Valentine’s Day in the land of the arranged marriage

Rafia Zakaria is the author of "The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan" (Beacon 2015) and "Veil" (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The image is of Rafia Zakaria, 16, in Pakistan in 1994.

The first time I fell in love, it was from a distance. I was a teenager, and Pakistan, where I lived at the time, had only just emerged from nearly a decade and a half of martial law and Islamization, in which the general in charge had imposed rules based on his definition of Islam.

I had recently and very fleetingly heard of a thing called Valentine’s Day and its associations with romantic love. Regardless, I hoped on February 14, 1990, like many still do today, for a miracle. In the particular case, I wanted the boy I was in love with, a gangly character (whom I had never seen any closer than from across the street) to call me on the telephone.

Not surprisingly, that boy I longed for from across the way never reciprocated. He had probably never heard of Valentine’s Day or more likely of me, despite all my doleful staring. As a middle-class Pakistani girl from a conservative family, I was not allowed to speak to boys, let alone fall in love with them. I didn’t let this keep me from either, pursuing both love and forbidden conversations with boys with great resourcefulness and assiduity.

I fell in love with the boy who dropped his telephone number in my lap through the open car window while my mother was not looking. I fell in love with a boy whom I beat in a debate competition and the boy who called several evenings in a row demanding to speak to a different Bollywood character each time. Some reciprocated my feelings; most had little clue about Valentine’s Day unless I told them.

Of course, they also did not really know me. Falling in love in those pre-Instagram, pre-cell phone days was understood as a mysterious matter, where facts and the onerous “getting to know each other” played little part. Some of this was understandable. Where marriage was a matter of careful arrangement, love had to be left wild and chaotic, without being hemmed in by the constraints of data or some similar bubble-bursting encumbrance.

Things have changed in Pakistan. Not only is Valentine’s Day a pretty big deal now — there are specials at florists and displays at stationery shops and tinsel-wrapped candy everywhere — the encroachment of the “semi-arranged” marriage, on the realm between love and arranged marriage, seems to have altered the path and pattern of both. These semi-arranged marriages, particularly popular among the growing urban middle class, seek to add a little of love’s mystery to the once standard arranged marriage, whose closely chaperoned interactions leave little room for romance and where the two being wed do not know each other at all.

In the semi-arranged marriage, there may be room for a few solo coffee dates. And the newly paired duo can announce to their friends that they are “in love,” while their parents can insist that the match was entirely arranged. In other words, parents can find possible spouses who meet a certain combined checklist of qualities identified by both the bride or groom-to-be and the parents. Veto power, however, lies with the young couple.

Added volume to the Valentine’s Day business comes from the virtual realm that has made most everything including love and/or marriage a competitive sport. Cheaply available cell phones are everywhere in Pakistan, and nearly all are equipped with social media, such that everyone can see the presents that those in love are bestowing on one another.

In addition, celebrating Valentine’s Day gives the upwardly mobile urban couple’s love the legitimacy of individual choice — with roses, chocolates and jewelry adding a bit of luster to the worn and antiquated patina of an arranged marriage. If the celebration is attended to with some gusto, even an entirely arranged match can be passed off as one in which the parties fell in love without any machinations of their aunt or uncle or the neighbor lady-turned-matchmaker who lives three doors down.

Even in rural Pakistan, where marriages are still generally arranged and love is a separate realm, Valentine’s Day is now a known, if not openly, celebrated quantity. Where trysts between lovers can be arranged via the ubiquitous cell phone, any excuse to meet in the sugarcane field — including Valentine’s Day — is used. Men and women who may have to endure spouses chosen by mothers, fathers and the village council, one theory goes, are especially entitled to a bit of fun on the side.

Love in Pakistan may seem like a tale from a very distant elsewhere, but one could argue that the slightly waning popularity of Valentine’s Day here (or at least the cynicism that hangs over some) is for reasons remarkably similar, if reverse, from those seen in Pakistan.

While Pakistanis may have moved from the arranged to the semi-arranged sort of marriage, Americans have moved from the love by accidental chance or serendipity to a more calculated — if not algorithmic-driven — sort of love. In the data-driven, virtually-infused and forever-impatient realm of finding a partner, social media and the internet provide a ton of information faster than the spark of attraction.

For those actively and intentionally looking for love, a dizzying array of apps, many with the ability to match a staggering set of data points — looks, income, language, location — can help with pairing with far greater precision than the most enterprising set of Pakistani parents. In some, bucket lists and credit reports can be exchanged even before the trouble of a first meeting. Why waste a couple of hours when artificial intelligence can tally up the possibility of true love using hundreds of variables? Mystery is the enemy here and data is the friend; love is made (like Valentine’s Day) utterly predictable.

In Pakistan, the United States and likely anywhere on our data-driven globe, the role of Valentine’s Day is changing. In the West, marketing departments of dating apps can rely on the fact that many more will sign up for their love-on-demand services on or around that day. In Pakistan, even those betrothed who have spoken barely a sentence to each other will send cards, flowers and chocolates.

In different ways, love is a status symbol, a badge of desirability. And Valentine’s Day is a perfect showcase to make sure that everyone in the virtual audience knows it.

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