Cross-cultural Marriages in Pakistan

In my memoir, Geckos & Guns: The Pakistan Years, I have written about the complexities and difficulties of cross-cultural marriages between Pakistani men and western women. These were my observations in the early 1990s. Perhaps things have changed—I hope so. The following is an excerpt from Geckos & Guns on this topic. I would love to hear your thoughts about the challenges facing cross-cultural marriages.

There was a common thread to stories of cross-cultural marriages in Islamabad. A couple would meet in North America, or some other western country, where the fascinating young Pakistani man with South Asian swagger was working or studying. His starry-eyed female classmate or co-worker would become captivated by his dark good looks and exotic charm, igniting an intense, whirlwind romance.

Most often, the two would be married in North America, although sometimes there was a Pakistani wedding. The latter was rare because most Pakistani families strongly disapproved of love marriages to foreigners. For this reason, marriages between Pakistani women and foreign men were extremely rare as females were more controlled by the family’s cultural values.

Eventually, the time would come for the Pakistani man to return to his country. His new wife happily accompanied him, excited to explore a new place and become part of the cultural tapestry. But there was so much she didn’t understand. Most Pakistanis lived in extended households, and the bride was expected to live with her husband’s family. As the blissfully happy couple settled into his family home, their lives would often begin to unravel. The mother-in-law, matriarch of the family, was in charge of the house and all domestic matters. She also set the tone for family values. There is a saying in Islam, “Heaven lies under the feet of your mother.” This is a meaningful and important proverb. It’s also practiced according to personal interpretation.

If a son conscientiously worshipped at the feet of his mother, then his wife became a secondary partner. In a traditional Pakistani household, the daughter-in-law was subservient to both her mother-in-law and her husband. Add in the possibility of the mother-in-law behaving like a dictator, and you had a familial ticking time bomb. Most women from western countries weren’t accustomed to living in extended families nor were they taught to be subservient wives. The Pakistani man they had fallen for had been a free spirit living outside the confines of his cultural structure and norms. Once he got back home to Pakistan, he naturally settled back into the customs with which he’d been raised and expected his wife to adapt and conform. As a result, the young western wife could find herself living under the authority of her husband’s family in a very conservative Muslim country.

Giving birth to a child frequently resulted in further alienation, as children were considered to belong to the father, especially boys. The foreign wife and mother was then faced with an unbearable, inescapable dynamic. Leaving Pakistan by herself was a daunting prospect. Attempting to leave with a child was next to impossible. Her husband and father of her child could, and often would, go to any lengths to hunt them down no matter where they went to take back the child.

I knew and worked with several western women married to Pakistanis. Not all of them suffered a difficult situation. Some Pakistani men had independently adopted more western thinking. They lived separately from their extended family members and treated their wives with respect. I knew at least a couple of strong-willed western women married to Pakistani men who were in loving, equitable relationships.

But I knew or heard of just as many, if not more, situations where this was not the case. Some of the foreign spouses of Pakistani men had a downtrodden, defeated look. It seemed to me that they had grudgingly accepted their situation or perhaps they were abused in some way. I never knew for sure. This was just my instinct.