Dating is considered a cultural taboo in South Asian culture. For a long time, arranged marriages or some version of them have been popular. Let me explain what those are exactly because most White people don’t understand the concept. Contemporary arranged marriages usually begin with the parents (or another “concerned” relative/family friend) suggesting a match, which will be vetted on all important counts: job, education, family background, looks, etc. If you’re a woman, this list can also (read: will definitely) include weight, height, complexion, cooking and cleaning skills. Once the parents have approved the match, the pair will be allowed to meet in person, talk virtually or on the phone, and perhaps get together in group outings with other friends or family. At the end of this probationary period, if the pair is compatible, they get married. Not everyone does it this way exactly, of course. There are variations of this scenario, but the basic formula remains the same. The more popular terms nowadays is an assisted marriage.
For the older generation (usually first-generation immigrant parents), dating is not an option. They don’t want their kids meeting the opposite sex alone or sometimes even at all. This is always in opposition with their demands for their kids to get married as soon as possible. The kids are usually sheltered from personal and intimate relationships their whole lives and then suddenly expected to know exactly how to pick their life partner. Some people’s parents start hunting for a possible rishta (marriage proposals) at eighteen. It is scary to be that young and already pressured to be thinking about settling down and being in a committed relationship. This is especially in opposition to Western ideals, where young twenty-somethings are encouraged to travel, have adventures and experience the world with an unattached state of mind. In her article, Tanzila Ahmed captures the amount of pressure young South Asians experience to settle into marriages very accurately. This doesn’t mean twenty-something South Asians don’t want to mingle with the opposite sex or eventually (possibly) get married. Of course they do. But, whether you live in the “East” or the “West,” we are part of a generation where world views, politics, personalities, job schedules, future goals, financial needs, etc. have to match up. That alone is a daunting task. Now add the “no dating” rule in there. What do you do? As Zeba Iqbal writes in GOATMILK’s “The Contemporary Muslin Women” series:
As a male friend, a convert to Islam, said to me, “I don’t think I would know [how to recognize] deep love if I wasn’t shaped by my experiences [good and bad] in the dating world…I think dating is an invaluable tool that every human needs to use to understand [themselves and the depth of] love [they can feel for another person] in ways they can’t without experience.”
For many South Asian Muslims, dating is a bad word. The stigma attached to it is immense. It is often connected to ideas of sexual promiscuity and anti-religious or non-South Asian ideals. Iqbal worded it best when she wrote that the problem lies with the fact that our community cannot “decouple Western dating from pre-marital sex because the “dating-cum-sex” model is ubiquitous. It is hard to do so while existing in a culture that doesn’t really believe in sex education. To this day South Asians bond over their experiences trying to pretend that a kissing scene in a movie did not happen. Kissing, let alone sex. It seems as if South Asians like to ignore that sex is a concept at all until the wedding ceremony. Many South Asians are in secret relationships, lie to their parents about platonic friendships with boys, or try to hide when they are spotted in public with the opposite sex. It has become a running joke.
So why, in a culture where sex and all things sexual are so largely ignored and repressed, is sex the first conclusion everyone jumps to? Why can’t a man and woman converse or be in each other’s company without it being “disrespectful?” Why is the answer, that is passively accepted by everyone, “because people talk?” With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, maybe this is the right time to be asking such questions.