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Destined for an arranged marriage, I chose to follow my heart

This year, my husband Richard and I will have been married for 10 years. It may not sound all that long, but it feels quietly significant to me, this decade of us, not least because there was a time that I could not fathom a world in which we could ever be together at all.

I grew up expecting to marry someone my parents chose for me: a suitable young man who would share my Pakistani family background, my cultural heritage and faith. I can’t remember how old I was when I understood this – only that I did, without it needing to be explained. It was what my cousins did and the daughters of our family friends did. It was the way things were.

Still, though I knew it was expected of me, I began to long for more than a match made by my parents. I was a wistful teenager. Boyfriends were firmly not allowed, but I spent a lot of time pining, perhaps more for something than someone. I read Jane Austen obsessively, always a little disappointed that Marianne didn’t get to be with Willoughby. I mourned Joey’s unrequited love in Dawson’s Creek with great heartache on her behalf, though I knew the object of her affection was unworthy. More than anything, I wanted to know what love felt like. I had grown up hearing that marriage was an important part of Islam, and that love came after marriage. But when my time came, I desperately hoped to marry for love first and not merely obligation. I wanted my own happy ending, even though the ones I saw on screen or read in books rarely featured girls like me.

At university I saw girls of my background in clandestine relationships with boyfriends they weren’t supposed to be with, but it seemed like an awful lot of stress to hide it from their parents, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep that up. More than that, I didn’t want to have to lie. In my head, I merged these two opposing desires: the man I’d one day fall in love with would also magically meet all my family’s requirements.

The summer before my final year of university, my parents spoke to me about arranged marriage proposals that had come for me. They said it was time I started considering my options, and that I should be introduced to some of those families and their sons. We were on holiday in Florence, eating lunch in the sunshine, and when they said all this I felt the sun withdraw behind the clouds. I wasn’t ready; I planned to travel, to write, to study for another degree. Above all, I craved romance and didn’t think that would be possible with my parents and possible future in-laws overseeing my every step.

After graduation, instead of meeting potential marriage suitors I moved to Paris for my masters degree and then to London after that for work. Every now and again my mother would call with details of some suitable boy, but I changed the subject or made excuses, saying I was too busy. The truth was, I was not busy. I was trying to buy myself some time, to find someone my own way. The problem was, my own way didn’t include a plan of action. I had filled my head with romantic stories of chance and fate and soulmates, and I wanted all of that. I wanted to meet someone completely by chance. Every day, my eyes glittered with hope, wondering if the man I was destined to marry was sitting right opposite me on the tube or if he’d walk past me in the street.

One of my friends started dating a man she’d met in a supermarket; she had dropped something, he picked it up and they ended up swapping numbers (they are now happily married with two children). It was when she told me how they’d met that I realised, bittersweetly, that the odds of something like that ever happening to me, given all the criteria I needed to fulfil, were so slim they were nonexistent. The realisation hit sharply. After several years of naively waiting for a stroke of exceptionally good romantic luck to come my way, it dawned on me that it probably never would. I called my mother and told her I was ready to be introduced to someone suitable.

I threw myself into arranged marriage introductions because I was tired of being alone. I thought being married would put an end to my sadness. But by this time I was nearly 30 and proposals weren’t exactly fast-flowing. The process wasn’t as simple or efficient as I’d assumed it would be; often when I was introduced to someone, we had no chemistry and nothing to talk about. Various prospective mothers-in-law found something in my appearance or my personality lacking and things fizzled out as flatly as they’d begun. After countless rejections, my flaws picked apart and magnified, my confidence began to crumble. So many women I knew, friends I had grown up with, had met someone in an arranged way, and things had worked out perfectly; they seemed so happy in their married lives. I began to blame myself; there had to be something wrong with me.

Eventually, I told my mother I’d had enough. I began to fill my time in other, more enjoyable ways. I found great joy in decorating my flat. I took up yoga, running and creative writing. I spent time laughing and dancing with my friends. I grew less obsessed with marriage and less hard on myself for being single. I no longer felt like my world had ended just because I hadn’t met someone.

When an advert for a dating site caught my eye a year or so later, I was in a different place, happier in myself. Where was the harm in giving it a try? Richard wrote to me and I wrote back, and I liked how thoughtful his emails were. We ended up writing to each other every day for weeks, and just thinking of him put a smile on my face. When I agreed to meet for coffee, and then for dinner, and then again and again after that, I tried not to think about what my family would say. He was everything I was not supposed to be searching for.

Despite that, I felt a strange sense of certainty. Being with him felt natural and familiar. His presence steadied me and I was calmer than I had been for years. I felt accepted for who I was rather than what I was. But we couldn’t be together. It was impossible, because of who he wasn’t – definitely not Muslim nor Pakistani. When I explained this, I thought it meant we were over, but he persisted. He read up about my religion and started researching what he’d need to do to convert.

I never wanted to have to choose one love over another. I was not trying to reject my upbringing or religion. That meant something to me and still does. Making my choice and telling my family about Richard was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. There was disappointment and guilt, and it took time. Eventually we found our way to understanding. Though Richard and I were engaged within three months of our first meeting, it did not feel rushed. It felt like we were doing the right thing. Ten years later, it still does.

I used to believe love was fate; something you couldn’t choose or control. But what I’ve come to realise in our 10th year of marriage is that to love someone, to be with someone, doesn’t just happen by chance. It is a choice to be made every single day, sometimes without realising it. It takes effort, even if it feels effortless. I also used to believe that love had to sweep you right off your feet, just like in the movies, but now I think it’s quieter and a lot less dramatic than that. It feels like coming home.

As a teenage girl, I fell in love with a version of love but hardly any of those stories included women like me. I never saw the loves of girls of my background played out on screen or written about in books or magazines unless their lives ended badly; women of my Muslim background are rarely included nor given happy endings in the narratives of popular culture, mostly because someone else is always writing our script for us.

I consider myself a private person and would never have imagined I’d write a book about my family, my marriage; my love. But it matters to me, to write my own story and not have it assumed for me by someone else. It matters to me to tell my own happy ending, because it matters to me that other women, girls like my younger self, might feel understood and not alone. Love brings us together and, in an increasingly anxious world, we need more of it. We need love stories that aren’t just big-screen escapism; we need everyday stories that include everyone, and every shade of love. Because it’s these sorts of stories that give us hope, and remind us of what is real and of what is possible.

How We Met, A Memoir of Love and Other Misadventures, by Huma Qureshi, is out now, £12.99. Buy a copy for £11.30 at

Source: TheGuardian