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The Rise of Arranged Marriage in America

Advocates of assisted marriage say it maintains tradition. Critics point to gender inequities and an unhealthy preoccupation with ethnic purity.
 
 
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The sound of laughter can be heard from outside a Los Angeles home as seven matchmakers sit around the dining room table taking notes, shuffling through papers and pitching match ideas over water and fruit salad. Attractive young single women donning ankle-length skirts and long-sleeved shirts sit in the living room, waiting for their turn to field questions from women who want to ask about their personal histories, hopes for the future and tastes in men. The young singles flew in from Brooklyn and Montreal for the opportunity to interview with the Shadchans (matchmakers) who have connections with hundreds of eligible single men.

It's just another Tuesday morning for L'Chaim, a group of LA-area matchmakers, who find spouses for singles in the Jewish Orthodox community. They network with rabbis, host singles events and attend a hand-full of weddings each week -- all for the purpose of matching. "We get profiles and we network with each other," says Rochelle Frankel, a Shadchan who works with L'Chaim. "I say 'I know this girl, she's looking for this kind of a guy' and then we look through our files and we say 'it looks like I've got a match!'"

For many Jews, matching young men and women in matrimony has taken on a new urgency -- a push to rush ultra-Orthodox singles, and sometimes even their modern Orthodox counterparts, to the altar. That's because some Jewish leaders see declining marriage rates, alongside an increasing population of unmarried Jews in their 20s and 30s, as a crisis that threatens the survival of their faith. One answer to the calamity of Jewish singleness that has emerged is a modified form of arranged marriage -- one that is voluntary and relies on the assistance of matchmakers and family.

Jews are not alone in upholding the practice of arranged or 'assisted' marriage in America. Along with communities more commonly associated with this tradition, such as Hindu Indians, the fast-growing immigrant population of Muslims from the Middle East and South Asia are bringing this age-old practice to contemporary American settings -- in the name of religious doctrine. Even some Evangelical Christians are taking an interest in assisted marriage and have embraced courtship practices similar to those of devout American Muslims.

Advocates of this tradition say arranged marriage helps them preserve their culture and resist assimilation and secularization. Critical observers point out that arranged marriages reveal, at times, an unhealthy preoccupation with ethnic purity; in addition, arranged marriage is often accompanied by rigid male-female roles that can lead to gender inequities.

The How and the Why: Meeting Spiritual and Practical Needs

While Orthodox Jews rely on matchmakers to organize nuptials, U.S. Muslims and Hindus pursue arranged marriage a little differently. Often, parents and extended family networks bring together prospective bride and groom for a series of meetings (chaperoned) and phone calls, with participants entitled to turn away potential mates who don't make the grade.

Many U.S.-based Muslims in particular reject a forced arrangement, because the Koran includes a story in which Mohammad spared a young woman from an unwanted compulsory marriage. In contrast, arranged matrimony that is voluntary fulfills the spiritual requirements of many of the world's major religions to restrict sex to marriage, start families and hand down beliefs to the next generation.

On a more practical note, arranged marriage also brings together young people who, because of religious restrictions, have limited means to make their own matches. For example, many highly devout Muslims do not date in the conventional sense, or in some cases, fraternize with the opposite sex.

Similarly, casual mingling between unmarried men and women has become a taboo in ultra-Orthodox Jewish circles as well, and interaction between singles in synagogue, and even at weddings, tends to be limited to the occasional glance across the room. The task of finding a like-minded spouse is next to impossible for many observant singles. That's why, among some Jews, professional matchmakers -- or even close family friends -- have stepped up to the plate to help ease the burden of finding a mate.

"Many years ago if it was a nice boy, a nice girl, a good home, they looked nice -- done deal," says Frankel, a matchmaker. "[Now] there's a lot of separation between boys and girls ... not like 30 years ago when we were just friendly, now you're sort of not allowed to do that. Things are very separate so we've actually had to start becoming matchmakers, putting couples together because it's more official now, let's put it that way."

Anecdotal reports suggest that a flurry of matchmaking groups -- informal and professional -- who charge anywhere from a few thousand to $20,000 and above for higher-profile matches, have popped up all over the U.S. to satisfy the growing demand for Jewish happily-ever-afters. Frankel considers herself a relatively small-time matchmaker, with 200-300 singles profiles on hand, but she knows other matchmakers who have thousands.

"There always have been matchmakers," Frankel says, "but now it's just gone really big time."

Matchmakers are highly respected and their work is taken seriously enough to command a fee for their services. If families can't afford to pay cash, they might be expected to offer a gift of jewelry or silver as a token of gratitude.

The work of a matchmaker, after all, is an increasingly exact science and serious business. Shadchonim (matchmakers) like Frankel interview singles, call references and keep their eyes opened for red flags. "The whole thing is about checking," Frankel says. "We call references, everybody calls the person's rabbi. You talk to teachers, acquaintances -- people check you out."

Singles can look at the religious credentials of their potential spouses pre-date to find out how often they study the Torah, what Yeshiva they attended, and whether or not they listen to English music or watch TV. Singles can even find out if a potential love interest has had any sicknesses or divorces in the family.

"Everyone has their different things they want: what kind of family they come from, the lineage, are they wealthy, are they good-looking," Frankel says. "Everything is checked out, and if it's something that they don't like then the match is off."

Limited Dating

When singles finally meet each other, their dates are usually brief and often involve frank discussions about personal values, expectations and hopes for the future -- conversations that, in secular dating, might be reserved for first or second anniversaries.

"[It's] very innocent, sweet stuff. They're very limited in what they can do," Frankel says. Shidduch dating isn't about flirting, or building relationships with people who didn't have similar values or life goals. Matchmaking is about marriage, and couples are expected to wed -- or move on -- after a brief courtship. The same principle holds true among South Asians, who expect prospective spouses to signal early on if they don't wish to pursue a relationship.

"You don't go out with somebody for years," Frankel says, referring to Orthodox courtship. "It's basically a three month limit and you don't date anyone else while you're dating that one person."

Courtship Far and Wide

Singles seeking assisted marriage, whether Jewish or Hindu or Muslim, often look beyond their own zip codes for Mr. and Mrs. Right. In addition to relying on matchmakers and family networks, parents searching for their child's ideal partner can use online matching sites, such as MuslimMatch.com, bharatmatrimony.com and Indianmarriages.com. Among ultra-Orthodox singles, Sawyouatsinai.com is popular and allows users to sign up with a matchmaker on the site.

For 24-year-old Ismail Mohammed Fazel of Hawthorne, California, arranged marriage was not a particularly high-tech affair. His father decided when it was time for him to tie the knot and informed his son that he had picked out a bride for him; Fazel later found out that his union had been in the planning for many years -- since shortly after his and his wife's births.

She was his cousin and had been raised in Afghanistan. At that time, she spoke no English, and Fazel was not fully fluent in Pashtun -- he initially resisted his father's decree. And while he welcomed the opportunity to marry within his religion, Islam, he had hoped for a more educated partner. Not only that, he confided in an interview later, he didn't particularly like the looks of his betrothed, whose photo was made available to him. (The photo was taken when she was ill, and she is, it turns out, quite attractive.)

What changed his mind? The desire to honor his father, for one.

"My mother is like my best friend, but my father, I kind of fear and respect him. So for that reason I agreed to it," he says. "Not at first. At first I thought, 'What will my friends say?'"

Beyond filial duty, another motivation to marry was the belief that it would prevent assimilation and the watering-down of traditional cultural ties and practices.

"I went to school here, became Americanized," Fazel says, explaining that in recent years he had started to engage in haram (prohibited) activities such as partying.

On his wedding night, Fazel told his bride to be that, "I am leaving my American way of life for you," he said, though it's worth noting that his wife, 23-year-old Sayda Khalil Khan, seems to have taken to her life in America surprisingly quickly. Wearing lip gloss, mascara, her hair gelled back into a thick ponytail and sporting stylish jeans, Khan sat recently at a Starbuck's sipping a frothy pumpkin coffee drink and conversing in Pashtun, at one point high-fiving her husband over a joke. She had enrolled in English classes and worked at a local Sikh grocery story before giving birth to the couple's first child in May -- a far cry from the young woman who looked so despondent and was confused by an escalator when she arrived in the U.S. for the first time.

"My wife, I really love her from her head to her toes," he says. "We argue like normal human beings ... Just stupid stuff. When I don't listen to her sometimes. And she doesn't want me to see my friends."

One of Fazel's dreams is for his children to visit Afghanistan regularly and to memorize the Koran before the age of 10 -- goals that would have been far more difficult if his wife did not share his cultural and religious background.

The Pitfalls of Purity

It would be easy to attribute the return of arranged or assisted marriage to religious practice alone, and in fact religion is the most obvious explanation. But beyond satisfying religious needs, arranged marriage also responds to many immigrants' desire, as in Fazel's case, to preserve native culture. It serves to prevent total assimilation into modern American life, and sometimes, to avoid mixing with other cultures -- even in cases of a shared religious background.

"Sometimes there is pressure to stay within your ethnic group," explains Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Women's League. Al-Maryati herself eschewed arranged marriage, meeting her husband in an Islamic center youth group and tying the knot at 22.

She believes arranged marriages offer many advantages, but she's also concerned that some of the arrangements perpetuate racism and clannishness, discouraging matrimony among Muslims of different nationalities or even geographic regions within the same country. So, for example, a family from Hyderabad might not only want their child's mate to be Muslim and Indian but also from the same region of India. In another example, Al-Maryati has observed that some Muslim immigrants are open to intermarriage with white U.S.-born Muslims but not necessarily with African-American Muslims.

"There is an element of racism there that people have to overcome," Al-Maryati says. "Our religion, as everybody knows, is color-blind, so for people trying to be good Muslims, it's totally consistent to have interracial, inter-ethnic marriages." In reality, however, many practitioners of arranged marriage clearly prefer their own kind to outsiders. Among Hindu Indian Americans, for example, parents seek a mate for their child who not only shares their religion and nationality but also their caste or even subcaste, according to Chitra Ranganathan, a professor at Framingham State College who has researched Indian identity and who tried assisted marriage but ultimately made her own match.

Similarly, the emphasis in Orthodox Jewish assisted marriage is often on similar backgrounds and not simply a shared religion. For example, some Orthodox Jews specify a wish to marry others of Eastern European descent, while others only want partners from Orthodox families.

"People who aren't Orthodox from birth are having a hard time finding matches," says Elisheva, an Orthodox convert from Detroit who found her husband through Sawyouatsinai.com.

High Birth Rates and Gender Roles

While Orthodox Judaism is statistically alive and well -- it's the fastest- growing branch of Judaism -- the American Jewish population is predicted to shrink as a whole by about 33 percent to an estimated 3.8 million by the year 2080, according to the American Jewish Year Book. Analysts say that changing demographic trends are contributing to a population drop among Jews living outside Israel: Young American Jews are divorcing at higher rates than their parents, marrying non-Jews and postponing marriage -- a daunting reality for a community preoccupied with its own continuity.

Rebbetzin Judi Steinig, a program director for the National Council of Young Israel, emphasizes the problem of singleness as a culprit in the population decrease, because Jews who marry later in life tend to have fewer children. "Right now in the Orthodox community it's not uncommon for Orthodox families to have 10 children, however we're still not making up for those that have been lost from the holocaust," she says. "It's critical to the Jewish community that young people meet the appropriate person and continue our faith."

Although Orthodox singles are expected to marry young and have children of their own by their early 20s, more than one third of Jewish women and 52 percent of Jewish men aged 25-34 are single, according to the Jewish National Population Survey, an issue that Steinig says needs to be addressed as a community. "When you have a situation like this, it should be everyone's problem," she says. "You have beautiful women ... and you see them single when they really should be having families."

But what kind of families? While not every arranged marriage yields 10 children, as in Steinig's example above, arranged marriages -- by perpetuating traditional religion and culture -- tend to perpetuate traditional ideas about gender. Arranged marriages are often typified by youthful matrimony, emphasis on female virginity, childbirth without delay and large families, so much so that, for example, single Orthodox women in their 20s are often considered undesirable spinsters.

The problem, from a feminist standpoint, is fairly obvious: the traditional belief system encoded in many an arranged marriage can seem to value women foremost for their virginity and reproductive capacity and not for their other contributions, whether economic, professional or creative. Further, women who experience a rapid succession of multiple births at an early age are more likely to miss out on the chance to pursue higher education or their own economic livelihoods -- assets they might well need or want at some point in their lives.

Arranged marriages involving immigrant brides are associated with the most gaping gender inequities, since the husband-to-be is almost always the older, more educated, English-proficient and financially secure party.

These disparities are especially common when U.S.-raised men take brides from their parents' home countries with the expectation that the women will perform many of the domestic duties -- homemaking, child-rearing, etc. -- to which women have been traditionally assigned.

Still, some young women who come to the U.S. to marry find ways to pursue ambitions beyond those initially expected of them by their husbands and families. Many immigrant brides prove eager to adapt to life in the U.S., getting their driver's licenses, learning English and finding employment, according to Laila Al-Maryat of the Muslim Women's League. A prime example would be the case of Fazel's wife Sayda, who found a job working at a local Sikh grocery store because she was so bored at being housebound, a decision he didn't like initially but came to understand. Sayda quit her job recently after giving birth to her daughter. Time will tell whether she fulfills her earlier ambitions to pursue education and earning opportunities.

The Christian Approach

Sayda's story -- arranged marriage, early childbirth -- is not unique to Muslims or Orthodox Jews in the U.S. Among American Christians, a rare form of assisted marriage has developed. It's called Biblical Betrothal and it discourages dating and courtship in favor of two young people getting to know one another, in the company of a chaperone and with a serious interest in marriage in mind -- a practice that sounds very much like courtship among devout Muslims. With Biblical Betrothal, parents are consulted upon the man's proposal, though their daughter has the final say, and, as in arranged marriage, love is often expected to come later, after the marriage has taken place.

"We feel it is more important for your emotions to follow you than for you to follow your emotions," says Israel Wayne, whose own marriage was suggested by his mother after he had spent mere days visiting with the woman he eventually came to wed. Both of them writers and employees in Christian publishing, he and his wife had corresponded prior to meeting, but upon being introduced in person, Wayne remembers, "There wasn't the type of spark I would have anticipated." Nine and a half years -- and five children later -- however, "We have a very romantic relationship," Wayne says.

Biblical Betrothal, which Wayne publicly advocates as a speaker and author, is a surprising development, given that arranged or assisted marriage largely faded in western European societies after being the norm for more than 1,000 years.

History of Arranged Marriage in the West

"Until about the 16th century, arranged marriages were very common in the European tradition," explains Stephanie Coontz, historian and best-selling author of Marriage, a History.

"Throughout most of human history, people believed marriage was much too important ... and much too vital for in-laws to allow young people to choose on the basis of love."

As a result, "Marriage was an important political and economic tool. The nobility fought over who controlled marriage like countries fight over oil resources." Even for lower classes, marriage was a key way to control property and alliances.

But in Anglo-American societies, wage labor and the rise in democracy and individual rights allowed young people to support themselves and inspired them to exercise greater independence in choosing a mate.

Future Trends: Freedom to Choose?

Coontz expects more movement toward freedom to choose a mate globally, noting that Japan only phased our arranged marriage in the 1960s, and that in 2005 Saudi Arabia enacted a law that prevents forcing a marriage on a daughter.

In some cases, immigrant cultures in the U.S. are holding onto arranged marriage as tightly, if not more so, than their counterparts in their home countries -- perhaps because the potential to choose outside one's own background is so much greater here. For example, Indian immigrants in the U.S. still rely on arranged marriage; meanwhile, "Increasingly in India, more young people are demanding the right to choose their own mate," Coontz says.

Success Rate

Among Hindu Indians, parents consult astrologists to assess whether horoscopes indicate that the personalities of the betrothed are compatible, Ranganthan explains. Still, the couple's happiness tends to be less important than parental satisfaction. "Parents pressure you into making a decision, but as far as they're concerned, it's two families merging, not necessarily two individuals." She adds that, "We're pretty much blackmailed into culturally conforming to what our parents want."

Does marriage for the sake of parents, religion and culture make for a successful union?

The answer depends on what you believe makes for a successful marriage, according to Coontz, marriage historian and sociologist. The traditional values associated with arranged marriage tend to ensure lower divorce rates, she says. But they are no guarantee of personal happiness.

"Arranged marriage is more likely to last but not more likely to be better. There are all of these support systems and pressures that prevent you from leaving," Coontz says.

In worst-case scenarios, arranged marriages can trap women, whether in oppressive gender roles or, in the case of foreign-born brides, in abusive unions. Another pitfall in an arranged marriage can be the potential for one party to be duped, given the short and formal period of courtship, such as in cases of a bride or groom motivated only by the possibility of a green card.

Goodbye Heartache

On the plus side, arranged marriages are a way to avoid multiple relationships and inevitable heartache.

When Ismail Fazel was growing up in the United States, he tried dating but eventually found a futility in it -- a hunger for permanence that short-lived relationships failed to satisfy, no matter how intense.

"I did love a girl once," Fazal says. "I'm a modern person in this world. I'm not in my cave ... I'm educated. I was really in love with this girl and we broke up. I did everything right and she liked me too and now there's no more love. It didn't make sense for me."

Serial relationships also didn't make sense for Sabaa Tahir, a devout Muslim who avoided dating while in college at UCLA for religious reasons. Despite her traditional upbringing, however, she grew up liberal and feminist and was hesitant to agree to an arranged marriage. She eventually wrote an article in the Washington Post about her doubts, ending the piece with her decision to consent to the process, largely out of respect for her parents' wishes. But life held a surprise for her ... Among the people who read her piece and responded was a young man, also Pakistani-American, who called with a number of questions. She encouraged him to write her, launching a series of discussions by email that led -- eventually -- to affection. Mindful of their shared beliefs, they kept their discussions chaste.

"We were writing each other the way friends would," she recalls. "We didn't know what each other looked like." They only knew how much they had to say to each other on a variety of topics, from discussions about having Pakistani parents, the Middle East, school and work.

Growing Closer

"He has a strong sense of humor, as do I. We would spend hours composing these emails. Our families would make fun of us ... so are you writing the Bible over there? Who is this person so worth three hours of your time to compose emails?" Little by little, they were growing closer, which caused an immediate problem because Tahir's parents were rounding up doctors and engineers for her to consider. She told them to give her a little time and arranged to meet the man with whom she was corresponding.

When Tahir and her husband to be finally laid eyes on each other, her brother accompanied her to their first in-person meeting. The chemistry was real, and they married, with their parents' permission. Tahir and her husband now live in suburban northern Virginia and are buying their first house. She works as a copy editor at the Washington Post , while he is a social entrepreneur. For them, marrying within the faith and in compliance with restrictions on dating was the right path, though they found a partner independent of their parents.

Not that her husband's parents were hands-off, exactly. In fact, they were recommending finding a young woman from Pakistan before he and Tahir came forward.

"He used to joke that he resigned himself to a girl who was smart and nice to his family but not someone he could really relate to. He always held out the hope that he would meet someone who would be his equal. He wanted someone who was independent," she says, "so that life would be interesting, and he would have a partner."

Amy DePaul is a writer and college instructor who lives in Irvine, Calif. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post and many other newspapers. Amy Williams graduated with a degree in Economics from the University of California-Irvine.

 
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