Making Arrangements: Are Arranged Marriages Really so Easy?

It seems that Muslims seeking meaningful relationships with members of the opposite sex, and how they go about acquiring such relationships in an Islamically appropriate way, have been quite a popular subject.  A recent perusal of the blogosphere over the past week brought me to the wonderful blog Organica where Organic Muslimah has a two-part piece entitled “Muslim Dating: The Reality of Our Ummah” while over at altmuslimah, Adam Sitte proclaims: “There are just no good Muslim women out there,” as he laments his inability to determine how best to “get to know” women.  Both Organic Muslimah and Sitte elucidate the relationship-building conundrum young Muslims find themselves in as they consider how to form meaningful relationships (with the potential for marriage) while remaining Islamically conscious.

In contrast to seeking relationships on one’s own, Arranged (directed by Diane Crespo and Stefan Schaefer, released in 2007) portrays a friendship between two new schoolteachers in New York—an Orthodox Jew, Rochel (portrayed by Zoe Lister Jones), and a Syrian Muslim, Nadira (portrayed by Fracis Benhamou)—and the process of their arranged marriages.  I was intrigued by the premise when I read the description of the movie on Netflix (the movie can be conveniently streamed online), but was ultimately disappointed by the clichéd and stereotypical representation of the relatively conflict-free depiction of the arranged marriage process.

While the film observes both the relationship between Nadira and Rochel, who quickly become friends at their new school, it also spends a considerable amount of time looking at each of the women’s relationships with their own families.  Both of the devout women live at home with their parents and siblings and have accepted their respective methods of arranged marriage.  For Rochel, this means attending a considerable number of “coffee dates” with other Orthodox Jewish men who have been identified by a local matchmaker.  Rochel, her mother, and aunt visit the matchmaker to screen potential suitors according to their “biodatas.”  Prospective suitors arrive at her house and introduce themselves to her parents before they go out for coffee at a nearby café.

Nadira, on the other hand, is told that potential suitors will come to visit by her father.  In contrast to the numerous suitors Rochel frustratingly meets, Nadira meets only two within her home and amongst her family—a Syrian friend of her father’s (who plans on returning to live in Syria) and an Arab man who comes to meet Nadira and her family with his own family.

The contrast in the ease of the process that is presented in the film for Nadira and Rochel was intriguing—while Rochel is unable to meet anyone solely through the matchmaker’s information (Nadira ends up taking matters into her own hands and presents a “biodata” of an Orthodox Jewish man—while disguised as a Jewish woman—who they both merely see studying in a library to the Jewish matchmaker in order to enable an appropriate introduction), the process for Nadira is far simpler, as she finds compatibility with the second suitor and soon thereafter marries him.

The film also portrays Nadira and Rochel’s friendship as one that appears unwelcome to Rochel’s family.  When Nadira goes to Rochel’s house to prepare material for class together, Rochel’s mother has Nadira leave, citing that having a Muslim woman at their house might ruin Rochel’s chances of finding a prospective match (Rochel, however, is welcomed with open arms at Nadira’s house and meets both parents.).  I felt that the film could have used more unpleasant scenes like this—scenes that display a subversive attitude towards what is socially appropriate would add a dash of reality to the film.

At the end of the film, both Nadira and Rochel appear to be happily married with newborn daughters.  They were able to find their spouses by remaining within the constraints of their arranged marriages.  But what would have happened if Nadira met someone she was interested in forming a relationship with prior to starting the “arranged” process?  Would he be Arab?  Would he be Muslim?  Would she tell her parents? And what if she never met a potential suitor that was arranged by her parents?  Would she remain unmarried forever while still living at home?  The film does not delve into these subversive questions, but instead proscribes faith in the binding process.  It neglects to mention that Nadira is not required religiously to partake in an arranged marriage, and thus presents the process as a matter of fact for Muslim women to viewers.

In order to combat what Organica calls the “dual-identity of the Muslim youth,” there needs to be an increased discussion of how Muslim relationships are presented in the media, both amongst Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  Portrayals of relationships that easily ascribe to a single, hence Islamically appropriate, manner like those presented in Arranged will continue to contribute both to the social anxiety and generational conflict experienced by Muslims who seek relationships on their own and add to the notion of what non-Muslims consider to be Islamically appropriate behavior.

  • Zeineb

    That’s interesting. I actually really want to watch it now since everything I’ve seen takes the opposite line — arranged marriage as terrible and never working out for anybody. It would be nice to watch a different perspective!

  • http://southernmasala.blogspot.com Southern Masala

    I saw this film, and for the most part enjoyed it, although it definitely doesn’t have the nuance that you hope for. I thought it was nice to give a perspective that arranged marriages aren’t all horrible and many of them work out and the women are often willing participants in the process (as has been my personal observations, for the most part). One thing I did not like at all was how Nadira’s Dad was supposedly portrayed as a loving and conscientious father who then attempts to marry her off to his significantly older friend???? That does not mesh at all with what I have seen from the truly loving and conscientious Muslim parents who are arranging their daughters and sons marriages. I just felt icky about it, like it was saying, look, even supposedly “good” Muslim men will try to marry their daughters off to their decades old friends without any forethought about how their daughters feel about (i.e. Muslim women are property for Muslim men stereotype).

  • Raaz

    Thanks for the comments, Zeinab and Southern Masala. I wrote this review in response to the articles on Muslim relationships I read online that looked at the dismal affair of gender relations amongst Muslims. I agree that not all arranged marriages are horrible–of course, there are wonderful examples in the community of men and women who have their marriages happily arranged.

    What I was more concerned with when I wrote this review, though, was how easily the process was presented and the lack of discussion of non-arranged marriages in Islam (and Orthodox Judaism, for that matter). The idea that Muslims (and more specifically in this context, Muslim women) MUST have arranged marriages where their spouse shares a similar cultural background is problematic, as it perpetuates the notion of even second-generation Muslim women as subservient towards a patriarchal culture.

    While Nadira is shown to be happy with her arrangement, other viewers (especially those with no previous exposure to Islamic courting practices) watching the film see her as a voiceless Muslim woman, unable to choose someone to marry on her own terms, even if it is presented happily ever after (see, for example the NYT review of the movie, where Jeannette Catsoulis writes: “both women are about to learn that happiness lies in conformity and that, whatever your beliefs, Father always knows best.”) Is this the best way to present Muslim relationships?

    The representation of arranged marriages in this film is seen as the ultimate form of happiness for the two women. Is that realistic? I would have been more interested to see a film where the protagonist takes a more proactive role in a relationship-seeking process, while remaining true to the values she believes in.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-28727-Woodside-Family-Examiner~y2010m1d5-Disneys-Aladdin-to-enjoy-or-not-to-enjoy RCHOUDH

    I wrote an article recently on my own website about how Disney’s Aladdin attacks the concept of arranged marriages (through the character of Jasmine) as being akin to forced marriages. And it’s true that not all Muslims get married through the traditional arranged marriage that we in the West imagine it to be. I know of several Muslim couples who were interracial/intercultural but who got married in an arranged fashion (my Egyptian friend told me of how she got set up to meet her husband a white American convert through her brother). Then I’ve heard of couples where the girl’s family was the first to make the move after the girl expressed interest in her friend’s brother. And of course there are couples who have “love marriages”. So yes there are many ways of going about having an arranged marriage under Islam, not just the traditional intraracial/intracultural way where potential matches are made based on family lineage, status, wealth, etc.

  • http://azizaizmargari.wordpress.com Margari Aziza

    I saw Arranged about a week ago. It could have been more complex and interesting if they showed the development of the women’s relationships with their potential spouses within the confines of religious strictures. That process can be wrought with all sorts of tensions. I know many women and men who have experienced heart break in the courtship phase. Couples also develop profound feelings of love and desire, which is often missed in simplified, father-knows-best depictions of arranged marriages. Plus, there are all sorts of variations of match-making that do not equate arranged marriage. For example, it seems to make a clear distinction between the religious people and secular. There are numerous secular Americans use match making services looking for serious relationships with the hope that they will ultimately end up in marriage. My family is not Muslim, nor are many of my mother’s friends. My mom’s friend would always try to get me to meet her son and my mother was convinced that her best friend’s daughter would be ideal for my brother. Now that we’re all grown and married, they dropped the subject. My point is that I think there is a tendency to “otherize,” as the film did in its depiction of Rochel’s secular Jewish cousin.