Saturday, 5 June 2010

Culture vs. Religion

Alh, my studies are over for the time being, so I'm a free soul during the summer months. I've really been inspired by Productive Muslim to utilise my time more I've been catching up on my reading - I literally have a pile of books on my bedside table that I desperately want to submerge myself into. So, I've been slowly slowly slowly been working myself through them...and I was so chuffed with myself when I just about halved the pile...only to realise that there was another pile hidden behind the bedside table (which I must have put there when the original pile was about to topple).

Anywho, despite me finding this pile of books...I'm still over the moon, because I've found a Daphne du Maurier book that I didn't know I owned, and Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' - which so far has been an interesting read.

But the book I really wanted to talk about is Bali Rai's (Un)Arranged Marriage. I literally read it in one sitting. With a short break for dinner of course.

The books follows a young Punjabi guy called Manjit, or Manny, as he liked to be called. It starts when he's 14, and tells the tale of the struggles young Asians sometimes face when having to choose between culture and religion. His family want him to marry young, to a girl who doesn't know from a county he's never been to. And when things go awry, they try to force him.

I think the book is aimed at those who may be at the age where they have to make a choice between agreeing with the traditions of their families and the Western choices that are available to them, so mainly teenagers, so the writing is generally quite simplistic and easy to understand (also the reason why I finished so quickly). But the main point wasn't missed by me at all. So often, families disguise forced marriages an active decision for a young person to make. But really, those families aren't going to take 'no' for an answer.

It's a beautifully crafted book from the book, handling a number of issues extremely well. One of the most important is that the central character is a boy...just a small reminder to all those out there, that forced marriages aren't gender-specific, they could happen to anyone.

Secondly, numerous times throughout the book, he refers to the tradition of his marriage at 17 to be very 'Punjabi', rather than 'Sikh'...and generally throughout the book, there is a seperation of the culture from the religion. I liked it because too often people let religion take all the blame, but at the same time I'm torn...because I know that culture isn't always necessarily a bad thing. It certainly gets a bad rap...everytime something wierd and wonderful happens in the Muslim world, in order to defend Islam, culture suddenly seems to be getting the blame. But most of the time, it's not the culture, it's the people that are stupid.

Although I've never been to Punjab, I'm pretty certain to be Punjabi, or to enjoy Punjabi culture, does not mean endorsing forced marriage or anything akin to that. Islam doesn't make an individual choose between his/her religion and his/her culture. It just says (and I'm obviously paraphrasing here) to keep those aspects of culture that are compatible with Islam, and remove those which are not. Culture endorses religion most of the time, and its our cultures which allow to remember our heritage, whether that be Western or Eastern. It sometimes really irks me to hear people to say, "I'm not cultural" with such they've achieved something. I'm not saying that everyone should be running around in shalwar kameez making chappati, by the way.

Thirdly, Manjit, from the beginning, is seen as an outcast of his family...he doesn't enjoy the same pastimes, wants different things from his life, and hold opposing views in terms of race. And it's kinda a problem..because most people who find themselves in this situation aren't totally alienated from their culture. Once again, it's this idea that Western culture and customs are superior to those of Eastern origins...I'm not sure if I'm being paranoid, but it's an ideal that seems so much more common nowadays.

Now I was born and raised in a Western country, but parents who were born and raised in an Eastern country...I enjoy aspects from each culture, and also dislike aspects from each culture. I guess what I'm trying to say, is the contemporary Ummah needs to realise that cultures, traditions and customs are all relative to the environment around us.

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