When I examined sex education curricula back in the 1980s, the topic of marriage—heterosexual marriage—got a lot of attention. As the grand finale to courses, some schools held mock wedding ceremonies complete with bride and groom, vows and a multi-tiered wedding cake.
The marriage theme recently resonated with me again when I read the New York Times “Modern Love” column “First Comes Marriage,” by Farahad Zama. Farahad, a South Asian now living in London, recounts in a most delightful way how his marriage was arranged over the course of a few days to a young woman he had never met.
He writes that during a visit to his family in Vizag, a coastal city in South India, his mother asked him, “What kind of a girl do you want to marry?” A well-brought up son, he responded: “Whoever you choose.” His mother explained that he should marry a local girl from Vizag.
“Your job [in the software industry] will grow and take you around the globe. You will come to India for two weeks each year, and it is only natural that while you want to spend time with us, your wife will want to visit her own parents. I don’t want your limited holidays split between two towns and wasted in traveling from place to place,” she said.
Farahad, seeing the logic in these words, replied that his only requirement was that his wife be a college graduate who could speak English. His mother and his sister said that they knew just the girl—“the niece of their neighbor.” A half hour later, he meets Sameera and they have a brief conversation in the presence of her relatives. The next morning, he leaves for Bombay; two months later he returns and they marry.
Farahad and Sameera have been married for a little more than 10 years and have two sons.
In thinking about the differences between his arranged marriage and marriage customs in the U.S., Farahad muses: “Most American couples know a lot about each other before they tie the knot. They’ve been on dates, fallen in love, fought, made up, had sex and most probably even lived together before going down the aisle.”
Then he adds: “Our story is different. That 45-minutes meeting was our only contact before we were husband and wife. We went to the movies and the beach, fought over important and trivial things, made up and fell in love —all after our wedding.”
The students in our classrooms are more multicultural than ever before, with young people from India, Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. They represent all the great religions of he world, most of which have varied marriage and wedding customs. We have many Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in our classes, many of whom grow up with different ideas about the institution of marriage. We also have gay and lesbian kids in the mix, who are fighting for the basic right to marry.
President Obama in his speech in Cairo asked us to learn more about our Muslim neighbors, so we can all grow more tolerant of differences in ourselves and others. Perhaps the topic of love and marriage offers a pathway for sexuality educators to follow his suggestion. I never thought I’d say this, but perhaps this is a good time to put marriage back into the curriculum, but in a much more holistic way, to bring out its many traditions, differences, and relative strengths and weaknesses. In the course of these discussions, different religions’ views of sexuality and gender would emerge to enrich understanding and respect for difference. Farahad’s story might be a good place to start.
As for a multi-tiered wedding cake finale: I think I’d skip it. The discussion on global marriage customs should be sufficiently rich and satisfying.