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.

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