was only meant to be here for moral support,” she nodded towards her friend who seemed to be having a better time than herself.
His smile was infectious, as was his banter. They spoke quickly, aware that they had only five minutes in which to encapsulate their whole lives. When the five minutes were up, he gave her his business card but made sure that he took her number: “I plan to bother you even if you don’t plan to bother me.” It was when he winked at her that Samiah knew she wanted to marry him.
Over the next few weeks they got to know each other. He was intelligent, charming, he had a good job and there was more than enough chemistry between them. Religion was important enough to him to make Samiah feel that they could make it work, that they could learn and evolve together. Farhan seemed like a mouthful of clean water after being stranded in hot, nauseating desert air. She felt that this was fate – this was the man that God had kept for her.
Six weeks after they met, they were already planning a wedding. Unfortunately that was also when Samiah’s vision of happily ever after began to show signs of cracking. Farhan’s mother was intrusive and controlling and Samiah began to wonder if his mother even wanted her to marry her son. When she insisted that Samiah and Farhan live in the family house, despite the fact that there were already eight people living in the house, including the eldest son’s wife and two children, Samiah felt Farhan being slowly pulled from her.
It wasn’t until Farhan himself asked her not to wear hijab for the first few weeks of their marriage that something between them snapped. “I want to the world to see how beautiful my wife is,” he smiled at her. “I want everyone to meet the real you.”
For a moment Samiah was lost for words. Then she asked him how her hijab, a simple material covering her hair, could make her a different person.
“Your beauty is part of you”, he explained. “It perfects you – I want everyone to see you as I will see you.”
“You want a trophy wife,” she said flatly. He looked surprised. “You want to show me off to your friends and relatives, to show them what you bagged – like a status symbol. “
“No, it’s not like that-”
“You want to expose my private space, which I’ve been preserving my whole life, just so that you can show off to your friends?”
He didn’t understand her, and she certainly did not understand him. She couldn’t tolerate any more of the conversation so she had cut the phone call. Despite knowing her, Farhan clearly had no understanding of or respect for what hijab meant to her: her authority over her own body and mind. And this could be only the microcosm of what was to come in their marriage – and she couldn’t take that risk.
She had to let Farhan go. He had been the best of all the men she had met, but he wasn’t enough. Thinking back, even now in this seemingly hopeless time, she could not imagine herself agreeing to compromise and marry Farhan. It would be like selling her soul. Wedding and living arrangements were temporary but she could not compromise her autonomy, nor allow anyone to depreciate it. Her feelings for Farhan, or any man, were secondary to her own values, as were her age and desires.
So Samiah decided to pretend her mother hadn’t said what she had said, and instead busied herself with Lubna’s wedding preparation so she wouldn’t have to see her mother’s accusing face, or reveal her own misery.
* * *
A few days later, Sajid approached her again about his friend, promising her it had nothing to with their mother or sister. “C’mon Samiah, just meet him once – you’ve got nothing to lose.”
“That’s true,” she agreed, “I’ve already lost my pride and dignity, so yes you’re right, I have nothing left to lose.”
“Cut the sarcasm, sis, I know you’re miserable. Just meet him once. He’s a real nice guy. I guarantee you it won’t be anything like your rishta visits.”
Samiah felt her heart sink to her stomach. She didn’t want to be single forever but she would still have to go through the rishta meetings in order to find herself a husband. She had run out of excuses.
“I don’t want mum or Lubna involved,” she complained.
“I’m not even going to tell them,” he assured her. “We can just go out for dinner, the three of us. We don’t even need to talk about marriage, just go out as friends.”
Samiah hesitated, unsure. “I’m too busy with the wedding.”
“C’mon, he’s really looking forward to meeting you.”
She wasn’t sure if she could handle another meeting – it might just tip her off the edge. But through gritted teeth she said to her brother: “Fine, I’ll meet him.”
Originally published in SISTERS Magazine, February/March 2014