Sikh and You Shall Find

The American face of arranged marriage.

Like Sikhism, Islam forbids premarital sex, and therefore American-style dating, according to Sister Raheemah Mohammed of the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz in Harlem.

So in traditional Islamic communities, parents assume the responsibility for finding marriage candidates for their offspring, carefully examining the upbringing of the potential match and the reputation of prospective families. But in the Harlem community, members seek their partners on their own.

"Arranged marriage is a custom, not an Islamic precept," explained Sister Raheemah.

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 about age 18, couples begin going on "Islamically acceptable" chaperoned dates, followed by a short engagement period of maybe three months before they are wed, she added. "Allah knows what's in our hearts. So there's no need for a long engagement if you are with who you are meant to be with."

Imam Omar Abu-Namous of Riveside Drive's Islamic Center, says that Muslims of all ethnicities come to him asking for help. He makes announcements about available individuals at religious services from time to time. He says that some marriages have come of it.

It's Thanksgiving weekend for the Patels (a family name as widespread in India as English Smiths or Jewish Cohens). Nearly 3000 members of the prominent Hindu clan have gathered from all over the U.S. in Atlanta for what 20-year-old Anajali Patel calls the "meat market." Seven hundred Patels register as "single."

Three hundred matrimonies per year are generated by this event, which is held every year in a different U.S. city, and follow-up mailings, according to Ravi Patel, chairman of the Charotar Patidar Samaj Association, which runs it.

The Patels gather for three days of socials, panels, and vegetarian-friendly meals in a high-speed attempt at finding new family members.

Anajali, a Queens-born Hindu student at SUNY Stonybrook, has a friend who met her husband at the "market," and knows many other happily married couples who met there. But she hopes never to have to go herself.

Unknown to her parents, Anajali dates—but only other Hindus. "I can't relate to the arranged marriage thing because I grew up here," she says. "I'm used to dating and to bars." She acknowledges that all the "successful" marriages in her family have been arranged. "But I'm too American," she says. Ultimately, she hopes to fall in love with someone who will be accepted by her parents, although she may choose a different path.

Professor S.N. Sridhar, director of the Center for India Studies at SUNY Stonybrook, sees a new marriage model among Hindus: the child-initiated, parent-arranged marriage.

"It was after my wife and I decided to get married that our parents ran background checks on the families, and then planned and hosted the wedding," Shridar says. "It's a common modern Indian compromise." (He says he and his wife rejected the dowry ritual, which they consider objectifying, as do many educated Indians.)

According to Sridhar, Hindu law favors arranged marriage, but allows romantic unions. Moreover, romantic love is celebrated in Indian epics and mythology.

The classic drama Shakuntalam by Kalidasa, the "Shakespeare of India," is a romantic story about a man and a woman who meet in the woods and fall in love, Sridhar points out.

Family values have overridden the notion of romantic love throughout most of Indian society, he adds. "In contrast," in the U.S. "the stress on individuality has encouraged romantic love.

"But," he offers, "we can't forget that although arranged marriages don't begin with love, they usually end with it."

In fact there is a large body of romantic poetry addressing post-marriage love in India. In one poem, by K.S. Narasimhaswamy, a recently wed male meditates:

It was only a month since I saw her Love came somehow unseen. Need one have heard or seen or played with the other?...

To be suffused with the light of love.

"The Internet is bringing evil into the house!" proclaimed a Hasidic father at a recent religious gathering. "Our kids are flirting with one another!"

Indeed, one newlywed, Leivy, explained to the Voice in a twentysomething Jewish-singles chat room that if it weren't for AOL, he never would have "fooled around" before he met his wife.

Leivy was 23 when he went out on a date alone for the first time "with a Lubavitcher girl that nobody knew." They had set up a date online and once they were out, they realized they could do whatever they wanted without suffering any social consequences. "I feel very guilty now, even though I had a great time," Leivy reflects.

Lubavitch is the only Hasidic sect that embraces the Net. Its late leader, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, declared that all technology should be used to spread Hasidism among Jews.

But Rabbi Kasriel Kastel, program director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization, maintains that this banter on the Net is only a distraction from youngsters' "studies and focus."

Kastel, who has just launched www.mitmazel.com—which includes a program to help older, modern Jews find marriage partners—asserts that "Lubavitcher kids don't need to do this." At "the right age," they begin meeting and choosing their future spouses, he explains. "They don't need these games."

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