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Aliya Ali-Afzal: I agreed to an arranged marriage to make my parents happy but was already planning my divorce while planning my wedding

Aliya Ali-Afzal: I agreed to an arranged marriage to make my parents happy but was already planning my divorce while planning my wedding

When people ask me and my husband how we met, I tell them that we didn’t, at least not in the usual sense. There was no dating, no one-to-one conversations, not even a friends-to-lovers trope. Nothing. We had simply been in the same room together at large family gatherings when I was visiting Lahore with my mum on holiday. We had said ‘Hello’. Three months later, he was presented to me as a suitable future spouse.

I was temping in London after university, applying for graduate schemes and planning a trip to China, when my parents announced that they had found ‘a boy’ for me to marry. The concept of an arranged marriage had always been there, even for second generation British- Asians but somehow, I had never expected it to be applied to me. Besides the fact that I had met this potential husband only twice, he also lived thousands of miles away. I would have to leave my home, my family, my friends, and my beloved London. I refused.

However, my outraged protests melted in the face of heavy-duty emotional blackmail. My parents cited rising stress levels because I was unmarried and how this worry might affect my father’s heart. I didn’t have a boyfriend who I could present as a valid obstacle and my parents’ relentless campaign eventually wore me down. But I also agreed because I had an escape plan. I thought it would be a win-win. My parents would get the satisfaction that they had fulfilled their duty by marrying me off, a key life goal for desi parents. I would also get my life back with hopefully, minimal future pressure about marriage. My plan was that a year after the wedding, I would tell my father that I had tried the arranged marriage thing, but I was intensely unhappy and wanted a divorce. I knew he would never want me to stay married if I felt that way, even if it caused a scandal.

During the year-long engagement, my stranger-fiancée started writing letters to me, and out of politeness, I replied. There was no WhatsApp or Facetime back then and as we didn’t know each other at all, we both felt awkward speaking on the phone. However, I found out more about him, and revealed more about myself, by writing to each other. The first letter I received was so dry and perfunctory that I burst into tears, as it hit me that I was marrying someone I didn’t love. I replied in a similarly business-like way. But slowly, over the course of a year, our letters started to change, as did our feelings and as we revealed ourselves more openly in the intimate act of letter writing, we fell in love. This doesn’t make me an advocate for arranged marriages. I think we got lucky, and all relationships need luck, arranged or not. But the letters helped.

I never did execute my escape plan and we still have those letters 30 years later!

Aliya Ali-Afzal is the author of Would I Lie To You? (2021). Her writing has been longlisted for The Bath Novel Award, The Mslexia Novel Competition, The Mo Prize Hachette UK, and The Primadonna PrizeHer new book The Big Day publishes on 6th June 2024

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