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Arranged marriages in Hong Kong’s ethnic minority communities

By Elaine Tsang and Hilda Lee 

For most people in Hong Kong, choosing a life partner is something they do for and by themselves. Marriage is no longer something decided by parents or families. However, for those from Hong Kong’s ethnic minority communities, love matches are not par for the course and arranged marriages are commonplace.

This is in line with the social preference for arranged marriage in South Asian countries like Pakistan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, where many members of Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities have their origins. Living and working in Hong Kong, where the concept of love marriage is the mainstream, has not necessarily shaken those traditions.

Most young people in Hong Kong would balk at the idea of an arranged marriage but in fact it is the idea of a marriage based on mutual love that is a relatively new phenomenon. Arranged marriages existed in Biblical times, were the norm during the time of the Roman Empire and in the European monarchies and Chinese society.

Wang Danning, a lecturer in anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says the idea of love marriage only arrived in China some 100 years ago.

“[In China], arranged marriage became important to serve as a social function: to help families expand political power, expand social networks and also increase their wealth.”

It was particularly common during the development of agricultural society in China, where women would be married out of their own village and into a new one.

Today, arranged marriage is still practised in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, as well as in South Asia. In an arranged marriage, the bride and groom are selected by a third party rather than each other. Marital partners are usually chosen by parents, community elders or religious leaders who try to play a part in guiding the youths when finding the right person to marry.

In Pakistan, where more than 18,000 people in Hong Kong have family roots, almost all marriages are arranged and many are between members of the extended family.

Hafiz Mohammad, a 30-year-old Pakistani born and brought up in Hong Kong, explains there are three types of arranged marriage in Pakistan – completely arranged marriage, love arranged marriage and forced arranged marriage.

In a completely arranged marriage, children leave the decision of who to marry up to their parents. In such instances, parents choose a suitable spouse for their kids. Before getting married, both sides have a chance to meet and communicate with each other.

“About 80 to 90 per cent of marriage is of this kind,” says Mohammad.

Love arranged marriage occurs when two people fall in love and try to convince their parents to consent to a marriage. In such a union, children are still unable to decide to marry independently. They have to persuade their parents to accept their relationship and arrange the marriage accordingly.

Forced arranged marriage happens when one or both parties are married against their free will.

Fermi Wong Wai-fun, executive director of Hong Kong Unison, a group that works with and for ethnic minorities, says arranged marriage is especially common for Pakistani girls.

“I think 99 per cent [of marriages] are arranged for girls.”

Wong’s work with Unison includes helping those trapped in arranged marriages.

“There are more than a dozen requests [for help] each year,” Wong says, most of which come from women and girls.

She recalls the youngest case she has ever dealt with involved a 12-year-old girl who sought her help after she was forced into an arranged marriage when her elder sister’s fiancé suddenly requested that the girl marry his younger brother. If the girl refused to do so, the boy’s side would annul the engagement of the elder sister. To avoid bringing dishonour to the family, the girl had no choice but to accept the marriage.

“She came back to Hong Kong after two years with her baby. She was 14,” says Wong.

In India, astrology plays a big part in an arranged marriage. After comparing the Kundli (an Indian word describing the astrology horoscope) of both parties, the parents will then try to arrange a marriage. After the boy and girl meet each other for the first time, the engagement period begins. During this time, the couple can meet regularly for up to one or two years before they actually marry.

In a society like Hong Kong, where the culture of love marriage is so entrenched, it is unsurprising that even though arranged marriage is common in ethnic minority communities, some people from those communities have developed more contemporary mind-sets towards arranged marriage.

Myriam Khan (her named has been changed to protect her identity) is a 34-year-old Pakistani woman who was born and raised in Hong Kong. Currently working in the sales and marketing department of a manufacturing company, Khan has studied in Hong Kong her entire life, and has a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree.

Two years ago, Khan married a 26-year-old Pakistani man in an arranged marriage.

“Since [my husband’s] father wanted him to move to Hong Kong, they really looked for a Hong Kong-Pakistani girl,” Khan explains.

Khan had put off marriage because she wanted to concentrate on her studies and career earlier. But as time went on and she decided she was ready to marry, she told her parents she would go along with their arrangements. As she did not know many men who were of the same ethnicity and religion as her, she accepted their choice.

Initially, this transaction-like marriage did not go very smoothly.

“For the first year, it was quite a struggle because we have very different thinking,” Khan says. After settling down in Hong Kong for a few months, Khan’s husband started to put pressure on her to follow the Pakistani way of dressing. While she still wears formal wear to work, she now wears traditional Pakistani clothes during the weekends.

“For the first year, I kept on listening all the time. From two-hour lectures to anything like why I have Facebook, why don’t I do this, why don’t I do that…” says Khan. “I felt very depressed.”

But then the independent and strong-willed Khan decided to make some changes. She tried to give her husband a lecture instead and let him experience how it felt like to listen. This often led to quarrels.

“I am never the first one to start. But once he starts, I go on,” Khan says. After they have an argument, her husband’s family, who travel occasionally to Hong Kong, will try to step in to help, though often to the aid of their son.

Khan’s husband even tried to persuade her not to remain friends with any men because he did not like it. However, Khan stood her ground and told her husband that he should accept it and that she would not follow his thinking. Khan, who speaks fluent Cantonese, says the proportion of Hong Kong Chinese to Pakistani friends she has is half and half.

“For me I am born and raised here [in Hong Kong]. But for him he is still…he spent some time in Pakistan.”

Khan says her life and marriage are tough but she chooses to remain positive in terms of her attitudes towards arranged marriage.

“Everyone has their ups and downs…things will get better.”

Abdul Kharim (not his real name) is another Pakistani who has been in Hong Kong his entire life. He sat for both the HKCEE and HKAL examinations and finished his bachelor’s degree studying part-time at the University of Sydney in Hong Kong. He is married to Isabelle Mok (not her real name), who is ethnically half-Chinese, half-Venezuelan. Both she and Kharim are 31. Despite the initial reservations of Kharim’s parents, they got married in their mid-20s and now have three children.

Mok met Kharim in secondary school during Form 4. Although she was not a Muslim, Mok says she was attracted to Islam and her relationship with Kharim motivated her to convert to the religion.

Ultimately, religion plays an important role in choosing a partner for marriage, be it love arranged, arranged or forced marriage.

“A Muslim has to marry a Muslim,” Kharim explains.

His successful love story stems from acceptance and openness. Shrusti Patel is another individual who believes in love over arranged marriage. Twenty-year-old Patel is a Hong Kong born Indian who is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English Education at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). Her parents moved to Hong Kong in 1990 for business and have lived here since.

“I wouldn’t agree to an arranged marriage,” Patel says. “I would agree if [my parents] want me to meet someone, though not necessarily on the condition that I have to get married.”

Patel believes that being brought up outside of India has made a difference to her thinking. While she remains connected to Indian culture, she is thankful for being in the environment of Hong Kong.

“It gives me another point of view and also gives my parents another point of view.”

She believes that the sense of freedom in Hong Kong has helped her to develop her independent thinking on the subject of marriage.

Another Indian student, Jaanum Harjani, has similar views on being raised in Hong Kong. Currently studying in her first year of Business and Administration at CUHK, Harjani cannot bear the thought of settling down in India.

“Since I was born and raised in Hong Kong, I am used to the lifestyle here,” Harjani explains.

As life in India is very different from life in Hong Kong, Harjani has told her parents that they can look for a partner for her from anywhere but India. She would still prefer her parents to find her a suitable partner for her and assess whether he is capable of supporting her.

While there are stories of struggle, hardship and even violence and abuse in arranged marriages, there are also success stories. “I have seen successful cases which are well-arranged. Couples can treat each other well,” Unison’s Fermi Wong says.

Some scholars have pointed to family support as one factor of successful arranged marriages; others have suggested the lack of anxiety over whether they have found “the right person” helps those in arranged marriages.

Ultimately, while most interviewees still support arranged marriage, there are more and more exceptions. When it comes to the future for their own children, most interviewees say they would prefer to advise and teach their children how to choose the right person instead of arranging their marriage.

Even student Jaanum Harjani, who says she would prefer her parents to screen her suitors, says she is prepared to make an exception for the right man.

“I don’t even mind love marriage if I find a guy who can give me the commitment and support I need in my life and whom I really feel loves me.”