Emma Tonny shares what it’s like to not be welcomed into a family due to cultural differences. What if there are some barriers that can’t be overcome? When you live with privilege this can come as a curve ball in life, but it’s an eye opening experience none the less.
For a very long time, I had the arrogance to assume that I was exactly the kind of girl that guys would want to take home to their family. My first boyfriend’s parents bought me expensive silk scarves from their home in China. My second partner’s father ensured me an internship shadowing him as a Judge. My most recent girlfriend’s family brought us hand reared meat from their small estate in Scotland. If I sound crushingly middle class, then it is because that is the world I now seem to occupy. It’s not my family background; but with an excellent education, deceptive accent and a pair of Hunter wellies, I somehow seem to have passed the elusive middle-class morality test. People’s families tend to like me.
I went to a good university and have made a solid start to my career. If I hide the ripped fishnets in my wardrobe, then I can do an excellent job of dressing as model wife- material; which, let’s be honest, is what you’re actually being tested for. Amidst the second and third bottles of wine, the question in every family’s minds when they pass around the souffle is: will this girl make a good life partner for my child? No pressure! But what do you do when you can’t even meet your partners family because you’d be considered inappropriate?
Due to the crushing assumptions of my white privilege, this wasn’t an issue I’d ever considered. I’d seen my friends worry about introducing their partners because their families wouldn’t approve. Whether it was the gender of their partner or the divergence in their educational background, I’d seen first-hand the issues that arise. However, after the initial shock of me coming out, my parents were absolute troopers about me bringing both girlfriends and boyfriends home. Although not, generally, at the same time. My family comes from a traditionally working-class background so there would never be any judgement around me dating outside of the limited Russel group set.
In my mind, this was a classic example of how open and progressive my family was. I could date who I liked. We had no hang ups. We were absolutely inclusive. In short, I assumed that that choice and that inclusion was one that I had the power to make. It never really occurred to me that someone may not want to include me. Or, that the power of who I dated didn’t rest with me alone but with my partner and their family. It hadn’t dawned on me that I may not pass their test. I can’t date anyone I like.
Growing up in Manchester, I had a fairly solid understanding of arranged marriages and the many different forms they can take. However, most of my friends are women and so I’d seen this primarily from the multiplicity of their perspectives. What caught me off guard, however, is when I fell for a guy destined for an arranged marriage. Plot twist! All of a sudden, the shoe was very much on the other foot and my oh- so- progressive views were challenged.
I had never even heard of Syed’s before. They believe that they are directly descended from the Prophet Mohammad and they can only marry others who are also descended from the Prophet Mohammad. Now, I’m all for a challenge, but with my bright red hair and BBC broadcaster accent, that wasn’t something I was ever going to be able to pull off. I was never going to be wanted in this family and choosing to date him would have meant taking on one of the oldest religions in the world. Even for me, that’s a little extreme.
Naturally, given the extremity of these obstacles, we ended up in bed together. We woke up to endless messages from family members asking where he was and, honestly, I’ve never felt so concerned. No one wants to be the cause of tension within a family and I unceremoniously shoved him out, still spouting various excuses as to why he’d been out all night. As if he needed them, he’d done this before.
It’s a horrible feeling to recognise that you’re never going to meet a family’s standards and a culture shock for me to discover that this was so. What’s worse, however, is that this experience is something that I can simply learn from and move on. It’s his life. He isn’t even a practising Muslim, let alone a believer in Syed principles, yet he is trapped by love and respect for his family. This strained every left wing, all-inclusive bone in my body.
Of course, child marriages and forced marriages are awful and not something I would ever condone; but I do think there are real benefits to arranged marriages when they are consensually arranged. Many of my friends look forward to theirs and, before this, I’d seen them primarily in a positive light. Given that Islamophobia is so terrifyingly present in our lives at the moment, I’d instinctively swing the other way. I hadn’t critiqued the problems of Islam in as nuanced a way as I had Christianity, the religion that I’d been raised in. This experience forced to me to acknowledge that actually, yes, there are some real cruelties in the cultural practices of many religions. I am not exempt from experiencing the impact of that and we all have a social responsibility to support one another.
For some families, I would be a disgrace, not a source of pride and that is something I have to confront. It doesn’t mean I have any intention of changing and, truthfully, I hope that one day my partner’s family will be thrilled to welcome me as one of their own. In the meantime, the fact that I am white doesn’t mean I’m automatically the right fit. My privilege doesn’t make me better. My education doesn’t give me a free pass into a new family’s hearts. This was a humbling experience and something that has altered the way I perceive my place in the dating scene.
Don’t: allow your privilege to determine the way you see the world.
Do: be respectful of other cultures dating traditions.
What I learnt: family is incredibly important to me. An essential for me in any life partner is that my family loves them and that I am welcomed into theirs.