Sikh and You Shall Find

The American face of arranged marriage.

It was taxi driver Jaswant Singh's turn to ride in the white stretch limo.

Thick gold trim hanging from his hot pink turban framed Jaswant's face as the 20-year-old groom strolled into the Sikh temple in Richmond Hill, Queens, on Thanksgiving weekend for his arranged marriage to a bride he'd never met.

Throughout New York, in communities that still practice arranged marriages—Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Hasidic Jews—young people say they feel good enough about the ancient practice to continue the tradition, albeit in a more "American" way.

Jaswant and Jasbir approach the  holy book as a Sikh priest culminates their marriage.
Michael Sofronski
Jaswant and Jasbir approach the holy book as a Sikh priest culminates their marriage.

At Jaswant's wedding, his little cousins giggled in awe at the $20 and $100 bills pasted on his multi-strand pearl necklace. On the other side of the family divide, wizened old men in white linen turbans, just arrived from India, joined hundreds of relatives and friends packed into a small temple prayer hall, where they sat on the floor in anticipation of the marriage of their niece, Jasbir Kaur.

"I can't wait to see how beautiful she is," said an eight-year-old girl as she proudly showed her henna-painted hands to a friend.

"I wonder where she is," she added.

Two hours late, 18-year-old Jasbir finally arrived, shaking and sniffling. All eyes were fixed on her as she sat in the middle of a semicircle beside Jaswant. The two bowed, touched their foreheads to the ground, and agreed to live together for the rest of their lives.

"It's normal that she cries," laughed an elderly uncle. "She is leaving home and her parents for the first time. She is scared, it's natural."

"When we Sikhs marry someone we have barely met," said an earnest newlywed, "we know that the person we are marrying has the same background and goals." Love never lasts, she declared.

After Jaswant doffed his gold trim, he and Jasbir circled the Sikh holy book, The Guru Granth Sahib—which is decorated with bright-colored swirls—four times. An old man whispered that the book is considered almost a "god in itself."

Later, in front of the temple, teenagers clad in Tommy Hilfiger shirts, wearing gold earrings and medallion necklaces, talk to a reporter about Sikh tradition.

"I will definitely marry who my parents wish," exclaims Dimpy, an 18-year-old who's been in the U.S. for half his life. "They know me better than I know myself."

Inesha, a 15-year-old American-born girl, goes to a Queens school with few other Sikhs. She hopes to fall in love and choose her own mate, although one her parents would accept: i.e., a highly educated Sikh from the Punjab region. "If I can't find someone by the time I'm 22 or 23, I will go to my parents for help," she asserts.

The kids talk about getting crushes in school, and one girl reveals she actually dated someone she met online. Sikh teenagers cyberflirt in Rediff.com's chat rooms.

Thirteen-year-old AOL addict and rock band member Amrisha has modern parents. Her mother, Rupinder, is a social worker (and, at this temple, a rare career woman). Her father, Hakim, has short hair (Sikh males' hair is generally uncut from birth). However, they met only once in India before they got married, and speak proudly of the system they take part in.

The Sikh religion does not require arranged marriage, Hakim explains. Instead, the custom is rooted in thousands of years of cultural practice. In America, it is nearly impossible to arrange marriages the way it is done back home.

In India, families routinely do matchmaking, but many young Sikhs have recently emigrated to the U.S. alone and are living in small isolated enclaves. Some have been relying on the Internet to find partners.

Sites such as SuitableMatch.com and INDOlink.com run "matrimonial" ads—rather than personals—for the entire Indian community. The ads are usually placed by parents. Rather than seeing them as a last resort, many look to these ads as a starting place.

African American and ethnic Muslims also find themselves in mini crises over their cultures' arranged-marriage strictures, and have therefore Americanized their system to a degree.

"We don't live with the same intensity of community that they do in Morocco or Egypt," explained Safia, an African American woman who converted to Islam in the '70s.

She was speaking in the women's prayer room in a small Manhattan mosque as North African women, covered from head to toe, listened intently. "We have to consider people who may come from very far away," she said. "And that poses the problem of not knowing anything firsthand about the other family."

Everybody nodded.

"But," unlike the Middle Eastern women, who said that they could only marry Arab Muslims, Safia added, "I have no problem mixing with other ethnic groups, because we are all Muslim. And Islam preaches no race preferences."

Racism aside, some ethnic American Muslim youth fear a potential culture clash.

Nadia, a 20-year-old New York City–reared college student of Bangladeshi descent, said that if she doesn't find someone in her circle of Muslim friends within a couple of years, her parents will suggest their ideal candidate: a Bangladesh-born Muslim.

"But I really hope not," she added, speaking at the Center for India Studies at Stonybrook, Long Island, "because it's really hard to relate to each other."

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