Behind the myth of Islamic marriage

Pakistan/ a Western bride's story
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BEHIND the British tabloid reports on the many horrors of Lahore that lie in wait for Imran Khan's innocent bride, some Pakistanis see a transparent racism. They say that the nasty message hidden in the tales of what Jemima Goldsmith will encounter as a Muslim bride in Lahore - purdah, boredom, tummy troubles - is that for all Imran's dash and good looks, he is still a wog and Jemima never should have fallen for him.

Yet Lahore is not Baghdad in the Dark Ages. The severed hands of thieves do not clutter the streets, and Pakistani men are no more brutish towards their wives than are Englishmen or Germans. A city of Moghul palaces, mosques and gardens with a history going back to the 1st century, Lahore today is home to hundreds of foreign women married to Pakistanis and raising families. Many foreign wives speak of how they discovered in this Islamic society a protectiveness towards women, a dignity and a depth of human relations missing in their own countries.

One European in her late thirties, married to a wealthy Lahore cotton exporter, agreed to talk intimately to the Independent on Sunday on coping with Pakistani life as long as a pseudonym - Beatrice Khan - was used.

When Beatrice first moved to Lahore in the 1980s, she said, "I was so disoriented. All I knew was the man I was married to, and the name of the city and country where I was living. And my husband faced a lot of problems too. Here he was, coming back with a foreign woman and trying to adjust with his family and friends. It wasn't easy." For the first months, Beatrice was miserable. "I dressed the way I did back in Europe. I was never bothered except once in the Shalimar Gardens, when a man brushed against me deliberately. I yelled, and the people in the park rounded on him. He grew frightened and ran away. It was real chivalry," Beatrice laughed.

Doing her shopping and other errands around Lahore, she no longer wears Western skirts, preferring the less revealing salwar kameez. "I felt an obligation to put on this disguise. It pained me, but it was the only way I could penetrate this society." Immersing herself in this culture would prove difficult, she knew. "I fought it. I wore clothes the colour of my national flag, and talked so much about Europe, the films, the restaurants, that I was like a scratched record. I made a lot of enemies. But at the same time, I was dying to be let in to their world. But I didn't even know where the doorway was.

"And I would get terribly bored. During the low moments. I'd call the servants, the cook, the sweeper, the gardener into the house, sit them down and I'd sing opera to them. Of course I have a terrible voice. And to make it worse, I'd belt it out in a man's voice, like Placido Domingo. I could tell the servants desperately wanted to laugh, but they didn't dare offend me. I felt much better afterwards," she said, chuckling at the memory of her servants sitting in the living room with stiff solemnity.

After months of despondency, Beatrice eventually found not one door but several that allowed her entry into this culture. On Fridays, with her hair covered in a scarf, she joined the thousands of pilgrims who visit the shrine of Datta Sahib, a Sufi mystic, and leave offerings of rose petals. "I'd become intoxicated by the scent of roses," Beatrice recalled. Another way was by chatting with her greengrocer. "All these elite society ladies would laugh and say: 'Why are you spending so much time at the greengrocers?' But they didn't know how hard it was for me to find a way in."

Beatrice also befriended a woman in her sixties who helped her realise that Pakistani society, despite its appearance, is secretly a matriarchy. "Pakistani women are very adept at manipulating their husbands.

"But sometimes I feel like I'm living in a state of siege where every day I have to devise a new battle plan to survive. There are days with incredible highs - in the park last night the flower bushes had so many fireflies it was as if they were decorated in fairy lights - and other days when I feel thrown into a dungeon. I have children more Pakistani than European. I could never quit and go back. I've sacrificed so much to become part of Pakistan."