We're in love, but there's a cultural barrier

I'm not Muslim and I'm the wrong ethnicity, so my girlfriend is afraid to tell her family about us.

Published January 18, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I've been living the past two years in a region of a foreign country with a significant Muslim population. The past year I've been dating, secretly, a local girl from a relatively strict family. Secret, that is, to her family, friends and generally her society. My community, primarily expats and our local friends, has been aware for some time that we've been going out.

Her culture, however, and more important, friends and family, frown upon dating anyone who is an outsider. Dating a non-Muslim, such as myself, is not the most egregious violation -- some of the community are, in fact, Christian or generally not of any religious persuasion. What is considered beyond the pale, however, is seeing someone outside of their ethnic group, which I most definitely am.

We both have said we're in love with each other, and I've offered several times to marry her and we've had long discussions about it. But she sees it as impossible, because of the anger and shock it would bring from her parents and friends. There are other mixed couples such as ourselves, though not many, who have persevered and had long and happy relationships, including marriage. She has, however, recently told me that she cannot bring herself to publicly acknowledge her feelings (or mine), and since she is unable to tell her family or friends, she wants to break off the relationship.

Simply put, this has made me angry and bitter. To be dumped because someone has lost feelings for you is one thing; to have them admit they still have these feelings but they cannot bring themselves to challenge what can only be described as prejudice (her parents and friends don't even know me, since her fear of introducing me is great) and sexism (the attitude toward a girl pursuing this kind of relationship is far more severe than that toward a guy), is a pill I cannot bring myself to swallow. I feel that to sacrifice her own feelings in order to protect their feelings, even though what they believe is wrong in both my eyes and hers, is flat out wrong and selfish on the part of those around her. On the other hand, I can't help considering myself selfish because I'm pulling on one side and her friends and family on the other, threatening to break her like a wishbone.

She wants to continue to be friends, but not lovers, an arrangement that we have attempted several times before and never succeeded because we always gave in to our true feelings. This time, I told her that I wouldn't even attempt it because at this point we would be lying to ourselves, and doing it badly to boot. Though our last conversation ended with this ultimatum, based on previous history I don't think we're quite finished -- neither of us appears willing to completely lose the other. But I don't know what we're supposed to do next. I don't want to lie to ourselves or anyone else, but I don't want to risk destroying her relationship with her family and friends -- her whole support network, quite possibly. She wants to live abroad, and if she did perhaps we could start again in more neutral territory, but this is a goal she's also given up on recently because it seems too difficult and too disappointing should she fail.

Pride and Prejudice

Dear Pride and Prejudice,

My instinct suggests that you try to stop seeing her allegiance to her family and culture as an obstacle to some other more privileged, more correct reality, and instead try to see it for what it is -- her reality, the only reality there is for her. When you do this, you may have the disconcerting sensation of shrinking to the size of a man and only a man, while the forces of culture and family expand to appear nearly timeless and infinite. Then you might come to consider how you came to exalt yourself as an individual above the vastness of her country, history, family and ancestors, and wonder if you haven't overlooked something.

Consider how you have been indoctrinated since birth in a secular, scientific, cosmopolitan faith. Cosmopolitanism teaches us to be broad and accepting, but it's easiest to be broad and accepting of others who are also broad and accepting. When the other seems genuinely narrow and parochial, we see that narrowness and parochialism as a barrier to some other higher, truer reality -- our Western reality.

In order to see things a little differently, try to imagine that she is not being held prisoner by a narrow-minded family and culture but rather is struggling to preserve her identity against the onslaught of your intoxicating Western-ness, your powerful banjo of I, your hypnotic gaze, your KitchenAid mixer of desire and promise, your Cadillac and your Camels, your plantations and riding mowers and frontier hats, the echo of imperial riches in your thick, sweet voice, your arrogant swagger that in Texas is simply called "walking." You are no doubt enormously seductive and quite a wonderful guy. But in spite of your heartfelt innocence, you bring all your history with you, and it is that history over which you have no control that is as much a presence in the room as your excited heart and her brimming eyes.

I suggest that you consider these things so that you do not underestimate the depth and passion of her resistance, and so that you do not treat her conflict as only between her better instincts and her benighted past. She is not struggling merely within herself; she is struggling against you. Imagine yourself not as a liberator but as an invader and ask if you then can understand the depth and passion of her resistance. Try to see that it is not just fear but love that binds her to family and culture.

For the sake of argument, consider how innocently our genocidal forefathers went about curing the world of its savagery, and consider how harshly they later were judged. Consider how with progressively fine gradations each generation codifies its righteousness. Consider even the possibility that you may be in fact a wretched criminal in the eyes of history. Then perhaps you can imagine her family's horror at the threat you pose. What exactly is that threat? That you will take their daughter away and transform her into something alien.

You say that when you get together you always give in to your "true" feelings. We of the Western Romantic tradition tend to equate lust with truth; whatever is subjectively intense seems to be true, in contrast to whatever is tepid and coercive and external. But the word "true" excludes all that is "false" -- such as duty to family and culture. So I would suggest you use a less exalted, more descriptive word, like that whenever you get together you give in to your sexual feelings. That will allow you to place what is happening in a more balanced perspective.

You don't need to lie to yourselves or to anyone else. If you do the hard work of accepting how closely she, her family and her culture are knitted together in one collective, diffused identity, you may come to feel a little differently about what we in the West revere as "telling the truth." Declaring your love openly for all to see may become less important to you. You may find a new respect for the necessary delicacy and circumspection with which she has to conduct this affair.

So try being patient and having compassion for everyone involved. Try to put your own desires aside and simply let things unfold. There may be a life for you together, if you allow it to come into being. But if you force it, you will simply give further weight to the historic cliché of the selfish, blustering Westerner.

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