By prior arrangement: Cathy Aitchison talks to some Asian couples whose families brought them together

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Pam and Sital Virdee have been married for two years and have just had their first baby; both Sikhs, they are graduate professionals in their early thirties, and their marriage was arranged through their families.

Sital was introduced to Pam through his sister's mother-in-law, who is also a distant relative of Pam's. 'We had called in to see her one day, and my brother-in-law said jokingly, 'Sital's free, he's looking for a girl.' She said, 'Hold on. I've got someone, I know somebody from long distance, we'll find out for you.'

'We hadn't seen them for some time,' Pam continues. 'Suddenly she called my mum out of the blue and inquired about whether I was married or engaged, and then she told my mum about Sital.'

First the two families got together in Leeds, where both live, then an event was arranged where Pam and Sital could meet each other: 'It was just like a social gathering - Sital's parents came with his brothers and sisters - we met there, and we were given time to decide what we thought of each other.' They met once or twice after that and decided quite quickly that they would get married. There was no pressure from Sital's parents or Pam's mother: 'My father said it was my life and my decision,' says Sital. Pam adds: 'Neither of us would have gone through with it if we hadn't felt right.'

Many Asian couples get together through such an introduction or informal arrangement: 'When people talk of an arranged marriage, often it's semi-arranged,' says Gogan, who married two years ago. She was introduced to her husband Jaswant by a friend of her mother's: 'She gave us some information about him, and him some information about us, and we exchanged pictures.' They met and liked each other, and within six months they were engaged. 'In all that time I was seeing him a lot. The beginning was arranged, but my mum said, 'It's up to you.' Nobody was saying I'd got to marry him. I could have changed my mind right up to the last minute.'

Many families like their children to marry someone of the same religion and from the same community. Praksha and Anant Tanna, both Hindus from the Lohana community, met through Praksha's uncle, who acted as a matchmaker for many couples: 'He was well known in the community. It was a very busy household. He'd retired, and that was his whole life.' He kept a diary of young people's names, ages and details so that he could help them find marriage partners. When she and Anant had been out together three times, her uncle asked them to make a decision: 'There was a bit of pressure; he was quite strict, and he told us we couldn't carry on going out or we'd get a bad reputation.'

Most parents and guardians obviously want their children to be happy, and when choosing prospective partners they try to match them as closely as possible. But finding someone from their own community can be difficult once families are spread across the world, as Kalsoom Bashir explains: 'My parents had always imagined that they'd find someone suitable for their daughters from their own circle of friends. But living in this country the circle breaks down somewhat, so they had to go out among people they didn't know, which was a worry for them.'

Some families try to solve this by looking for partners among relatives in their home country, although doing so often brings its own set of problems. Kalsoom's parents had offers from relatives in Pakistan, which they rejected on her behalf: 'They weren't really suitable - there is such a difference in outlook.' She had in fact known her husband, Zafar, for many years, 'like the boy next door'. They were married in 1988.

Nushat Ali and Nassib Sibassi, also Muslims, were introduced to each other by married friends. As Nushat is from Pakistan and Nassib from Lebanon, it took a while to persuade Nushat's father to accept the match. 'I didn't want to go against my father's wishes, and we only went ahead when he actually did say yes.' Expectations are changing, however. 'The arranged marriage system is breaking down, in a way, from how our parents saw it: women are more educated, wanting more than the traditional, stereotypical Asian model of the submissive woman in the home,' says Kalsoom.

Anokhi (not her real name) says: 'Until I had spent a couple of years in Britain I did think I'd marry someone who had been more or less found for me.' Born in Uganda, she came to this country 10 years ago when she was 16. Her family still live in East Africa. Unknown to her parents, she has an English boyfriend: 'I think my parents are beginning to appreciate that I may not marry an Indian. But I think what they'd want - or what I hope they'd want - is my happiness.'

(Photograph omitted)