Despite the years she had spent painstakingly studying, sitting exams, training, teaching, planning and marking, it appeared that the world was adamant to reduce Samiah’s whole life, nay existence, to that one dirty, unspoken word. Spinster.
The fact that she no longer cared to waste precious time searching for this prince-charming-knight-in-shining-armour-soul-mate-someone-or-other and wished to savour her single life was not something her entire extended family, married friends or the Muslim community in her own town and beyond cared to consider. To them, Samiah was in as much need of help as the other unfortunate members of the community, such as the homeless and disabled. Thus the joint powers of the Rishta Hunting Forces were required to save her.
One evening, as Samiah sat marking a mountain of coursework, her brother Sajid approached her cautiously and asked if she would consider meeting a friend of his.
Samiah took a sharp inward breath as she realised it was possible, after all, for the situation to worsen: her brother had now been recruited by the Allied Forces.
“I suppose Ami blackmailed you into this?” She asked him. “Or was it our desperado sister?”
Samiah severely disliked the fatherly concern her older brother wore on his face at that moment.
She had much rather he annoyed her, teased her – the way he had before he became a husband and a father.
The only person Samiah could trust to remain unmoved by the Rishta Hunting propaganda was her father. If ever, on a rare occasion, his opinion in regards to marriage was sought, he would mutter something incomprehensible about “women’s matters” without looking up from his Urdu newspaper. Were he ever to be persuaded to join The Forces by her mother, Samiah could be sure that the world would soon be coming to an end. And then perhaps it wouldn’t bother her that she was 31 years old and still unmarried as those are not the things you tend to fret about in the face of an apocalypse.
When Sajid tried to defend their sister, Samiah interrupted him: “Yes, I realise it is difficult for Lubna to postpone her wedding until her shrew of an older sister finds some poor sod to marry as tradition necessitates. Whether bearing the humiliation of being forced to make weekly public appearances wearing a blinding neon sign that screams ‘Please take me home with you’ is more, less or just as difficult is entirely up to you all to decide.”
“Do you always have to be so ridiculous? I thought we might actually have a decent chat.”
She shrugged. “You chose to join the opposition.”
“We’re all on your side!”
Samiah growled. “You are all the collective perpetrators of my inherent misery”. Sajid rolled his eyes.
As he made his way to the door, Samiah said: “Tell Ami and Abu to set the date for Lubna’s wedding, then we can talk.”
He left her to continue marking the monstrous pile of essays on the Industrial Revolution.
All one hundred and eighty of them. Tick. Tick. Tick. She let her head fall and hit the desk with a heavy thump. What did she even want anymore?
Unfortunately for Samiah, she was the last of her friends to remain single. She tried to avoid the regular gatherings where all the married ladies would huddle together and compare wedding rings, brag about their husbands and in-laws and share stories about pregnancy and birthing and C-sections and teething and crawling and weaning and purees and designer baby clothes.
“I refuse to let marriage define my life,” Samiah told her friends on the rare occasions she allowed herself the displeasure of meeting them individually. They smiled patiently at her and told her, in-between changing nappies, cursing mothers-in-law and shouting after badly behaved toddlers, that marriage was a blessing and her Prince Charming was on his way. So when later they complained about their husbands, Samiah would mutter “Charming, indeed.”
In private moments, when keeping up appearances was less necessary, they would sigh enviously: “Marriage and motherhood is great but honestly Samiah, appreciate your single life – you never get that back.” These gifted pearls of wisdom were, of course, interspersed with other gems concerning the ticking time bomb that was Samiah’s biological clock.
The workings of fate were baffling. Despite secretly harbouring desires for romance and weddings, they had all been ambitious young women at university, wanting more than just marriage. Yet one by one, they dropped like flies, surrendering to weddings, husbands and children. Samiah stood the only remaining one: single, independent, career minded – yet bizarrely she had become the pitiful figure.
It was eight years ago, the day after she had finished her teacher training, that Samiah’s search for a husband officially started. Her mother had quite predictably announced at breakfast, with her father present (the shame!), that it was time for Samiah to get married. Sajid smirked at her from across the table. Her father pretended not to hear and continued to read his newspaper.
“No more excuses,” Samiah’s mother told her. “Sajid is soon to be married and Lubna is at university – it won’t be long before she will be ready to marry too. Do you want to delay your sister’s life as well?”
Lubna tried to protest in feigned modesty but the crashing of plates in the kitchen sink drowned out her voice.
The women from the mosque had been brainwashing their mother. “I must act whilst you’re still in your prime,” she insisted, banging cupboard doors.
“Like a ripe fruit,” Samiah muttered. “Before I start to decay. Maybe you should freeze me until you find someone suitable.”
“Freeze-dried wife,” grinned Sajid.
Despite declaring to the world that she did not require a man to define her life, despite the sarcasm and the excuses, Samiah had been secretly pleased, excited even, at her mother’s decision. The addition of a little steamy romance in her life was not an unwelcome idea.
However, the excitement of her first rishta was outlived and it took a few more years and dozens more rishtas to slowly erode and transform that energy into something more visually stunning – a sarcastic, cynical sneer.
It had all seemed quite novel at first when she made her entrance into the living room carrying a tray of tea and samosas in their best china. A hushed silence had ensued. The scene should have been accompanied by a Bollywood song, if only to drown out the sound of the clanging china courtesy of her shaking hands. Ali looked up and caught her eye. The moment she raised her fluttering eyelashes and encountered a receding hairline and protruding stomach, the clichéd song would have come to a rude, screeching stop. For the rest of the evening, this brazen man ogled at her unreservedly in the presence of both her father and her brother. How could this be okay?
When her first rishta guests finally decided to leave, her mother insisted Ali take Samiah’s email address, much to Samiah’s embarrassment. But the highlight of her first rishta was yet to come when she received an email from Ali two weeks after his visit:
Salaam! It was lovely to meet you and your family I think you are a lovely girl and will make a wonderful wife however I think physical attraction is very important! Not that your not pretty because you are marshallah but you just not my type! Best of luck with the rest of your search! Ali.
Samiah was horrified for two reasons: the first that she had considered someone with worse written skills than her year 7 students, the second was the disbelief that a balding man with a pot belly had been given unspoken permission by her parents to gawk at her for two entire hours and then decide she wasn’t attractive enough!
Despite the disappointment, or really because of this first disappointment, Samiah’s mother had rishtas flying in after that. As the number of rishtas rose, the quality dropped staggeringly and Samiah discovered just how entirely unBollywood the rishta search was. She was ogled at, ignored, interrogated, patronised. She decided to give as good as she got.
“You don’t know how to make boys like you,” her mother told her.
Samiah apologised for not being able to execute a skill that had clearly been excluded from her mother’s intensive 25-year housewife training course.
“Stop trying to be clever all the time. You talk too much and scare all the boys off.”
Unfortunately this was not Samiah’s only failing.
“Don’t go out in the sun, you’re getting so dark – no one will ever marry you.”
“You look fat in that, why don’t you exercise? Boys like slim girls these days.”
The situation became intolerable when Lubna announced on the eve of her graduation that she had found “a rishta” at university and wanted to get married. It was exactly at that moment that the Allied Forces came together and made a pact: they would not rest until they had found Samiah a husband.
“Sod off,” Samiah told them. She was a striving Muslim woman, a teacher, a pillar of the community, a sister, a daughter, an auntie, a friend – her life was already fulfilling enough. And so she made a pact with herself: to never allow the Allied Forces to marry her off.
Hafsah Zamir is a part-feminist, part-traditionalist who hopes to publish a novel one day. She blogs at http://www.esotericsips.com