I am in my last semester of college and this particular evening, a snow-sodden January in Maryland, my roommate Cora and I are drinking hot chocolate with extra mini-marshmallows. Our TV is tuned to a rerun of George Cukor’s 1939 film The Women. Cora and I both love this film in which, for all that men are chattered about ad nauseam and fretted over and pined for, not a single man is given a single moment of screen time.
“Sort of like life,” I say. “Even when they’re not in the room, they’re in the room.”
Cora has been regaling me with tales of the AOL dating account her parents have given her for Christmas. The Facebook phenomenon is more than a decade away; cell phones and email are not yet ubiquitous. So I ask, “What is AOL dating?”
“A blind date site on the World Wide Web,” Cora says. “Like putting an ad in a newspaper.” I scrunch up my nose.
“What?” says Cora.
“Back home such ads are associated with desperation.”
Cora starts to laugh (most of my sentences tend to start with “Back home in Pakistan...” or “In my country...”) but I can’t shake off my discomfort. How do I explain to her the dubious associations I’ve grown up with about matrimonial ads, as if something is wrong with girls for whom proposals do not arrive in the traditional way — through family, friends, and neighbors. And what sort of parents post matrimonial advertisements? Parents of plain-looking daughters, bosom-less daughters, daughters without a cousin to rescue them from impending spinsterhood.
“I’m not desperate,” I mumble, my face going hot.
“Don’t be stupid. AOL dating is all the rage!” Cora says. In mere weeks since posting her ad, she’s already compiled a list of promising paramours and been on a few outings which, while nothing serious, were still fun.
“Fun!” I say. “No way!”
Why am I so reluctant? It's not the idea of dating itself. In these four years at college I have dated enough to arrive at the sad conclusion that all guys are pretty much the same: Patriarchy runs in their bones to varying degrees, with some making a career of either putting a damsel in her place or constantly telling her what her place should be. Since coming to the sad conclusion that guys are guys, I’ve realized I simply need to look for a decent human being.
My preference is to live happily ever after with a Pakistani man, for cultural reasons. I want someone who will enjoy my family’s long visits, someone I can watch desi movies with, someone who will get all the inflections of the word achha, someone who will already understand why a Muslim will drink alcohol but never touch pork.
But at the same time, I want most of all to marry someone who will respect my honesty and opinions, who will see my heart beneath my nonstop sarcasm. Basically, I want to marry someone who does not exist.
Come May I will graduate and head back to Pakistan, where no doubt my parents, like all respectable, conservative parents, will begin to worry ceaselessly about getting me married off. On screen, The Women is one witticism after another. The mother of the protagonist, Mary Haines, has arrived to inform Mary that she’s making a big mistake by divorcing her husband, that all men cheat, that Mary’s father cheated, and that Mary ought to suck it up.
As Mary tells her mother that times, and women, have changed, I think that if I am returning to Pakistan, where I will have to get serious about settling down with a guy who will no doubt put me in my place, surely I deserve one last hurrah.
So I turn to Cora and give her a big, terrified smile. “Why not?
In the four years before this, I have had "blind dates" of a very different kind. The one I’ll always remember happened while visiting my aunt and uncle in Marietta, Georgia, during a college spring break. A friend of theirs was looking for a bride for her son; his parents visited us, they liked me, and the next day the prospect drove me to a sports bar in his snazzy red car. We made the usual small talk: He was into action movies, I liked novels; he said I was pretty, I said thank you.
He seemed like a nice enough guy, who might make some girl very happy, but I knew that I was not that girl. And yet, if I told my mother I’d refused a perfectly respectable proposal of marriage, she might go mad. I needed him to reject me. But how?
Suddenly a voice rang through the restaurant: "Couples wishing to play Keno should come to the bar." The announcer sounded very much like the femme fatale voices I heard during late-night TV shows, urging viewers to dial 1-800 numbers for “fun, fun, fun.” Something about the voice gave me an idea and I said, making it up even as I spoke: “My dream is to be a stripper.”
The horror on my date’s face, the quick end to the meal, his hurried, harried goodbye when he dropped me off — then and there I decided that this “stripper test” was the perfect way to get rid of unwanted proposals. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with wanting to be stripper, but because the kind of man disgusted by the very idea of sex work was the kind I didn't need to marry. And when I did find a guy I might actually want to marry, he was going to have to pass the test.
Here’s how a typical matrimonial ad for a young woman, back home, might read:
Looking for a suitable match for my daughter who has completed BA with Honors from reputable institution. Girl is good-looking, fair, Punjabi Sunni. Hobbies include cooking and playing with children. Ideal candidate: Boy who has completed MBA studies from an American University of High Standing and currently employed in U.S., preferably Sunni Punjabi. Doctor is also preferable. Height is good but not necessary. Cleanliness, a must.
And here’s what I post, with Cora’s help, on AOL:
Pakistani, 5’ 4”, voluptuous, flowing messy mermaid hair, purple eyes, a brain, likes to read everything but also wants to cuddle up and watch Melrose Place. If anyone has ever called you a ‘typical guy,’ please run the other way. Otherwise - Hello.
It is 1996, iPhones don’t exist yet, and Cora uses her parent’s desktop computer at their house. She leaves with my ad on Friday and returns Sunday evening, waving printouts.
“Seventy replies!” she says. I’m shocked. One of the responses is from a guy named Stan, who is recommending a Pakistani friend of his, M, who he says is far from being a typical guy, let alone a typical Pakistani guy. Am I interested?
Since I’m first vetting potential soul mates (or, as Cora calls them, “playmates”) over the phone, I figure there is no harm in speaking to M. He has a cozy voice; the voice I imagine an overstuffed suede armchair would have if it came to life. He likes to discuss God and philosophy. He has a gray cat who likes to attack anything that moves. He’s written a poem about the cat. The poem makes me laugh. He makes me laugh. And laugh. And laugh.
That day, we talk for hours. For the next two weeks, we talk daily.
One placid March evening, around seven o’clock, my fingers crossed, I open my front door to M standing before me and experience the weirdest of sensations — literally an electric shock, telling me that I am going to marry him. The certainty of this premonition is freaky, and seems to stem not from my brain but from within my bones and soul.
Goodness, I think to myself, is this just a symptom of having grown up on all those Harlequin romances? And yet, as much as I want to ridicule myself, I have never had any feeling akin to this.
M turns out to be a little taller than I like, but that’s OK. He looks like a tough guy, but with gentle, tender black eyes and ridiculously lush eyelashes. He stands with one hand stuffed in the pocket of his thick black coat, and the other holding out a gold box of Godiva chocolates. The mustard muffler around his neck, his black pants, the black snow boots: I like everything.
We drive to Georgetown in his silver Peugeot. The cold night air crisps our breath as we walk to the Ethiopian restaurant M recommends. Between bites of fluffy caramel-colored injera and spicy red lentils, our histories unfold. M grew up in Pakistan, came to the U.S. for his master’s degree, and plans to stay on. I tell him I’m still deciding what to think of the U.S. and that, although I miss Pakistan, my birth country has given me a lot of heartache. As he gulps down his food, I take care not to eat too much — girls from good families are supposed to have dainty appetites, after all (it will be years before I tackle my relationship with food, femininity, and feminism) — but I talk a lot. I tell him a lot of things.
Mid-dinner, as per my safety agreement with Cora, I call her. “He’s Pakistani,” I whisper in astonishment, “but not Pakistani at all — he actually seems to respect women.”
After dinner, as we stroll down the red brick sidewalks laced with snow and sip from to-go coffees, I am tempted to give him the “stripper test” and find out how much, exactly, he respects women. But I hesitate. For the first time, I’m scared.
A month into dating, M and I are sitting in his warm car sharing a pocket of sizzling curly fries and discussing The Shawshank Redemption, which we have just watched. We begin to play a couple’s game called If We Get Serious. If we get serious, should we have a long engagement? If we get serious, should we spend money on a honeymoon or use it to pay off debts? If we get serious, what country will we settle in? If we get serious, I think to myself, you’d better pass the stripper test.
As we bask in the warmth, snow falling softly outside the car, I suddenly say: “My mother says that I can fulfill all my dreams after marriage, and I want to be a stripper.”
“Is this going to be a temporary job, or a permanent career?”
M’s tone is droll; maybe he believed me, maybe he didn’t, but the fact that he didn’t rear back with a “Tawba, tawba” of shock and distaste was enough for me to not waste a single second more.
I say, “Will you marry me?”
Thing is, I always wanted to propose. I distinctly remember the ninth-grade Islamiat class where I learned that Prophet’s Muhammed’s first wife, Khadijah, was fifteen years his senior (older women and younger men are pretty much a no-no in Pakistan) and that she had proposed to him. I sat in that sunny, dusty classroom, my heart bursting with excitement and possibility: The First Lady of Islam was not a demure wallflower waiting and praying for a ring.
But I had also been conditioned to believe that a good, respectable woman NEVER proposes. I asked my mother how come she’d never told me that Khadijah was older. And that she proposed.
“Because,” my mother said, “she is the Prophet’s wife, and therefore special.”
“But aren’t we supposed to emulate the Prophet’s wives?”
Apparently not in this case. According to my mother, any girl who proposes, except for Khadijah, is a sad desperado and any man who marries her is a bona fide fool. That was the day I realized two things: That people routinely pick and choose whichever religious examples suit them, and that one day I would propose marriage to someone.
And on that snowy night, in M’s car, I did.
And M said, "Yes."
How very proud I was of myself!
Yet the second I called my mother to give her the good news, my pride fizzled. I breathed not a word about the personal ad, or the stripper test, or the proposal. The fact was that, even though my mother’s views angered me, I was still embarrassed at the thought of anyone considering me desperate.
Through the months building up to the wedding, through the wedding, through the years after the wedding, I who pride myself on being forthright found myself spouting a halal version of the truth: My roommate and M’s friend were dating, and that’s how M and I met. Everyone assumed M proposed, and I never corrected their assumption, even as I longed to break out of my own conditioning.
As time went by, I’d also started to worry that beyond embarrassing myself, I would humiliate my parents too. After all, “Our honorable daughter went to college in America and began to date, without our knowledge, let alone consent; she posted an ad on the internet, but mashallah, praise be to Allah, she found this boy, and mashallah, so bold is our daughter she proposed, and the boy accepted, and mashallah, here’s the wedding invite" is hardly something good Muslim parents can advertise to other people.
In my eyes, the happily-ever-after of marriage seemed inadequate to overcome the shame of desperation, true or not.
It is 2011, late April, and pretty pink dogwoods are blooming across my city. My 8-year-old daughter and I are watching George Cukor’s The Women. When the film is over and love — true or not — triumphs, I return to my book and my daughter to her GameBoy ("Why is there no GameGirl?" she always asks). Then, suddenly, she asks, “Mama, who proposed? You or Dad?”
I look at her flushed cheeks, her bright, trusting eyes. I have always claimed to not care what people think, and over the years I have also become married to the idea of breaking barriers when it comes to airing dirty laundry, real or imagined. Now is the time to either practice what I preach or shut up forever.
“I proposed. Traditionally men are supposed to propose, but in our case, I proposed.”
My daughter gives me a high five and returns to her game. Something in me grows strong and big and ready to stand tall: In the greater universe a woman proposing might not be a big deal, but for me, it was a giant step.
I call my mother and tell her, finally, that I proposed. I’m not sure what to expect. Back then, I’m sure she would have said something about me dishonoring the family and wondered just what sort of a person M was. But fourteen years into my marriage, she adores and respects M. And the idea that she, or anyone else, might think I was desperate no longer terrifies me.
To my surprise, my mother half-chuckles. She says, “I should have expected the unexpected from you.” She says that I’m lucky M was not frightened away by the likes of me.
“Yes,” I agree with a sigh, “lucky.”
A few months later, at a dinner party with friends, the talk turns to proposals and honeymoons and ever-afters. Everyone wants to hear each other’s love story. My stomach flutters, but I think of my children and the world I want to give them, and this is what I say:
"I put an ad up on AOL, and met a guy I really liked and respected — a guy I thought would be a great dad, somebody who made me laugh, and who I made laugh. And it’s taken my daughter asking and a decade-plus of marriage for me to be able to admit, and perhaps even accept in my heart of hearts, that a woman proposing is a love story, too."
A version of this essay has previously appeared in the print journal Bengal Lights.