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Book Review: ‘First Comes Marriage’ Deconstructs Harmful Stereotypes About Muslim Women

“First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story,” by Huda Al-Marashi

I wrote this review for a magazine 3 years ago, thinking they paid. After all the work I put in reading and writing the review, I found out that in fact book reviews were the only segment of the website that did not pay. To add injury to insult, the editor had a laundry list of edits without compensation. Sigh. The trials and tribulations of a freelance writer, eh? I was so annoyed I pulled the review and it’s sat gathering metaphorical dust in my unpublished drafts folder. Until now. First Comes Marriage is a fantastic book and I highly recommend it.

From the time Huda Al-Marashi was six years old she already knew just what kind of wedding and marriage she wanted. First and foremost, her marriage would be arranged by her parents to a suitable Iraqi-American Muslim boy. But just as importantly, albeit more secretly, Huda also wanted a healthy dose of all-American romance in her immigrant love story: shared loving gazes that speak louder than words with a handsome fellow (her family approves of), a fabulous engagement story with bold surprises (even though the announcement would be well planned in advance), and the perfect royal wedding with her future husband misty eyed as she walks down the aisle in a glorious gown like in a movie. The arranged marriage tradition of her Iraqi family and the American romantic ethos of their new home country on the surface would seem at odds. But in Huda Al-Marashi’s poignant memoir First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story, we watch as she does her best to meld these different sides of her cross-cultural worlds.

If this intercultural navigation especially regarding arranged marriage sounds surprising, it’s because Al-Marashi’s story — while common indeed — is rarely how the narrative surrounding this kind of marriage is framed. Particularly in the West, arranged marriages are framed as something outside the woman’s control and with men they’ve only met briefly before the marriage. As First Comes Marriage discusses, Huda knew her future husband since childhood and their families were best friends. For her Iraqi American community, having (albeit limited) social contact with a potential partner is perfectly normal, and even if the future partners don’t know each other that well, their families do. Religion and shared heritage also plays a huge part. Al-Marashi writes, “There was no way I was going to sever what little ties I had to my culture and religion by marrying someone outside of it.”

And while Al-Marashi still desperately wanted to fall in romantic Hollywood love — and simultaneously have an arranged marriage organized by her family and future husband’s — her mother encouraged a more practical view on love and how it develops. “The problem with the women in this country is they expect too much. … They want love, they want passion, and they want it to last forever.” She goes further: “They think if they date someone and they kiss him and sleep with him, they know who they are marrying. What does that tell you about a person except what they look like naked?” In Al-Marashi’s mom’s view, just because she didn’t know her future husband personally didn’t affect the fact that their families knew each other well, and this told her what to expect. “The important thing is to marry a good person, someone who shares your culture and religion, and then you’ll fall in love with him later.”

But for Al-Marashi, growing up learning about America through Hollywood movies and television shows that portray love in a wholly different light, marriage became far more complicated. “Muslim love was secure and uncomplicated, a decision entirely under a person’s control, but American love was almost frighteningly fragile and mysterious.” She found herself scared by the idea of American love, something that can disappear to end in divorce, and drawn to the danger of it at the same time. The Hollywood industrial complex coupled with the wedding industrial complex as an immigrant were strong pulls, and often at odds with the Iraqi traditions of marriage and partnership.

One of the most illuminating things about First Comes Marriage is the internalized sense of pressure some immigrant kids put on themselves to maintain ancestral traditions even if their parents might not expect it from them at all. Al-Marashi never saw that she had a choice in what kind of marriage she would have, and the choice that she did have was injecting the American sense of romance into the process. But what she’d find out as her life unfolded was that while her parents taught her about their home country, they never actually expected her to go forward with an arranged marriage and certainly not to the degree which she did. 

What will also come as a surprise to many non-Muslim readers is the varying levels of conservatism displayed by Al-Marashi’s family and community. The women in Al-Marashi’s family don’t wear a headcovering, but still dress modestly. But, for example, during Al-Marashi’s engagement party and eventual wedding, there were subgroups of invitees who found the music and dancing scandalous, while dogma for others left plenty of room for various methods of celebration. I loved how this peaceful coexistence within the Iraqi-American community was presented with a level of nuance that will also help dispel the ugly stereotypes floating around about Muslims in the USA. 

First Comes Marriage in many ways is a story about social pressure and all the different ways it manifests. Al-Marashi needed to be seen a certain way by her family, community, and future partner: as a dutiful Muslim girl. These cultural expectations often clashed with the values of her new home country, and in so many ways clouded her ability to truly experience and be in the present. Because she not only wanted a perfect arranged marriage and a perfect American engagement and wedding, nothing went right. Nothing made her happy.

Worse, Al-Marashi had not just defined herself by her community and her faith, she also defined herself by maintaining her virginity. After marriage and having sex for the first time, she goes into a kind of tailspin questioning the entire course of decision-making that led her to that point. This is a troubling aspect of purity culture and the kind of psychological damage that can be caused when a person’s identity is rooted in the act of abstaining from sex. It’s as problematic as self sexual-objectification. In Al-Marashi’s case, and thanks wholly to Hollywood propaganda, she romanticized the act of intercourse so much that the reality seemed crude by comparison. And this was no fault of her family’s at all. Her mother was extremely open about talking about sex, sex organs, what they do and how they work; it’s that Al-Marashi felt it made her a bad Muslim girl to listen too closely to it. Al-Marashi writes, “But as much as my mother tried to teach me that sex was important in Islam, that it was the foundation of a marriage, I believed the risks of knowing too much too soon outweighed the benefits. Islam’s healthy and positive attitudes toward sex didn’t matter when the people in our community were the ones gossiping…”

This is another aspect that makes First Comes Marriage such a surprising memoir: we don’t often see, hear, or read about Muslim women talking so openly about sex and their own experiences with it. This makes First Comes Marriage a vital social and cultural text not just regarding the Muslim American experience, but Muslim experiences in general.

Ultimately, First Comes Marriage is a treatise on accepting oneself and our decisions, whether they were self-imposed or not. In Al-Marashi’s case, the pressure she put on herself to be seen a certain way was in direct contradiction to the kind of life she actually wanted. In particular, her privileged position in Iraqi American society offered her far more many options than she ever gave herself opportunity to explore. The fact that these decisions were of her own volition unsettles much of what Western stereotypes of Muslim women promote.

Huda Al-Marashi was only in her early twenties by the end of First Comes Marriage, which is easy to forget since the tone of the memoir is authoritative and adult, filled with beautiful prose and vivid descriptions that make you feel like you’re actually there with her. But the person the book describes is rather far in the rearview mirror than it would seem upon reading. In this sense, the ending of First Comes Marriage felt rather abrupt, as she has major breakthroughs that transform her and free her perception of the reality of marriage out of fairy tale Hollywood territory. Realizing that we sometimes don’t see the romance of daily life, the various ways our partners express their love that aren’t sweeping gestures like in the movies. But for Al-Marashi, we don’t know how that new awareness plays out other than the fact that she and her husband eventually have three children and she publishes her story.

Still, First Comes Marriage is an important memoir for deconstructing and demystifying one Muslim community’s traditions around marriage, love, and sex, all of which are important services in our current Islamophobic political climate. The book also reminds us that there is no monolith or blanket way to be Muslim. Rather, like every culture and religion, events are often case specific to a family or community. We don’t just need more diverse voices in publishing; we need more inclusion of voices from within communities that are misleadingly drawn as all the same. Now that Al-Marashi has opened the door to a different kind of Muslim American experience, and memoir, I hope we’ll have the chance to learn about many more.

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