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Love Across the Cultural Divide

Muslimahs from around the world share their insights and reflections on the ups and downs of intercultural marriage with Sumayyah Meehan and Maria Zain. Additional reporting by Na’ima B. Robert.

Marriage -two human souls uniting in a lifelong union under the auspices of Allah (SWT) Almighty – can be a precarious affair for even the most closely-matched couple. So how much more precarious can it be when cultural difference enters the equation? With so many Muslims in the West choosing to marry outside their racial or cultural group, it is clear that intercultural marriages are here to stay. But how do Muslims negotiate the many issues that arise while navigating the waters, not just of married life, but cultural differences?



Guess who’s coming to dinner?

As Muslim marriages are often a union of two families, rather than just two individuals, intercultural marriages are bound to cause conflict, particularly in cultures where marriages tend to take place within the cultural or family group. Meeting prospective in-laws for the first time can be especially daunting. Anisa, a sister from Indonesia, re- calls her parent’s disapproval of her choice of American spouse. Fortunately, she found an ally in her sister who had studied in the United States and helped convince her Indonesian parents that Americans were “also good people”. Her marriage to her husband also caused disharmony between her and her in-laws. They suspected that she was only interested in a green-card.



Candice, an African American revert, also experienced the first tremors of disharmony when she learned that her father preferred her to marry an African American over the Columbian man she had in mind. Similarly, her prospective in-laws preferred a South American daughter-in-law. How- ever, she is happy to say that there are no obstacles now:

Of course, not all couples get off on the wrong foot with their families. Umm Ibrahim, Canadian born and raised, had no qualms about introducing her prospective spouse to her family. A product of a cross-cultural marriage herself, her Jewish mum and English dad was very accepting of her Somali husband. On the other hand, Fatma, recalls her wedding day without even a “congratulations” from her mother, who refused to understand her acceptance of Islam, let alone her Indian husband. Keeping the faith can change any initial apprehensions about cross-cultural marriages. Thirteen years and four children later, Anisa finds that her American in-laws love and appreciate her the same way her parents love and appreciate her husband.




The intrigue of diversity

As with all marriages, intercultural ones have their share of joyous and blissful times. When times are good, they are very good. “For me I find life has been more exciting and interesting,” says Laurie Hammond Aly, an American Muslimah living in Ohio, USA, who has been married to her Egyptian husband for the past 10 years. “I am still learning new things about my husband and his culture all the time and it is like a never ending ride!” she shares. Laurie also likes the fact that her children are being raised in two different cultures, which helps them to appreciate life a lot more than if they were exposed to only one culture. “My marriage has
made me a better person by expanding my mind to undestand a better way of life. It has made me work to better myself,” she says.




Umm Hasna, a Moroccan raised in West London, shares Laurie’s enthusiasm for being in a multicultural family. “My husband’s family are from Jamaica and Panama and I enjoy being married to someone different,” she says. “Since I married him, I feel my eyes have really opened as my upbringing was quite narrow: everything and everyone was Moroccan! Now, we try to share each other’s cultures.” Also, Umm Hasna ensures that her children continue to experience aspects of their Moroccan heritage, including eating Moroccan food and having a traditional Moroccan bath once a week!




Fiza Atif, a Canadian Muslimah who resides in Kuwait and is a newly married to a Kuwaiti appreciates the fact that her husband has a stronger sense of family than what is typical in the West. “My husband’s concept of family responsi- bility and familial relationships is different than what I grew up with which binds us closer.” Specifically, in the Kuwaiti culture, Fiza feels that children are cherished more than in her homeland, where she was a single mother. “My husband has made it possible for me to pursue my career, stay home with my children and has given me choices that neither my children nor I would have had living in Canada on our own,” Fiza reflects. “He was open, humorous and loving with my children right from the start which brought closeness between him and them.”




The challenges of difference

All marriages face rough patches, which can really add unwanted stress in a relationship. But with intercultural- marriages there can be some unexpected facets that make married life just a bit more difficult.




For Laurie, the biggest challenge she has faced in her marriage is with the role of spouses. “If the husband comes from a home where the woman does all the work and the wife comes from a home where men pitch in, there will definitely be conflict,” says Laurie. She still often gets upset when she has to carry the burden of household chores alone, which is not something her own mother had to do. Laurie often saw her own father helping her mother with the most mundane household work. In addition to the roles of spouses, Laurie says that the most painful aspect of her marriage is dealing with her non-Muslim family. “It’s hard trying to make them happy and my husband happy at the same time. They do not understand his cultural views, but I do. I often find that I am always stuck in the middle,” she laments.




The biggest challenge in Fiza’s marriage is dealing with misunderstandings and language barriers. “It was I who came into my husband’s country and so I had to learn to adapt. I had to learn what was culturally acceptable and what wasn’t,” she shares. Fiza firmly believes that wherever a person spends the first 20 years of their life then that is who they are. “My husband is a Kuwaiti,” Fiza quietly reflects. She also wrestles with language barriers in her marriage that sometimes makes communicating with her husband difficult. “Even though my husband speaks excellent English, it is not his first language. He lacks the words to express himself the way he’d like to sometimes which frustrates him and can make whatever situation worse,” she says.




This is possibly the biggest challenge within intercultural marriages: the communication barrier. Not only language, but expressions, gestures and even emotions can be misunderstood and misinterpreted when cultural backgrounds differ. Umm Hasna cites her husband’s incomprehension of her desire to return to Morocco as an example of this. “When I was growing up,” she says, “we went back to Morocco once a year. I haven’t been back now for over 5 years and I miss it terribly. I have also wanted that for my children but my husband doesn’t understand. For him, it’s just not a priority.”




There are additional challenges, according to Umm Hasna. “I speak Moroccan Arabic; my husband doesn’t, so we use English around the house. But that means that my children can’t speak Arabic and that really bothers me. “Another substantial difference is food,” says Candice. “I love spicy food!” Her refusal to cook with “less pepper” has converted her Colombian husband to the extent that, now, he complains when dinner is not hot enough. Umm Hasna has also got her husband hooked on Moroccan food while learning a few West Indian specialities to keep things exciting.




Recipe for success?

While cultural differences may be a factor for some couples, there is absolutely no reason why they have to define whether a marriage will succeed or fail. There are a lot of things that both spouses can do to help make the marriage work. Specifically, advises Laurie, couples can do a lot of talking before the wedding ceremony even takes place to find out what each other’s expectations are before the union. “Make sure you are a person who does not mind change because if you are entering a new culture you will face a lot of it,” she says. “And make sure your prospective spouse understands your culture and will accept you for who you are since you will both be working through the challenges of marriage together.”




Umm Hasna advises: “If you have strong roots, speak to your husband before marriage so that he is aware of how you feel. If returning to your homeland every year is important to you, tell him. Be clear from the beginning.” But Umm Hasna is equally adamant that Islam should be at the heart of any Muslim marriage, regardless of whether the spouses share a single culture. “For my family, Islam has become our way of life and that is what we pass onto the children. Cultural variety is a bonus, but the deen is the foundation.”




Fiza believes the best way for any marriage to work is if both spouses hone their communication skills. “A couple must learn to communicate effectively. You must learn to handle each other during times of stress, frustration, anger and hurt feelings. Learn which approach is best and what works to calm each other,” she advises. Fiza also recognizes that many cultures are more traditional than in the West. “My mom likens my marriage to one in the 1950’s and she is probably right,” she says, “It takes a lot of patience to learn a man and his culture. But remember: knowledge is power.”




Being able to bring two cultures together in harmony is something that the great nations of the world fail to do every single day. But between married couples where love most certainly resides, irrespective of whether the measure is large or small, two cultures can intertwine in a seamless bond of affection that will last throughout a lifetime. All it takes is a little patience, openness and loving compromise to create a loving multicultural Muslim home.




Read more:

Binding the Lines: Intercultural marriage in the Muslim community