I'm a single woman in Pakistan -- will I ever get married?

At 35, I feel the weight of family and cultural expectations.

Published July 31, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a 35-year-old single woman living in Pakistan. I got my master's in graphic design from the United States in 1999, and worked there for three years also. At present I am working full time as a graphic designer in Pakistan. I live in a society where girls and boys are usually married by the age of 22 to 25. And here I am unmarried and worried. Although my education and experience surpass that of many women here, being unmarried is a stigma in our society.

Personally, I have nothing against marriage. And I never thought I would one day be writing about this. And I'm not choosy also. While in the States I tried very, very hard to get married to a certain guy. But it couldn't happen because he was interested in everything but a commitment. In the process of convincing him, I lost my sanity to the extent that I ignored important matters such as my visa status. After Sept. 11 things got worse for me as far as my immigration was concerned. And therefore I left. Maybe I was desperate and pushed too hard.

The biggest fear I have is the fear of being alone. In the age group I am in, it's very difficult to find a good, loving man. The criteria for marriage here is family status, money and good looks (particularly a girl's). My friends tell me to move on and that one day I will find someone. But as the years go by my fear gets worse. I believe that a marriage should be between people who really love and respect one another -- and it should certainly not be an escape from hardships. I've seen so many marriages go down the drain just because they were based on superficial values. I believe in companionship between a husband and wife. And I believe in sound compromises for the sake of peace and happiness. But every day my fears grow worse -- the fear of living a lonely life.

A very good friend of mine told me the other day, "You will get married when you stop thinking about it so much." That's the problem: I can't stop thinking about it. This particular friend of mine keeps on pushing me to look beyond the general norms of life and have faith in God. But nothing seems to help.

Nobody can play God. He is unseen and asks for patience and faith. I have neither. And my fears get worse with age. Will I one day find someone or should I just get married to anyone? Please help.


Dear Mt.,

How serendipitous that your letter should arrive this morning, on the heels of the letter from the woman in India in an arranged marriage, whom I advised to accept the perhaps painful and unjust constraints of her culture and her choices. That did not seem very progressive, did it? I imagine it might have sounded rather conservative or backward.

Perhaps I should say this: I do not think that my general ideas about law and culture are conservative or backward; but I believe there is much peril in conducting one's private life as though it were a political demonstration project. People's well-being depends on fragile networks of family and culture; family and culture are not outside us but inside us; when we attempt to fight them -- because we judge their practices to be backward -- we are in some degree also fighting ourselves. We might not be prepared for the damage this can do to us, or for the long, wrenching process of inner change it requires. I feel protective toward people who write to me. I try to put their interests ahead of my own. I try not to place them in greater danger. I sometimes feel that caution is best.

So I welcome your letter. It offers an opportunity to continue the discussion, though I wonder if I will actually clarify anything.

As to this question of God: You say your God asks for patience and faith. I would ask, Why should your God ask for anything from you? Doesn't your God have enough already? What kind of God is that? Is that a requiring God, a bureaucratic God, one with a clipboard, a God with an entrance exam? That is not my conception. Mine is a rescue God, a God that doesn't ask questions but takes you in when you need shelter. Maybe that's not a real God, then, but one I have made up. Would it be heresy to make up a God that actually helps you out? Perhaps you need a God who will comfort you and tell you that things will be OK. Why not call on a God that has enough faith and patience of his own to offer you some?

I am not clarifying anything, am I? To tell you the truth, I am exhausted. Lots of things have happened lately that require my strength. I do not know how much I have left for anyone else.

I do not know what to do.

I only know a few things.

I know that we are tested. I'm not saying we are tested by God. That doesn't make sense to me that God would test us -- if God wanted to know what was up, he wouldn't need to test, would he? I only know that we are tested and the testing gives shape to our lives. I am drawn to those who respond with strength when tested.

I learn from those who meet difficulties well. What I learn I try to pass on.

What I observe about those who meet difficulties with admirable grace and courage is that they somehow manage to keep their shape; they do not become someone else and they do not give up or turn away; they remember what they are trying to do; they remain; they persist. They do not lose their ideas. I suppose this could be expressed as "they have faith" except that to "have faith" seems to be to expect a positive outcome. It is more that the people who deal with adversity well seem to recognize the possibility that things might not work out but they keep going and try to be cheerful.

One might ask, Why? Why go on in the face of uncertainty? And that is the mystery: Why indeed? I do not know. That is where we meet the ineffable quality that I admire. Not all might admire this quality; to some it might seem stupid to go on without reason. It is an unreasoning thing; perhaps it is simply an unreasoning love of life.

And so again we scratch the surface of our behavior and reach this unreasoning love of life, this unreasoning belief in the rightness of the human project, a belief that after much travail is threadbare and worn, crude and animal, like the instinct for survival.

You are not alone in thinking things should be different. Ideally, we act with courage and conviction to change things, but at the same time we live in the world as it is, and we live with ourselves as we are, with our limits and our fears, and we live with fate as it is -- capricious and unpredictable, cunning and malicious.

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