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Binding the Cultural Lines: inter-cultural marriage in the Muslim community

Maria Zain meets other sisters who are in inter-cultural marriages, revealing the highs and the lows.

Inter-cultural marriages are one of those gems found in Muslim communities. With marriages being the cornerstone in a thriving Muslim community, Allah (SWT) reminds us that inter-cultural marriages are amongst those signs that remind his followers of the diversity of Allah’s creation from a single source; different languages and cultures are signs for those who reflect.





In Surah Ar-Rum, Allah (SWT) says:
“Amongst His signs is that He created you from dust; then, suddenly you were human beings dispersing throughout the earth. And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought. And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colours. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” (Ar-Rum: 22)
Allah (SWT) reiterates in this verse the importance of spreading love and mercy amongst our diverse population and an example of this is the relationship between spouses He creates for each other. However, these verses serve as reminders because there are instances where marital relations do become strained, and this can be just as common, if not more so, amongst spouses of different ethnic origins.





Smoothing out the challenges
When Malay Muslim Khadijah married her British born, American husband (who was also of Pattan origin), she knew there would be some differences. Although her husband viewed himself as a citizen of the world – there were difficulties in settling into a marriage that was imbued with Malay culture. Adam was raised in the UK and in the Middle East, and spent time in Pakistan and then the US (New York and then Texas) and went off to Bosnia as well. “He has the directness of the Americans where he last spent his time before marrying me, the sarcasm of the Brits, the pride of the Pattans, the stubbornness of the Afghans and toughness of the Arabs.” Khadijah says her husband came across as very direct and it scared some of her friends and relatives away. A decade later, learning self-control helped him improve interpersonal relations with the locals.





LJ Kolocotronis on the other hand, found that language was quite a barrier between her and her Southern Thai husband. Being American of Greek origin herself, she never dreamed of marrying someone who had grown up riding on water buffalos. “Language – it can either be fun or frustrating ,” she says. “Once, when our oldest was around two and learning how to use the potty, we were at an Islamic gathering. My son wanted to play with the apartment key and, for whatever reason, I told my husband that “Ahmad has the key.” But what he heard me say was “Ahmad has to kee.” ‘Kee’ is a Thai word that we use for having a bowel movement.” Jamilah had to ask what the hurry was when her husband rushed them back to their own apartment and put their 2 year old son on the potty! Language was also a problem for Khadijah and her foreign husband. As Adam did not have the “Westerner” look – and could pretty much gel in with the rest of Malaysians, people often started speaking in Malay to him, not realising that he was from a totally different culture, nationality and upbringing, and in general, did not speak the local language.





Cultural differences carry different weight for different people. While one sees a difference as small and a reason to celebrate, others seem more significant for spouses. “Adam didn’t understand why, during ‘Eid, that we had to visit family member after family member, extending all the way to uncles and aunties,” Khadijah recalls. Coming from a family of seven siblings, while her husband came from a small family of two children, was something that he had to get used to. But on the plus side, her husband was more than appreciative of the large variety of Malaysian cuisine.





On the other hand, LJ Kolocotronis found that not being married to someone of the same culture had led her to miss out on some historical references that were important in her culture. “My husband came to the U.S. in 1973, so his American cultural knowledge goes back pretty far, but I can’t talk about shared experiences during the 60s, with two exceptions. Those were the JFK assassination and the 1969 moon landing. Those two events were big news in Thailand too.”





Long distance relationships
Besides the cultural challenges that happen locally, inter-cultural marriages sometimes translate into relationships across continents. “I do wish our two families had been able to meet each other – our parents never met,” says LJ, whose son has also married a wife of continental European origins. “We haven’t even seen two of our grandchildren. Long distance family relationships are difficult that way.”





It was similar for Khadijah. “When we got married, none of Adam’s relatives could make it, so the situation was kind of awkward and embarrassing for my family.” She finally met her in-laws recently, after ten years of marriage. “My late dad was also worried when we wanted to get married.” His concerns were of course well-founded as she had not met any of his family and with him being a foreigner, there would always be issues with visas and residency.





Inter-cultural blessings
Despite those challenges that couples face, there is always a silver lining in inter-cultural marriages. American revert Debora, talks about her blessings: “My husband is just a really great guy with a great sense of humour. Most of his family loves me because I am the American Muslim convert who is the wife of the beloved baby of the family. All of this is such a blessing, Alhamdulillah.” On initial impressions, she says, “My family adores my husband, but they didn’t always trust him because he is an Arab, and Arab men don’t have the best reputations for treating women well.”  But their marriage single handedly changed that perception. “I think the greatest help to our marriage as far as overcoming cultural and racial differences, is time and a good sense of humour,” she adds.





“When we married, said LJ, “We decided we would raise our kids not as either Americans or Thais, but only as Muslims. It sounded like a good idea. But our kids, now grown up, wish they’d had more of a cultural identity. We celebrated only Islamic holidays (though I did give them special desserts for the family on their birthdays) and Islam has been our reference in all things. I hope that as they get older they’ll see this as a good thing.”





Inter-cultural marriages are full of challenges but also full of blessings. Allah (SWT) has reminded us in Surah Ar-Rum how important love and kindness is needed to transgress boundaries of culture and language. Inter-cultural marriages are one way to do that – even if they are full of challenging moments and memories.





Maria Zain was a prolific contributor to SISTERS magazine, writing extensively about issues including parenting, inter-cultural relationships, homeschooling and homebirthing, and even Muslim fashion. In December 2014 Maria Zain died, insha Allah a shaheedah, related to birthing her sixth child, who survived. SISTERS magazine will always be indebted to Maria for the immense work she did for the magazine as well as for the SISTERS family as a whole. We ask that readers consider donating to a fund for her six children in hopes to help their father continue to raise them in the loving and deen-centered style the parents worked so hard to foster.

Donations can be made at www.gofundme.com/mariazain