‘Ooh, he’s handsome enough’, was the first response whispered around the room as the potential husband and his family were invited into the house. They were taken to sit in the guest room with the grandparents and mother of the potential wife who the family had come to inspect. She meanwhile sat with her aunts in the family living room, gripping the edge of the couch, her eyes fixed on an unidentifiable point ahead of her. She looked like she wanted to throw up.
It was her first experience of being at the centre of such an occasion and, as one of her aunts later said, you shouldn’t take the first one you see anyway. Nevertheless, she was clearly feeling the pressure. Her father had died when she was young and since she had now finished college it was decided that it would be beneficial for her, both in terms of money and security, if she were to find a husband.
The grandma had arranged a large bowl of fruit for the visiting family. Bananas, peaches, grapes and apples precariously leaned on one another in a colourful fruit pyramid but before she was able to deliver it to the guests the aunts burst into protest. ‘How are they supposed to signal that they agree with the arrangement? Take a juicy bite of peach?!’
‘Well we didn’t have any coffee left!’ retorted the grandmother, hurt.
Giggles of laughter spread around the room as she stormed into the kitchen, the bananas clinging desperately onto the side of the platter as she swung it along with her. A few minutes later, one of the boys, having been sent out for coffee in urgent whispers, returned with the packet of magical brown grains and the grandmother set to work busily correcting her social faux-pas.
The girl meanwhile sat on the edge of the sofa, hands still grasping tightly onto the tassled edges, and her eyes still fixed on that invisible object in the distance.
Finally her mum emerged from the guest room negotiations. ‘The boy’s mother wants you to take off your hijab,’ she told her daughter.
This had been previously discussed amongst the family before the potential in-laws arrived. Though it was usual for the daughter to take off her scarf when a potential husband came to see her, she had insisted, despite much attempts at persuasion, that she didn’t want to remove it and it had finally been decided that it was her decision. After all, her hijab was her cotton armour in this unrehearsed social play.
Now the discussion started up again with the mother of the boy entering the hosting family’s territory to inform the girl that they expected to see her hair. The boy’s mother was a thin woman whose tightly pulled back hair and pursed lips gave her the image of a strict headmistress. She towered over the girl on her heels as she looked her up and down, criticising the girl’s own lack of appropriate footwear for such an occasion. It was no surprise when the timid 19 year-old took two steps back. She let her family speak in her defence, though high-pitched murmurs of agreement slipped out at points.
As in most realities, the bullied finally gave into the bully and one of her aunts followed her into the bedroom to help tidy up her hair.
‘Is she nearly ready?’ moaned the boy’s mother, perhaps forgetting that the girl’s temporary disappearance was at her order.
The girl shyly shuffled back into the room, her hair having been hurriedly brushed back but nothing like the state in which she would have liked it to be, had she known.
The boy’s mother, on witnessing the delicate results of her victory, was temporarily shamed into explaining that ‘It’s not that we’re strictly religious. We wouldn’t force her into wearing it or not wearing it in the house. None of us wear it in the house. But it’s just how these things are done. The boy needs to see the girl’s hair, no?’ No-one replied.
The mother then called in her son and the two faced each other for the first time that evening. The boy muttered something inaudible. The girl said nothing. Occasionally she stole glances up from the floor that were short enough to avoid any risk of eye contact. The boy and his mother then retreated to the guest room with the girl, having replaced her hijab, and her mother following suit.
As the girl sat wedged on the sofa between her mother and grandmother, only half hearing exchanged words, she became far too aware of how she was sat. Every position she adopted was uncomfortable and she could no longer remember what she usually did with her hands. She tried to look amiable by attempting a smile but her nerves had clamped her lips tightly shut and so she merely managed to push the corners of her mouth upwards, creating the kind of expression more suited to a toy clown. The noticeably increased pressure on her left leg suddenly brought her out of her own thoughts and she looked to her grandmother for an explanation. The silent message carried by the grandmother’s stare caused her to look up at the room at large. Everyone was looking at her. The coffee had been left untouched.
‘Errr…’, she tried to think what she may be expected to say. After all, the only way she could now embarrass herself further was if she made it known that she had not even been listening to the discussion concerning her future. In the end, she simply mumbled what could be taken as a murmur of agreement or a murmur of contemplation. Everyone seemed satisfied with that response and both sides began to get up, completing the usual social formalities. Thanking them for coming. Thanking them for having them.
When the family were all sat back down together in the living room, the aunts burst out into criticism of the potential husband and his family.
‘Did you see the way she looked her up and down?’
‘And when she asked her why she wasn’t wearing heels! A giraffe wearing platforms would have been in a better position to give footwear tips than that giant!’
‘And standing over her like that as if she had any authority over the girl. She’s not her mother-in-law yet.’
‘No, and never will she be. Thank God.’
A moment’s pause as the aunts let their remarks settle and then the youngest of the women, who had been so quick to complement the boy on his appearance at the start of the evening, concluded the critique – ‘He wasn’t even good-looking’. The rest of the family nodded in agreement.