Looking back at my childhood, I have come to the conclusion that the existence of other religions and belief systems was something I was always aware of; after all, our neighbours were Hindu, I attended a Catholic primary school, had close friends of Jewish background, and so on. The religious diversity I was surrounded by never specifically came up as a topic of discussion in my household, but was instead viewed as a normal feature of our life in Australia.
Essentially, I grew up without ever noticing anything alien in others when it came to religion – a view encouraged by my observant Muslim parents, who had spent the majority of their lives in the company of people of different faiths. But as I got older, I noticed the discourse changed entirely when it came to the subject of marriage.
It was, ironically, at a family wedding where I had first encountered the idea of ‘religious incompatibility’. It was the answer given to me when I’d wondered out loud: “We live, work, study and maintain friendships with people of every religion, so why do we only ever marry Muslims?” Though I was only a child at the time, the answer to my question has followed me and made an appearance in every thought, argument and discussion I have had on marriage since.
All this thinking and arguing always brought me back to the same question: what makes two religions incompatible? How much of this incompatibility comes from within religious texts and teachings themselves, and how much from the manner in which religion is practiced and expressed across different cultures and through individual lifestyle choices? And where do generational and contextual differences come into all this?
Ultimately, and for whatever variety of reasons, there seems to exist a fine but impenetrable distinction between interfaith relationships in marriage, and those of other kinds (our relationships with neighbours or co-workers, for example). What is interesting, however, is how pivotal a role context and individual interpretation of religion plays in the existence of this disctinction. As I grew up, my understanding of Islam changed and I gradually became less observant than my parents; I now have a hard time identifying said distinction or understanding why it is as significant as it is. It has become difficult for me to see marriage in the same light as they do, and to abide by the same religious boundaries they themselves maintained in their marriage. This is where the conflict arises, and it is, in ways, the answer to what makes interfaith marriages incompatible in the eyes of some.
That answer is that there is no specific answer; notions of ‘incompatibility’ in relationships are subjective. They are based on what individuals – who are influenced by factors such as cultural context, upbringing and historical tensions – uphold as being of importance. This marks the greatest hurdle to overcome in the debate of interfaith relationships.
And I’m not alone in recognising and challenging this hurdle; reconciling conflicting views between members of different generations on religion’s role in marriage is a common dilemma. Drawing from my own experience, and the experience of others who have spent years navigating relationships with non-Muslims where marriage was on the cards, I’ve come to understand that resistance to interfaith relationships often comes from a place of paternalism rather than a desire to maintain some sort of status quo. The resistance is the result of wanting to protect and shelter others from the perceived pressures of mixed marriages.
To illustrate this point: I know my parents would have what they genuinely believe are my best interests at heart in preventing me from ever marrying a non-Muslim. They, and those like them, would see it as their responsibility as parents, as adults, perhaps ever as pious people, to protect relationships from internal and external strains and the pressures of social ostracism – all of which are too often said to be the unpleasant ‘side effects’ of mixed marriages. This stems from the innate desire of parents – and to an extent family in general – to maintain centuries-old traditions, to protect reputations and religious standings.
And this is where religion takes centre stage, as do broader issues of navigating individual differences in interpretation and attitude towards religion. This is because mixed marriage can fall outside the boundaries of what is permitted by religious laws and teachings – as is the case in Islam, where a nikah (marriage contract) can be deemed invalid if both parties are not Muslim. And here enters the desire to protect – a desire rising out of a fear of God, religious consequences, and of accumulating sin. In my family, every argument about marrying outside of Islam has ended at the aforementioned ‘incompatibility’, but this has more often than not been tied to an honest concern for one’s position before God.
By means of compromise, or maybe as an honest attempt at reconciliation, conversion comes up in response to this. Usually, the conversion of one partner occurs with the best of intentions – but does this decrease the pressures on a relationship as intended, or make them more pronounced? Is there the potential for it to erode the relationship from the inside over time, and is it really a ‘solution’?
Perhaps in an ideal world, these would not be concerns. They would not be questions that needed asking. In this ideal world, differences in religious beliefs would only be a concern if deemed to be by those in the relationship, and how central religion is to those individuals. If and when these differences were raised for discussion in the relationship, they would be talked out and worked through privately, rather than becoming a public affair. But reality is not an ideal world. In reality, we have to ask who else is ‘involved’ in the relationship, and more importantly, is it really that simple?
I found my answers in a series of absolutes that I have always known. For example, I have always known that if I were to marry a non-Muslim, it would be a matter of choice – specifically, a choice between that person and my parents. I have always known that while the religion of that person may not be of concern to me, it would be to my family. I have always known that this kind of marriage would not be solely of two individuals, but rather, of two societies and worldviews – two interpretations of God.
So the short answer is: no, it is not that simple.
Growing up in Singapore, I faced a world in which I was of the minority – where it was impossible to keep from interacting with people different to me. Most of my friends were Chinese anyway, and religion was rarely talked about (justified as to avoid inflammatory conversations) – but it was common knowledge that some celebrated Christmas, some Eid, and some Deepavali like myself. My disadvantaged position in society as a result of my race, however, was something I was made aware of by my parents from a very young age. Caste was acknowledged as a part of religious rituals and practices at home, but never used to isolate me from those of other castes. My friendships were never less than just because I was raised differently to my friends, and it was never raised as an issue.
But apparently, marriage is a whole other ball game.
Marriages between people of different backgrounds have never been unknown to me. My parents didn’t pass judgement on the decision of a Hindu relative to marry somebody of the Catholic faith. They maintain close relationships with and continue to love friends and family who marry those of entirely different races and religions.
But that is them, and it’s not the same when it comes to me.
“It’s easier to be with somebody similar to you,” was always the final answer of any discussion (or argument) had on this topic. “You may not see it now, but when you’re older you will realise this for yourself.”
I couldn’t help but wonder what they mean by “easier”. Why would it be easier? Is that because we’d have supposedly been raised around similar rituals and beliefs, so there would be fewer questions asked in our marriage? Or because of existing negative attitudes against such marriages? Would external pressures slowly chip away at the relationship over time? But then why would I choose to surround myself with people who would judge me for my choice to marry somebody different to me? And then it struck me: maybe, just maybe, there are underlying prejudices hiding behind the “it’s in your best interest” veil.
Caste is a funny thing – we don’t talk about it, and yet, it’s everywhere and influences everything in its sneaky way. To ignore its existence is to subtly support the past and current oppression experienced in its name. I was born into a Brahmin family; the Tamil we speak is distinct from that of non-Brahmins, and the attitudes of people in ‘our community’ towards those of other castes is distinctly patronising. The disapproval of marrying out of one’s caste undoubtedly has at least an inkling of the desire to keep the family ‘pure’. Just as we can’t simply brush off the concept of race in the hope of erasing past injustices and starting on a clean slate, it’s important to consider how historical tensions between different communities play a role in the “incompatibility” argument.
Okay, so let’s assume that religious/racial/caste incompatibility is real and that it is easier to marry somebody like you. Wouldn’t this mean that it would be easiest to be with somebody of the same gender too, because you would have been socialised similarly? And yet, queerness* is starkly missing from the entire discussion about marriage.
This absence can be understood in light of attitudes toward queerness* itself. It is unfortunately seen as a Western import – although embraced in non-Western societies for millennia – and has no place in traditional families. And up pops that pesky term again: queerness* is apparently “incompatible” with doing marriage the “right” way. Being interested in people of the same gender supposedly only happens when one hasn’t met the right person of the “correct” gender for them.
Of course, there are people who have reconciled with queerness*, such as a mother in Mumbai who put out a matrimonial ad for her gay son in the local newspaper while ironically stating a preference for Iyer men. (Iyers are a subclass of Hindu Brahmins.) Non-heterosexuality is still a point of immense stress for many people due to be married, and who are already married to people of a gender they are not attracted to. And though there are a few “seemingly-logical” folks (like that mother from Mumbai) around, their approach to marriage still leaves out gender-diverse people.
But in order to discuss marriage fully, we’ve got to talk about something I’ve been tiptoeing around thus far: arranged marriage. While in some cases arranged marriages no longer involve a man and woman meeting first time on their wedding day, whose parents have settled dowry and decided their kids’ futures on their behalf without their input, the narrative of a marriage being the business of people beyond just those partaking in it is still maintained. It is about the coming together of families with cultures to honour and, perhaps more importantly, reputations to protect.
When seeking arranged marriages there are expectations: “Can the girl make good chai?” “Are her rotis round?” “Will the boy make enough to support the family?” These expectations basically stem from gender roles, where men and women are expected to contribute in mutually-exclusive and complementary ways to their relationship and future together. When these roles are not conformed to, the process of seeking out brides and grooms becomes complicated, because the criteria for a good wife or husband are challenged. Thus, another reason why homosexual matchmaking has not caught on is that same-gender relationships necessarily are incompatible with gender roles. As a result, non-binary people are forced to conform to the gender binary, and non-heterosexual people are subject to heteronormativity should they choose to enter into arranged marriages. But why would they do so in the first place?
Forced marriages still happen, and where they aren’t absolutely bound, such relationships may be at least coerced. The reason for this is not unmentioned: ease. It is simpler to accept things the way they are because resisting is exhausting and often pointless; it’s so tough to challenge and change attitudes which have been nurtured and promoted over generations. So when we speak of it being easier to marry people similar to us, it may not come from a place of cultural or religious incompatibility but rather avoiding a clash of a more personal, filial kind.
Ultimately, marriages aren’t always about love and passion – they may be about respect, obligation, fear, and just keeping the peace. Arranged marriages aren’t necessarily bad and marriages of love aren’t the only “correct” type of marriage to have. Traditions have been around for years – they are beautiful, complicated, problematic, and slowly changing with time. The world I may get married in will not be the same as that in which my parents did – there will be different expectations and norms. There is reason to be hopeful that those who currently lose out when it comes to marriage can, if they so choose, partake in it without having to compromise their identities or happiness in decades to come.