It’s that time of year again, when guests attend grueling 3 day affairs, stuffing themselves with gulab jamun, ras malai, briyani, and into elaborate gold brocaded outfits. Hands painted with henna. Faces painted with makeup. Envelopes stuffed with money. It’s wedding season, and when your family belongs to both South Asian and Arab communities, this means that these 3 day affairs will happen not once or twice, but 6 or 7 times a summer.
If you love weddings, it’s a fun time. But oh so tiring. There are different cultural practices* for celebrating the standard Muslim wedding, but many follow this standard format: First there’s the henna or mehndi, where all the women get together to celebrate the bride to be by giving her sweets and their blessings. Henna is put on the feet and hands of the bride (and guests who want it), and the night descends into food and dancing — with some old folk songs to boot.
Next is the nikkah, or religious wedding ceremony, where an imam marries the bride and groom and the community witnesses the event. It tends to take place in a mosque where verses of the Quran are recited, the families agree to the union and a small sermon on the virtues of marriage is given. Naturally, more food is had, and plenty of games or other cultural rites happen with family at home.
But it’s not until day three, at the waleema reception, that the couple are announced as being “married”. The bride wears red and gold and sits with her groom on a stage, while the family head table is off to the side (although this varies). More food is had, more cultural rites are held, more obscure family speeches wear on, more pictures with the family, more cheesy picture slide shows embarrass the new couple and more fun is had by all. *Sometimes a horse, swordplay, dhol performances, 4 costume changes for the bride, bellydancing, plate smashing, debka dancing, coconut jumping or fireworks are thrown in to boot.
That’s the standard so-you-want-all-of-the-trappings-and-religious-cultural-rites-and-buy-into-this-institution-known-as-marriage framework. So what’s a young couple to do if different religions or cultures are coming together?
[Mohammad] Dadhisheth, 26, is wearing a suit and Chuck Taylors, standing at the end of the aisle and lip syncing intently. I better find your lovin’, I better find your heart. The music switches, Céline Dion starts to croon and here comes the bride. [Shemara] Ramcharan, 25, is serious and serene. Her dress was pieced together with much thought, like the wedding itself.
The bride is a secular Canadian girl born in Trinidad; the groom an Indian-Canadian boy from a Muslim family. The dress represents a careful balancing of two worlds, almost an art.
It’s Western in style with a long train, but deep red with a jewelled Indian veil. Her hands are covered in henna — somewhere in there are Dadhisheth’s initials, which he must find later that night, when they are finally alone — and holding a bouquet of white calla lilies.
She was happy to be married in an Indian Muslim tradition, and her mother, a West Indian woman who loves East Indian culture, didn’t mind either. But there were some things this bride couldn’t go without.
“At the end of the day, you still want to walk down the aisle and do something, whether it’s religious or not,” she says.
“How can we do this without offending anyone?” the couple wondered. And how, at the end of it all, could they sit back and still feel that their wedding was their own?
The article goes on to describe how the couple had their nikkah in separate rooms, and the bride was informed when the deed was done, implying that she was married religiously with someone speaking on her behalf (she got to hear the ceremony over a cellphone speaker). The couple also painstakingly constructed a beautiful non-denominational ceremony so that the bride could “walk down the aisle” without offending any of the groom’s “traditional Muslim family.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re deeply religious or completely secular — at some point in your life, there may be a need for some kind of devotional or sacred rite to help mark the passing of a milestone: a naming ceremony, a tea ceremony, a candle lighting ceremony, a tying of hands, a laying of hands, a memorial for the goldfish, a baptism, non-denominational marriage renewal, vows, calling of the four corners, a survivor tattoo, etc. This secular, Christian bride married a Muslim with a traditional family (a Muslim male can marry a “person of the book” — Christian, Jew, and some scholars include Hindu and Buddhist. Yeah, I said male. Female Muslims marrying outside the religion is a whole other kettle of fish), and they felt that certain personal, traditional beliefs should be bent to accommodate their wishes for a perfect wedding.
The Islamic wedding ceremony itself is a very simple and legal arrangement: an agreement is made between the bride and groom (or representatives), a mahr, or “gift to the bride” (NOT to be confused with the notion of “bride price”) is decided upon, a contract may be drawn up and once the parties agree, the partnership is announced to the community. This leaves the manner in which you celebrate completely open to cultural interpretation and practice. But there is no walking down the aisle. It’s just a plain, old legal agreement.
When Hubby and I got married we wanted to make sure that our four cultures melded and that I could wear a white dress and walk down the aisle. I wanted all of my family and friends to witness our marriage without being segregated in a mosque. It is not necessary for weddings to be segregated, as it’s simply a meeting of the community to witness a legal act — but because it’s also religious ceremony, many feel that it is important to maintain the segregation you would otherwise find within devotional Islamic acts. I’ve heard of people being married in separate rooms before, and thought it was too outrageous to ask of my absolutely non-Muslim family.
So I called around to the mosques in our area to see who would be able to host a wedding ceremony and allow men and women to sit together. I didn’t find a single one. This development actually simplified things for us. Instead of having the religious wedding on day 2 and the reception on day 3 (yowch.. who has the money for that!?!?), we combined the two.
We got married at the reception.
You don’t need a mosque to get married. God is everywhere. So once all of the guests arrived and were seated, Hubby and his father took to the stage to await my arrival. Hubby entered to a traditional Arabic religious nasheed (devotional song) and his groomsmen lined the stage. My bridesmaids joined them and then my mother and father walked me down the aisle to a lovely version of Star of the County Down (listen to it here!), and I took to the stage beside my Hubby-to-be while holding my bouquet and a mini Qur’an (pictured above).
A good friend recited the Qur’an, the imam (that we called in specifically from Kingston because we love his moderate outlook of Islam) took a few moments to give a sermon on marriage, asked us to repeat the vows necessary for the marriage ceremony (essentially to start by testifying to your Islamic belief, and then to say 3 times: Do you agree to marry so-and-so? Yes. Yes. Yes.), we signed the civil papers, and TA-DAH! We were married in front of all of our guests.
As for the “White Wedding” — well, we compromised on the decor. I got to have my roses and calla lilly centre pieces, and Hubby got his traditional Indian mandap stage dressing.
Instead of wearing a dress of red and gold brocade, I wore a Western white wedding dress and had it altered to accommodate my hijab. I had a bolero jacket with a high collar made to match, wore my white hijab in a bun style and clipped the veil to the back. My bridesmaids wore the traditional colours of red and gold brocade.
Sadly, I did not have a henna party or dancing at the reception. There was a death in Hubby’s close family just days before the wedding, and we thought it best that some of the festivities be toned down.
I’m very happy for this couple. They seem vibrant, young, fully in love and that they had a great time at their wedding.