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The Changing Face Of Marriage For Pashtun Diaspora Women

Singing and dancing are an integral part of Pashtun weddings.
Singing and dancing are an integral part of Pashtun weddings.

I recently attended a celebration at a banquet hall in Toronto. A beautiful young woman wearing a colorful ethnic dress was standing on the brightly-lit stage. Next to her was a table, on which sat a photograph of a man.

I thought that perhaps I had entered the wrong room. Surely this wasn't the engagement party of my friend’s sister, but was instead a memorial of some sort. But as I turned to leave, I spotted many familiar faces. I looked again and finally realized that the woman on the stage was indeed the bride-to-be – and next to her, in the picture frame, was the image of her fiancé, who was still living in Afghanistan.

I was a bit surprised, but not really shocked. As a Pashtun woman, raised in Canada and with roots in Afghanistan, I am starting to see a new phenomenon in our communities.

Pashtun women, often born and raised in Canada, are going to Afghanistan and Pakistan in an attempt to secure marriages. Or, in the case of the engagement party I attended, they had urged their parents to find them a match in Kabul.

While no firm statistics are available, it’s clear that the trend of Western women marrying men from their Pashtun homelands is on the rise. Men in the diaspora, of course, have been doing the same for generations.

In most diasporic communities, marriage is a central pillar in the preservation of a community’s cultural and social identity. Families urge – and, at times, force – their children to marry members of their own ethnic or national background.

Torn between their traditional cultural expectations and Western social norms, the struggle to find a suitable match is a major worry for many young women in the Afghan and Pakistani communities in Toronto.

With many men of the diaspora seeking wives from their countries of origin, there is often a lack of options for Pashtun women of the diaspora. Many have thus also decided to pursue a mate from their countries of origin – places many of them have never seen.

Part of the problem lies in conceptions of modesty and culture that are deeply rooted in a patriarchal system. Families in the diasporic communities of the West want their children to remain loyal to their Muslim and Pashtun identities, and expect the women their sons marry to fit the stereotypical image of a submissive, "good" and cultured girl from the homeland. Western women are often stigmatized by diasporic communities for being too educated, too liberal and too "free."

Colorful wedding dresses of the bride and groom
Colorful wedding dresses of the bride and groom

Shazia, a 25-year old engineer in Toronto, was born in Canada. She has travelled twice to her parents’ hometown in Pakistan, and admits that her Pashto is limited. Yet she is preparing to fly to Peshawar next month in hopes that her family may arrange a partner for her.

"Most of the Pashtun men I know here in Canada are involved in a range of things that conflict with my identity or my expectations, whether that is drinking or sleeping around," Shazia said.

"Whatever risk there may be in compatibility, by marrying someone from Pakhtunkhwa (the Pashtun homeland in Pakistan), I at least have the peace of mind that they are someone that my family and community approve of."

While it is culture that many of these young women are attempting to commit to, it is also culture that leads to complications in many of these marriages. There is often a culture clash, no matter how conservatively and religiously the women may have been raised in the diaspora.

For women from Afghanistan and Pakistan who marry men in the West, the expectation is that they are wedding someone who will be the breadwinner for the family. Most Pashtun women are raised in a tradition that teaches them that their role is to serve the needs of the husband. Some may end up working outside the home once they arrive in the West, but there is usually no fundamental change in the subservient role they are expected to fulfill.

It is a different situation for men who marry into the Western diaspora. Men raised in Afghanistan and Pakistan grow up in a tradition that regards as central the male’s ability to provide for the family. But with degrees that are usually not recognized by Canadian authorities, and often lacking effective command of English and having no market for their work skills, men from the Pashtun regions may find themselves forced out of their traditional gender role after they arrive in the West. In most of these cases, it is the woman who is the provider for the family.

As a Pashtun woman raised in Canada, I embrace a set of norms and traditions that would clash with many men raised in Afghanistan. I would be appalled if someone questioned me for interacting professionally with male colleagues, having male friends or living and traveling on my own. If I were to marry a man from Afghanistan, what might seem normal behaviors to me would probably be viewed as matters of contention by him.

Many of the women who have chosen a partner from back home acknowledge that the change in traditional power dynamics has made their marriages more difficult than they expected.

"Especially with Afghan customs, men often pay for everything and women are at home," said Madeena Homayoun, an Afghan-Canadian university student in Toronto. "So I think that they lose a sense of pride or a sense of identity, and coupled with being in a new country, this may lead to frustration or even depression, which can affect a relationship negatively."

Despite many of these marriages resulting in turmoil and divorce, there seems to be no shortage of women hopping on flights to Afghanistan and Pakistan in search of the perfect spouse. I suppose I’ll be attending more engagement parties hosted by picture frames.

Samira Sayed-Rahman is a Toronto-based community organizer and activist. These views are of the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.