By Sehrish Sarah Khan-Williamson for The Tempest.
Picture credit: flickr.com
My now husband and I were six weeks into our engagement before I finally came clean to my family.
As a child of Pakistani Muslim immigrants, I can assure you that, since I could remember, it had been drilled into my mind that my future husband must be Pakistani and a Muslim. Over the years, the rules relaxed a little. It was okay if he wasn’t Pakistani, but still had to be a Muslim. With a culture very similar to our family’s.
So imagine my parents’ surprise when I showed them an engagement ring from a man who was not Arab or South Asian, but white? I mean, at least he was a Muslim revert, so that should’ve accounted for something, right? I honestly thought I was going to completely and thoroughly lose my family for stepping so out of bounds.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. My family adapted surprisingly well.
After the initial shock and acceptance, the wedding festivities started – and it was then we learned that merging an immigrant family with a white family that’s been around since the European Takeover of Indian land (e.g. Jamestown) would be one hell of a roller coaster ride.
The first indicator of such was during a pool party at my husband’s aunt’s house. I had recently asked the women on his side of the family if they would like to don a sari or maxi dress for the wedding. It became the topic of conversation as we sat dripping wet in our swimsuits and eating barbecue. Hesitantly, my mother-in-law turned to me and stated quite defiantly that she would not want to wear Pakistani clothes if it meant having to wear a “scarf-veil-like-thing” as well. As I assured her she would not, I wondered if she had seriously pondered why I, who was at the moment wearing a bikini top and swim skirt, would ever force her to wear a “scarf-veil-like-thing”.
It was at the same pool party that I was put on the spot by a super religious Christian cousin. As a very outspoken Muslim that has no tolerance for Islamophobia and dogma anywhere, I didn’t realize that I had shut her absolute truth nonsense down (because, well, it’s like a second nature now). My husband’s lesbian cousin and her wife informed me, months later, that it was during that moment they decided they loved the new family addition, because nobody had ever shut Lisa’s super Christian statements up before.
Later, when I announced that I would travel to Pakistan for the wedding shopping, my mother-in-law’s eyes grew wide with fear as she asked if that would be a safe thing to do (never mind the fact that my entire immediate family lives there). My husband’s aunt also posted on my timeline expressing her fear for my safety (while, in her defense, telling me to have fun shopping). I explained to them that assuming Pakistan was a country where bombs go off on the daily is like assuming that I would get hurt in a mass shooting while traveling in the States (sidenote: this was all before the significant rise of white men shooting up random places in recent events).
Once it was decided that we would have a full-blown Pakistani wedding over multiple days, the comments about finally being able to go to a Bollywood-style wedding started coming in. Funny questions arose: will there be lip-syncing and dance numbers (uh, duh)? Are you going to walk around the fire like in the Bollywood movies (insert summary of Hindu traditions vs. Muslim traditions here)?
For the wedding, I had to get two different sets of invitations – the ones with the correct times for the white people and the ones with the time as listed two hours before for the brown people who are infamously late to everything. My cousin and I spent countless hours trying to explain the different traditions on special cards to be handed out so people wouldn’t get confused beyond belief when my husband’s shoes were stolen during the wedding or when he was forced to pay for entry upon arrival to the wedding hall.
And aside from the small instances in which the brown side of the event hall was going crazy with ecstacy and the white side was staring in disbelief, the wedding went off without a hitch. Perhaps partly in thanks to Uncle Rex and his crazy uncle-style dance moves and apparent need to learn bhangra and don a dupatta while doing it.
Regardless of how it was to have a Pakistani wedding with a white family, since then, there have been situations in which it becomes very apparent the difficulty of merging two cultures into one family.
For instance, the Christmas after our wedding, my husband overheard his mother and grandmother talking. Grandma asked mom what we were doing for Christmas “because, well you know…” (as if Islam/Muslim in this family is it-that-must-not-be-named a la Harry Potter style), and mom replied she had “no idea, because they don’t believe in God.” I gave her a benefit of a doubt and assumed she meant Jesus, but it still stung. She had known I believe in celebrating Christmas, because I love to celebrate the life of our Prophet Isa.
Had we had talked about Islam instead of avoiding the topic like the plague (I don’t flaunt Islam in front of them, because many of them still believe I forcibly converted my husband from Christianity), I believe her answer would’ve been quite different.
And had we talked about Islam as my family’s lived experience instead of them listening to Fox News and its Islamophobic agenda, my mother in law would’ve never turned to my husband and asked why I study Islam and am so in love “with such a violent religion” – just a few months after my husband had reverted to Islam.
Don’t get me wrong, though. My white family comes from a very good place – especially my mother in law regardless of her comments. She doesn’t realize how hurtful – or rather, just how plain wrong – the things she says sometimes are – but her intentions are good. The family has slowly learned over time how to accept that my husband and I are unapologetically Muslim and our children will be too. As I wait for my mother in law to approach me about Islam, other family members speak directly to me in regards to questions about Islam.
Ultimately, now the only thing that really surprises me is that both my husband and I had assumed we would face difficulties with my immigrant family way more than his – and it has been quite the opposite. Perhaps we had inadvertently been racist and assumed the white family would be more open whereas the brown family wouldn’t have been simply because of its cultures and traditions.
Ironically, while we struggle with his family to realize white privilege, Islamophobia, and diversity, the only thing we really have a hard time with my family is that the aunties tend to claim my husband during events and endlessly force him to take pictures with them.
In the end, I’ve learned to not let my white family’s Christian white privilege and lack of seeing it get to me. Instead, I have to focus on the other challenges of being with my white husband. There are many questions such as: how will our children learn my native languages of Urdu and Punjabi when only one parent speaks them? How do we find new Pakistani/Muslim friends in a city we just moved to 3,000 miles away?
And, most importantly, how do I win the argument him and I have had since day one on who colonized who (he thinks he colonized me, I tell him I took revenge for my ancestors through “reverse-colonization” by ensuring his children are not 100% white)?
Now, that is the big question to me.