'I want to explain arranged marriage to people in the West'

  • Published
Nashra Balagamwala
Image caption,
Nashra Balagamwala visiting Paris

When Pakistani designer Nashra Balagamwala produced a board game about arranged marriage, most news reports about her wrongly assumed she was dead against it. Actually her position is far more nuanced. And one goal is to explain to people in the UK and elsewhere how it works.

"People in the West often confuse arranged marriages with forced marriages," Nashra Balagamwala says, on the phone from Islamabad. "They go by a lot of what they see in the press. The acid attacks. The so-called honour killings. The complete absence of choice. My game was not meant to be part of that dialogue."

Balagamwala's board game, Arranged!, is far from an advert for arranged marriage. Its central character is a matchmaker "auntie" eagerly trying to chase down three girls while they attempt to outwit her and delay marriage.

Players create distance from the auntie, and impending marriage, by drawing cards with commands like "You were seen at the mall with boys. The auntie moves three spaces away from you." Other cards that put auntie off include "Your older sister married a white man", or "The auntie finds out you used tampons before marriage." (Many in South Asia believe that a tampon is an indication of sexual activity.)

Balagamwala says the game has a dual purpose. One is to start a dialogue among South Asian families on what is expected of women.

"I wanted to create an innocent platform where families could talk about some of the silly aspects of my culture, in a non-confrontational way. Like how a 'good girl' knows how to make a good cup of chai and doesn't have male friends.

"Secondly, I wanted to explain arranged marriage to white people, so they could better understand the nuance of South Asian traditions."

Balagamwala was at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US when she came up with the idea.

"I was about to head home to Pakistan at the end of the year, and I had some proposals waiting for me, so I started stalking the Facebook accounts of those guys to find something about them that my parents wouldn't approve of, so I could get out of meeting them. And then I thought to myself, 'Why not get rid of the problem once and for all?' So I created a list of every ridiculous thing I've done to get out of an arranged marriage and turned it into this light-hearted board game."

She tested her game out on her friends, a mixture of South Asians and white Americans.

An American male friend was in fits of laughter while playing. He admitted to Balagamwala that he'd been worried the game would trivialise the subject, but said that he now had a better understanding of it.

Encouraged by the reaction of her friends, and frustrated by her family's endless questions about when she would settle down, Balagamwala set up a Kickstarter page to help fund her game.

"Gaming is my therapy," she says. "Making board games soothes me. I've made others too, but they are too controversial for a South Asian audience."

Balagamwala says she understands traditional South Asian families. Her own family had been reluctant for her to continue her higher education, particularly in the US, and the dean of her high school, as well as a procession of friends and cousins, had to convince them that it was a good move.

The Kickstarter campaign was quickly funded, with more than 500 people placing their orders. Media attention followed, but many reporters failed to grasp her intention, she says, assuming the game was a protest against arranged marriage.

"It upset me that so many news outlets chose to hyperlink to ghoulish stories about acid attacks and honour killings. It was as if my game, which was meant to be thought-provoking but humorous, was somehow part of that narrative. It was now a blanket warning against arranged marriage. That wasn't my intention."

Balagamwala is keen to not deny the experience of women who are subjected to forced marriage. She says she's aware that happens a lot in Pakistan and India and that it deserves media scrutiny. But that, she says, is not what arranged marriage is.

"I'm not against tradition or the idea of an introduction - one that I have the option to decline - from a family member. Especially in a society as conservative as Pakistan, where men and women aren't really allowed to be friends. But only when I'm ready.

"People in the West should realise that is what a lot of people in South Asia mean when they say 'arranged marriage'. You may hear about the horror cases, those forced marriages, but that isn't the reality for millions of people.

"Also, how is an introduction any different from being set up on a blind date or arranging your own introduction via a dating app?"

Soon after Arranged! was profiled on several media outlets, including the BBC, Balagamwala and her family attended a family wedding in Karachi. While her immediate family were supportive, a wider circle were colder.

Media caption,

The board game sparking debate about arranged marriage

"Some openly said, 'You're going against our values, you're going against what we taught you.' Others avoided me completely.

"My dad joked, 'Well, you didn't want to get married and now you've made sure that no-one in Pakistan will marry you!'"

The biggest critics of the game were the "Rishta Aunties" - a nickname in Hindi and Urdu for meddlesome older women, not necessarily blood relations, who scout for younger women at weddings to pair up with an eligible young man. They aren't doing it for monetary compensation but purely for the thrill of setting up a good match.

The aunties, says Balagamwala, have a set of criteria for what makes a desirable girl.

"It's often girls who don't speak their mind. They're seen and not heard. They're good home-makers, ready to support her husband and his ambitions," she says. "And after I was profiled in the press, I was now outside this frame of what makes a desirable wife - for the Rishta Aunties."

The release of the game struck a nerve with many young women.

"I had messages and support from South Asian women across the world. South Asian women often retain a lot of their traditional values and culture, even if they are born in the US or Europe, so the subject resonated with them.

"A girl in India messaged me and saying that my game gave her the courage to have an uncomfortable conversation with her family and say, 'Look not all Asian women want to get married in their 20s.'"

The reaction from young South Asian men surprised her the most. They were overwhelmingly positive. Many sent her direct messages thanking her for explaining the female perspective. Some asked her out. More than 50 strangers from the internet proposed.

Image caption,
Some of the proposals Balagamwala received - in the background, her many Facebook friend requests

"Initially I didn't get any proposals from Pakistani men within my society because the aunties no longer wanted me," Balagamwala says.

However, it's now been six months and they've started up again. Last week four men known to her family expressed interest in marriage.

"The sad part is that I'm a girl with light skin and light eyes, and that's the reason they're proposing again.

"I'm not kidding. These aunties, when they call my mum, actually say, 'Oh we're going to have a green-eyed daughter-in-law.'"

Balagamwala has declined all offers so far.

She's still in no hurry to get married, she says.

Follow Megha Mohan on Twitter @meghamohan

You may also like:

Join the conversation - find us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter