By Khaled Diab
Sexual relationships among ethnic minorities offer richer dramatic pickings than cliched stories about arranged marriage.
5 August 2009
The prevalence of Muslim characters on television is growing steadily. In fact, last week I was treated to two on a single evening and both dealt with questions of the heart, and one with the risqué subject of gay Muslims.
Holby City – that fantasy land NHS hospital where all the doctors and nurses are beautiful, and patients are not usually a virtue of the plot – took poetic licence to an extreme when one of its patients nearly died quite literally of a broken heart.
The patient in question had neglected to take his prescribed medication and his transplanted heart was in danger of conking out. His motivation eventually emerged when this young Muslim – probably a Turk or a Cypriot – confided to his sister that he didn't want to enter into the marriage their parents had arranged for him because he was in love with an English woman.
Admittedly, arranged marriages remain a pertinent issue for many Muslims, particularly among more conservative families and for women, whose destinies tend to be more closely controlled by their families. The number of young women, for instance, who have marriages arranged for them with extremely unsuitable boys from their families' countries of origin is fairly high.
But parentally imposed couplings of this kind bedevil young people from many minorities. It is even common among groups with a fairly liberal reputation, such as Sikhs. “There is much less coercion in marriage than there used to be. But I think it is very socio-economically based. Village mentality families will still find girls their partners and will more or less push them into that marriage (emotionally usually),” fellow CiF contributor Sunny Hundal told me. “More cosmopolitan families will try and find suitable partners and introduce them, but will respect a firm ‘no' if a guy is rejected.”
A similar situation exists among Muslim communities. Despite it being true in many instances, what this hackneyed “arranged marriage” storyline overlooks is how this practice has fallen out of fashion in many parts of the Muslim world, particularly among the urban population.
In Egypt, most of the people I know chose their own spouse. Even those who employed traditional or modern matchmaking services decided to do so of their own accord. In fact, as Egyptians increasingly marry later, mainly due to financial constraints, many are flocking to the Muslim equivalent of online dating, online marriage sites and marriage offices – which are also increasingly being used as a cover for prostitution or as informal immigration services.
That doesn't mean that everything is rosy. Parents still possess an inordinate amount of control over their children's lives, particularly girls, and often torpedo what they see as unsuitable matches – a staple of soaps in Egypt and, I believe, other Arab and Muslim lands.
Interestingly, arranged marriages can even be subversive. Although ultra-conservatives are traditionalist at most levels, some Islamist groups are surprisingly progressive in others, and contract marriages between their members that are more egalitarian than the mainstream – with little regard to the material wealth or the class of the spouses-to-be. In fact, one surprising lure of Islamist groups is ‘romantic' because they not only help members find spouses; they even help them set up a home.
Other fascinating angles which Holby City hinted at but failed to explore fully is that of mixed relationships and premarital sex. The Muslim patient was obviously terrified to tell his parents about his English girlfriend. This was probably for two reasons: the difficulty of admitting a premarital romantic or sexual liaison, and the fact that she is a non-Muslim.
Whether Muslims should marry non-Muslims is a prickly, vague and controversial issue. My personal take is that anything goes, and people should hitch up with whoever they love, whatever that person's background – but then I'm secular and a-religious.
But even from the orthodox Islamic perspective, the answer is far from straightforward. In her book, Sexual Ethics and Islam, Kecia Ali argues compellingly that marriages to non-Muslims are not only halal (or kosher, if you prefer), and were practised widely in the earlier centuries of Islam, but are equally acceptable for men and women.
However, the more common view is that it's only acceptable, but not desirable, for a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman, because Islam is passed down through the male line. Even in my more liberal circle of friends, where many Muslim men and women live with or are married to non-Muslims, many non-Muslim men have had to go through a bogus conversion.
Other religious communities are grappling with similar challenges. “I don't think there is that much tolerance yet [for mixed marriages among Sikhs],” Sunny reflected. “Some take a grim view – my parents wouldn't really mind… but I do think the number of mixed race relationships is increasing.”
And such cross-cultural relationships offer a goldmine of dramatic possibilities – and opportunities to challenge stereotypes – that has not been explored sufficiently, aside from the nightmare scenarios of kids caught in the middle of two warring cultures.
Better still, why can't we have more Muslim characters without the Muslim themes? I have discovered, for instance, that Holby used to have a Muslim doctor, Prof Zubin Khan. Why can't they reintroduce this character, or even better a hijabless woman Muslim doctor, to the hospital's already diverse staff? When can we look forward to the first Muslim detective, say a cultured and sophisticated Inspector Mo?
Although we still have some way to go before Muslims are fully mainstreamed, British film and television are leagues ahead of their American counterparts, which still tend to depict Muslims as one-dimensional villains.
In the next exciting instalment, join me to see how British television has veered off the beaten track to a place not visited since My Beautiful Laundrette by exploring what happens when Muslim boy meets boy – but ends up marrying girl.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 3 August 2009. Read the related discussion.