What My Islamic Wedding Taught Me About Compromise

Illustrated by Shawna Huang.
When I tell people about my wedding, they don't have the reaction you'd expect. Rather than smiling wistfully, they often look aghast when I tell them that my mother-in-law chose my wedding dress and that I didn’t see it until the morning of the celebration. She also chose the venue, the food, my jewelry, and my beautician. Plus, she lived almost 4,000 miles away and I'd never actually met her in person.

I can understand why people might think that I was forced to forfeit my freedom, although they're usually too polite to actually say that. Or why people might imagine that I’m a downtrodden, exploited, Muslim woman stripped of her personal agency. But that couldn’t be further from the truth: My wedding was an experience that helped me to build relationships with my new relatives, gave them the opportunity to welcome me into their family, and showed my husband that I value and respect his parents.

It’s so easy to judge a cultural practice that you haven’t come across before as backward and regressive at first glance. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll often find that your perceptions don’t match up to someone else’s reality.

Islamic marriages are split into two necessary parts, held over two separate days. The first part is called a nikah, where husband and wife agree to be married, sign on the dotted line, and have a celebration with their guests (like an Anglican service and reception). The second part is called a walima, which is like an after-party organized by the groom’s family, where everyone toasts to the happy couple. A walima is held very soon after a nikah, often on the next day or usually within a week.

My nikah was held in the U.K., and I’d chosen the venue and the invitations, the flowers, and the dress. I’d picked a menu, bought wedding shoes, chosen a photographer, booked a makeup artist, found a hairdresser, and prepared myself for moving to a new city with my soon-to-be-husband. I probably should’ve known better than to get married in February, because it snowed the evening before. I began the day swigging cough syrup straight from the bottle because I had a cold, and I arrived at the venue wearing a pair of multi-colored wellies to protect my shoes from the sludgy gray snow. A huge number of guests hadn’t arrived because of the poor weather and my fiancé was late for the photo session, because the snow had caused a traffic jam.

And so, after my nikah, I was tired. I felt like I'd been running on a treadmill set to incline in the months leading up to it. I needed to lie down (and if I wasn’t a teetotal Muslim, a stiff drink). However, two days after the ceremony, I got on a plane to Peshawar in Pakistan, the city my husband moved away from over a decade ago but where his family still lived. They couldn’t attend the first part of our wedding, so we flew to them for the second part. This was quite unusual, granted, but it was really important for my husband that his family be involved in the celebrations, as I’m sure it would’ve been for me if my parents lived on another continent.

I’d only ever spoken to my in-laws over the phone, so when I got off the plane it was a big moment. My mother-in-law hugged me tightly in one of those embraces that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable and unsure of what to do with your arms — should I pat her back like she’s a puppy or remain motionless like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz? The embrace lasted so long, however, that it transitioned from feeling uncomfortable into feeling just right. I hadn’t prepared for the veracity of her warm energy but here I was, enveloped by her love.
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Five days later, the walima took place. I’d been told in advance that my dress was at the tailor’s and wouldn’t be ready until the day of the party (it’s very common in South Asian culture for the groom’s family to design the bride’s walima outfit and buy her jewelry). I didn’t know anything about where the celebration was going to be held, when it started, or who was invited. This wasn’t because no one saw fit to tell me; it was simply because I didn’t ask.

I felt more like a prison escapee than a suppressed wife; I’d shaken off the shackles of wedding prep and fully embraced not caring about florists and food and finding Spanx that would magically smooth out my back fat. I was over wedding planning, and I just wanted to get on with being married. Plus, I was a million miles away from home — so if I looked like a cross between a circus clown and a sloppy blancmange wearing a beaded choker and a headscarf...well, no one would ever need to know.

On the day of the walima I got to the beautician’s and found out on arrival that my makeup artist would not speak — she pointed at palettes and waited until I nodded yay or nay at each color before getting started. It was an experience I will never forget.

When I arrived at the venue, a white shawl was thrown over me so I could get to the bridal room without any of the guests seeing me until the big reveal — I looked like a lost, inebriated ghost scuttling along the floor in golden-colored sling-backs, and I couldn’t help but laugh as I wobbled in and tried to negotiate the stairs. My dress was a bit too big, so I used a safety pin to secure the back and just went with it.

During the whole process I was never dictated to and I didn’t feel left out. Instead, I felt like I was being cared for, that I mattered and was important. This was my new family’s way of welcoming me into the fold. It was never about exercising power but about showing kindness and courtesy.

All my life I’ve been brought up to believe that marriage is about bringing two families, rather than two individuals, together, and for that there must be compromise, kindness, and sacrifice from both parties.

I’ll concede that I definitely wouldn’t have picked the outfit my mother-in-law chose for me, but in return for wearing it I saw pure joy in her eyes. It was the first step to earning each other’s respect. My walima was my chance to sew new relationships together. It was never about the dress.

Pinning all your hopes on the details and success of a single day, as many people do, often ends up in disappointment and stress. Your wedding is not a reflection of what your marriage is going to be like, it’s just Day One. I've since learned that you have the rest of your life and many more days to make things as close to perfect as they possibly can be.
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