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Happily ever after? Candid experiences of mixed marriages

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The lilting voice of the muezzin reciting the call to maghrib (evening) prayer tugged at the strings of Fatima’s heavy heart as she tearfully stood in the doorway of her childhood home in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

Editor’s note: Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, the names of some interviewees have been changed and marked with an asterisk.{mxc}

The lilting voice of the muezzin reciting the call to maghrib (evening) prayer tugged at the strings of Fatima’s heavy heart as she tearfully stood in the doorway of her childhood home in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.   

"Letting a young daughter leave home for further education is a very difficult decision for a parent to make," said her father, shaking his head sadly.  "But I know that I will be the proudest father in the world, when you come back from England in 1974, as a fully trained nurse!"

Prayers for her safety and success flowed from his lips and the effect was like a soothing balm.  She closed her eyes as she felt her father reach out and place his hand on her bowed head. 

"Fatima, my dear child, I beg of you."  Her father’s serious tone chilled her.  "Whatever you do, please, please, don’t marry a white man."

Two years later, despite her fervent wish to obey her parents, 24-year-old Fatima Kermalli found herself in love with a 19-year-old ambulance attendant named Philip Worthington. 

The stigma of mixed marriages has lost some of its potency over the years.  Indeed, there is a certain romantic glamour attached to such "love marriages" which come complete with dramatic stories of angry parents, persistent suitors and tormented lovers.  The subsequent beaming smiles of parents and relieved newlyweds at elaborate wedding ceremonies give the impression of the classic fairytale ending of "…and they lived happily ever after."  But does a weakened stigma render useless, the oft-repeated warnings of the myriad of challenges associated with inter-faith marriages?  What really happens after the frenetic pace of wedding festivities has settled and the routine of normal life takes over?

 

Hurting the parents

 

"It was so very difficult," sighs Fatima sadly, even though over 25 years have passed by.  "Members of my family wouldn’t speak to me and my parents were so upset.  I guess it was just meant to be.  Believe me, the last thing I wanted to do was to let my parents down.  They were everything to me and I did not want to be disowned.  Convincing them was the hardest thing I have had to face.  I was very close to my brother, Ashiq Kermalli, and he was just so understanding.  He really helped me reach out to my parents.

"Philip converted but they just imagined that he was the kind of person who would expect beer for breakfast or something!  How to convince them that not all western people are like that?  Even before he converted, Philip would remind me that it was time for my prayers!  He would point out to me that I better not eat a particular thing on the menu because it was haraam (forbidden)!  He taught me the importance of reading ingredient labels!  I guess for them it was the fear of the unknown.  Now that I am a parent of grown children, I can understand it totally."

 

After the conversion

 

Successfully convincing her distressed parents was only the beginning of Naseem Dharamshi’s troubles, who fell in love with an Ismaili boy at the age of 21 years.  "They were really upset," she confides, "but when they saw that he loved me so much, they thought, then he will surely take care of her.  He understood how important my religion was to me and he said he would convert.  I told him I did not want him to convert just for me but he assured me that some members of his family are also Shi’a Ithna-asheris."

Soon after the marriage, the couple moved from London, England to Calgary, Canada where he had some cousins.  There was no established Ithna-asheri mosque in Calgary at that time but there were Ismaili centers.  It did not take long until he began to visit the Ismaili center.

"Initially he was praying and fasting.  So I considered his going to the center as a social outlet.  I thought, at least he was praying.  But then he began to get more and more drawn to them and he was attending in the middle of the night as Ismailis do.  He was being pressured to even bring his wife!  I was really hurt when he began to do this.  I felt so betrayed.  Before long, he was spending all his time with them.  As I spent hours alone, struggling at home with our infant son, I asked myself if his conversion had just been a big lie to get me to marry him."

Being an interfaith couple may put one person in the awkward position of being an authority on the subject of their own religion.  Not only does this play havoc with the power dynamics of the relationship, but it also creates immense pressure and responsibility, which can eventually lead to self-blame when things do not progress as successfully as planned.

"It is difficult to teach your religion to someone else," protests Naseem.  "You have to know a lot yourself and the other person should be keen to learn.  It was very frustrating.  I felt so helpless, so depressed that I couldn’t keep him on the right path."

Philip and Fatima Worthington’s experience was more positive.  "I did not really have a religion," explains Philip.  "But when I met Fatima I would see her praying and ask her why and I found that everything she said just made sense.  I was amazed at this way of life.  It was just so down to earth.  There was nothing abnormal about it.  And I just found myself wanting to know more about it.  I was very keen to learn.  I made a tape of salaat and I would pray using that.  A year later, we went for a month-long honeymoon to Dar-es-Salaam.  And then even her parents and I really became close."

"Allah has really watched out for us," says Fatima Worthington gratefully.  "Perhaps the fact that he had no faith of his own was the reason he could convert so easily."

Hamida Jessa* also married a man who was not committed to his own (Hindu) faith.  "He told me I would be free to practice my religion," she explains.  "And he was true to his promise.  I pray and fast openly and hang Quranic inscriptions on our walls.  He even drops me to the mosque.  But I soon began to realize that marriage is about companionship even in worship.  When you cannot pray together, cannot believe in the same God, it can be a very lonely experience.  Almost 30 years have passed and even though he respects Islam, he has not changed.  He is just not convinced.  I pray for Allah to guide my husband each and every day."

"I don’t know, I really don’t think interfaith marriages can work," says Naseem Dharamshi.  "Maybe it does for those people who are both not religious to begin with.  But then, you can never be sure when one of the spouses will suddenly discover God.  My husband was not even a devout Ismaili when I met him.  It was after marriage that he started to go back to his Ismaili roots.  And by then, it was too late to back out because we already had a small child."

Changing one’s faith is a deeply personal act that requires a total internal shift of beliefs, values and attitude.  While each loving union begins with the best of intentions, it is important to remember that conversion is easier said than done.  The true test of one’s conversion comes not in saying the shahada (the proclamation of faith in Islam), but when one is confronted with the unanticipated challenges of living the faith.  Thus, there is always the potential risk that a loving partner, having sincerely made an attempt to change, may one day realize that he or she is unable to live with the choice that they had unwittingly made. 

"Divorce is not healthy," laments Hamida Jessa.  "The prospect of having nowhere else to go and of facing the parents who told you, ‘don’t come back to us if he leaves you’ and of being a divorced person; all of these things hold you back.  So I just look at what is good about my husband and try to accept my circumstances."

 

Food, customs, dress, traditions

 

Individuals who are able to love and marry across the racial lines often report that they had a certain fascination with the opposite culture to begin with.  For this reason, the issue of food remains less problematic since both spouses are willing to taste and experiment.  For women, however, the task that poses itself is how to provide dishes from both cultures.

"I took a course on baking pies," smiles Shaheen Moledina, who has been married to her husband Zulfiqar (Peter) Graham for over five years now.  "He loves Indian food, but I just did not want to deprive him of the foods that he grew up with.  He is from a very traditional, bonded, Irish family and even though I grew up here, I still had to learn a lot.  It’s a lot more work than you contemplate.  There is definitely a cultural divide and you feel this especially when you spend events with each others’ families.  For example, when it’s Thanksgiving, there is a turkey that you can’t eat because it is not halal."

"You don’t want to appear rude or ungrateful," explains Fatima Worthington.  "I remember once when my mother-in-law made me fries because I couldn’t eat the other food on the table, but she ended up frying them in lard!  I had to say, ‘sorry, I can’t have these’, and that same day Philip and I went to buy vegetable oil and a new frying pan for her."

"It’s the little cultural things," explains Shaheen.  "For example my in-laws have a dog.  Zulfiqar is schedule-oriented and doesn’t like large crowds.  His family doesn’t understand modesty; they think I am hiding myself from them!  When we go visit, I think nothing of bringing a dish I have cooked but it is more appropriate to bring a box of chocolates."

Not knowing how to behave or what is expected of one, can create a strained atmosphere.  "You don’t want to be misunderstood and your own spouse may think you are being difficult when in fact, you are just being yourself," laughs Shaheen.  "When I go to his parents’ place, I am carefully observing and making a mental note for ideas.  Things can be tricky especially when the extended families invite each other over for dinner."

"In the beginning," smiles Fatima Worthington, "there would be moments, like in a shop, when I would have to explain to Philip that ‘I can’t wear this outfit, it is not modest.’  There were times when I would say to myself, ‘oh my God, this is never going to work’, but Allah guided us."

"I fell in love with Fatima, because of these very qualities," explains Philip.  "It was her upbringing, her beliefs, her philosophies and her attitude that made her so attractive, nice, kind and caring.  I loved the way her brothers and sisters were so close and her good manners and the way she could have a good conversation."

Bringing one’s newly-converted spouse to the mosque also requires some prerequisite planning and mental preparation.  "It was definitely overwhelming," recounts Philip of his first experience with Muharram majalis.  "I mean to see grown men crying, I had never seen anything like it.  But Fatima had explained everything about the battlefield of Kerbala and the way people would be dressed at the mosque etc.  And I said to myself, ‘my goodness: these things make sense’.  And the tears just began to flow."

 

Finding acceptance

 

The reality of being an interracial couple is something that these couples continue to face on a daily basis. 

"People stare all the time," says Shaheen shaking her head resignedly.  "Going to the mall means being stared at while you shop.  When we go to restaurants, especially in small towns like Zulfiqar’s hometown, Belleville, waitresses ask us if we would like separate bills!  There are also assumptions to deal with like people assuming that you had a love marriage or that you are some very ‘modern’ girl or something.  You have to end up telling your life story to people!"

"After marriage," remembers Philip Worthington, "we settled in a village called Whitchurch which is 80 miles from London. 

"People would actually stop us to peer into our baby stroller and look at our dark-haired, dark-eyed children.  People still stare at us at the mall and then when I go to the mosque, people look at me like I am a strange, green, Martian from Mars!  At work, they call me the English Muslim guy but at least they come to me when they have questions about Islam. 

"At mosque no one talks to me, they are all wondering who this white person is; but I still go even if no one talks to me.  My purpose is to pay respects to the Prophet (peace be upon him and his family) and the Imams (peace be upon them)."

Still, others like Zulfiqar Graham report a more positive experience where people have made him feel welcome and accepted.  "But I will never forget the day," he says, "when an announcement about matchmaking committees ended with ‘so our youth will marry within the community’.  I suddenly felt so alienated.  I did not feel like coming to the mosque for many days afterward."

"Our children have had to face name-calling in school because they are mixed," says Philip Worthington. "We would have to talk about it at the dinner table and help them deal with it."

 

In-laws

 

For many families, marriage is not only the union of two individuals but also the joining of two clans.  The experiences of couples in cross-cultural marriages indicate that this theory pertains not only to East Indians but to any ethnic group, regardless of color.  Many interviewees reported that this was a fact that they did not fully come to terms with until they were actually married and found themselves spending an immense amount of time with each others’ families. 

"My husband is from a very large Irish family," explains Shaheen Moledina.  "And they have huge celebrations for birthdays of every member of the family, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, anniversaries, baby showers, you name it!  So we are there quite a lot!"

While one’s spouse may have converted to Islam, his or her family continues to be from a different religion.  This can be especially challenging since Islam is a code of life complete with a set of beliefs and values as well as prescriptions for dress and behavior.

"My mother-in-law was visiting us," remembers Naseem Dharamshi.  "And I entered the house after driving over an hour to attend Ashura majlises.  It was the eleventh eve of Muharram and there she was, watching a loud Indian movie.  I was just taken aback for a moment: today was the day Imam Hussain was brutally martyred!  And then it dawned on me.  Where am I?  We are so different!  What am I doing here?"

Several interviewees also spoke of a prevailing sense of inadequacy and a continued sense of feeling unaccepted by the in-laws.  Says Farhana Somani*, "I grew up in a culture where the bride is wooed, given gifts, brought with ceremony into the house.  I see how my friends are adored by their in-laws and I didn’t get that. 

"Rejection is very difficult to take especially if you are the kind of person who likes attention and enjoys being pampered.  It is hard to ignore this part of you that reminds you that this family did not want you.  I can’t help but still feel as if I don’t belong, as if I am not what my mother-in-law wanted for her son."

 

Children

 

The arrival of children can create challenges in the strongest of relationships, as any couple with children will attest.  For a majority of the interviewees consulted for this article, having children was, perhaps, the turning point in their relationship.

"In any marriage," theorizes Naseem Dharamshi, "you will have the mundane problems of money, in-laws, children and what have you.  But these can be solved because having the same religion gives you a common outlook on life.  But with an interfaith marriage, you begin with an already big challenge.  And then you are adding problems to that big challenge.  And when you have kids, something just happens to you."

"We had decided about the children from day one," explains Hamida Jessa who married a Hindu over 30 years ago.  "We had agreed that once we had children, we would let them decide which faith to follow.  But once I had my daughter, I felt this terrible sense of loss, that I was depriving my child her right of knowing Allah.  If I would try to teach her, my husband would tell me to leave her alone as I was not giving her the right to choose!  By teaching her at the age of 7 years, I was biasing her.  But religion is something that has to be introduced at an early stage of life.  How can the person choose if they understood nothing about the faith?"

"Once my son was born," remembers Naseem Dharamshi, "I went into a deeper depression.  I did not know where I was going.  I was so hurt because my husband had betrayed me and I wondered if he had ever loved me.  If someone loves you, why would they hurt you like this? 

"Children need unity in the family and having one faith gives you that unity.  I tried to even learn about the Ismaili faith but I realized this would be a step down for me.  I knew so much more than they knew but they were unwilling to learn.  I told myself, ‘I know we are on the right path,’ I would be betraying my God if I changed."

Many interviewees revealed that the problems that arose in their marriage, in their struggle to remain true to Islam, ironically made them even less spiritual.  "I was lost," reveals Naseem.  "I was going downhill.  My concept of God had become confused, I blamed Him.  I told Him, why can’t you fix this?"

For children of interfaith marriages, the monumental task of deciding which faith to follow becomes inexplicably entangled with the issue of expressing loyalties to each parent.  A child following one parent’s religion faces the risk of this being viewed as an act of betrayal by the other parent.

Hamida Jessa recognizes the war of loyalties playing in the heart of her 21-year-old daughter.  "She sees that when she becomes interested in Islam, her father’s face changes.  He becomes quiet and withdrawn.  She doesn’t want to hurt him so she hides her interest.  Even if she refuses to eat pepperoni on her pizza, there is a reaction on my husband’s face.  Even if he is not a devout Hindu and he has given me freedom to be a Muslim, when it comes to our child, I know he still wants her to follow him.  This is the most painful thing I face in my life."

"Even though we don’t have children," says Shaheen Moledina, "I can just imagine how many challenges there will be for my daughter.  She will go to madressa and mosque but I know my mother-in-law will also want her to learn the Irish way."

"My daughter is so confused," sighs Hamida Jessa.  "When I am praying, she comes and sits beside me.  She takes the turba (the piece of clay that Shias pray on) in her hands and puts it to her face.  She holds the prayer beads in her hands.  And she asks me, ‘Mummy, if your religion is the right one, why are you so unhappy, why do you have so many troubles?  How come the people who don’t pray have so much money and so much happiness?’  How can I explain everything to her now when her mind has already formed? 

"To bend a tree, you must bend it while it is still young.  How do I help her now?  Everyday I sit on the prayer mat and just cry and cry praying for only two things in my life, everyday: Allah please guide my husband and my daughter.  Show them the light of Islam."

"How do you teach two faiths?" asks Naseem Dharamshi.  "One says it is okay to drink, one says it is forbidden.  One says do salaat (the five time prayers), the other says only du’a (informal supplications) is fine.  One says break the fast at maghrib, the other says do it at 6 p.m.  One says it is okay to mix freely with the opposite sex, the other says cover yourself. 

"I was heartbroken.  I asked myself, what did I do that my child now has to go through this?  I told Allah I am leaving this child in your hands.  And slowly my spirituality began to grow and my inner strength began to return."

After 10 years of marriage, Naseem Dharamshi, holding the tiny hand of her five and half-year-old child, walked out of the front door of her home.  "I hated that word, divorce.  But having a child gave me the courage to leave.  I knew that if I stayed my baby would be an Ismaili for sure. If I had stayed, I would have lost everything, including God.  I thank God that He gave me the courage to leave so early because the longer you stay, the harder it gets.  Sometimes I am still so mad at myself.  Why did I waste 10 years of my life?"

"Having children changed our lives," says Philip Worthington.  "We moved to Canada because we wanted to be in a place where there would be family, a mosque and an Islamic school.  And the children would come home from Islamic school and teach us!  I would sit and do homework with them and they would help me understand.  We began to pray as a family!

"When we finally went to Hajj, Fatima and I just looked at each other in disbelief:  ‘Are we really here?’ And the tears just began to fall and fall from our eyes.  And then Kerbala … ah, what a place!  The blessings of Allah just continue to shine upon us; money just keeps coming and coming.  We are moving ahead, not going back.  Life just keeps getting better and better.  I thank Allah that I met my wife.  I thank Allah that I became a Muslim.  If I had to do it again, I would change nothing!"

 

 

Author Shyrose Jaffer Dhalla has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Sociology and a Master’s degree in Education.  This article originally was printed in Ja’ffari News.  It has been reprinted here with permission.

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