Interfaith Relationships – Henna Amin

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Interfaith Relationships – Henna Amin

Interfaith relationships aren’t wrong, the community’s mindset is.

Interfaith relationships are up there on the (long) list of taboos in the South Asian community. But the idea that two people of different backgrounds shouldn’t be together is viewed as a negative thing because it is rooted in bigotry, fear and a colonial-era attitude of distrust amongst our communities.

My experience with interfaith relationships has been relatively positive, but the reality is that my experience isn’t common enough. The disappointing reality for the overwhelming majority of South Asians in interfaith relationships is one of rejection and conflict. Over the years I’ve heard countless horror stories of friends of friends who had plucked up the courage to tell their parents only to be met with demands to end the relationship, and others being actively told to not even think about bringing someone outside of the community home. And whilst things are changing for many families as generations go on, the notion of an interfaith relationship remains a taboo subject in the South Asian diaspora.

As the child of an interfaith marriage, the pressure to marry within my faith was never forced on me or my sisters. But it didn’t mean we weren’t aware of the taboo. In fact, my mum was the first of 26 grandchildren to not marry a Punjabi person, and she paid the price of following her heart. Marrying my Gujurati dad 30 years ago in 1990 was the biggest act of rebellion her conservative Punjabi family had seen since their arrival in the UK, and one that she was (temporarily) pushed out of the family for.

My parents wanted things to be different for us. They didn’t want us keeping secrets, feeling restricted or even worse, being heartbroken because of them. So when I met my partner four years ago, I knew I wouldn’t have to hide him away like my other brown friends had to.

We were luckier than most. Our situation was even rarer because his parents also had an interfaith marriage. But even though both of our parents were supportive, and his whole family were accepting of us, I knew his Muslim-Hindu background would ruffle my grandparents’ feathers. But my parent’s unwavering support and acceptance of my choice meant that despite ‘what the family might say’, I knew that wouldn’t affect me the way it did my parents.

I realised how lucky I was with my parents’ reactions when I told my other South Asian friends. They were shocked that I could tell my parents so freely and they wouldn’t have a problem with the relationship, and do things like have him round the house and let him get to know my family. I had a few friends who were also in interfaith relationships who were convinced they would have to break up with their boyfriends once uni was over, or risk being shunned out of their families if they chose to be together long-term. But times are changing.

Although said friends in interfaith relationships ended things before they told their parents, they both ended up having conversations later on in which their parents said that they would have accepted their partners, had they stayed together. It makes me hopeful to see that times are changing, and some of our parents are finally putting their children’s happiness above family honour, and are willing to challenge their own prejudices.

Tips for making an interfaith relationship work
I won’t pretend that I’ve got it all figured out, or that I know what it’s like to deal with serious pushback or rejection from family or the community. But these are a few things I think any brown womxn in an interfaith relationship can do to help minimise barriers between you and your partner, and deal with the negative actions and attitudes of others in your lives.

Make an effort to teach each other about your different cultures
When you’re with someone with the same background as you, they’ll fit into your family much easier. There’ll be things that they’ll just understand, whether it’s traditions or small things like greetings. But when you’re both from different backgrounds, there will be discrepancies that can make you feel a little uncomfortable or nervous around the others’ family. But as long as you make a conscious effort to teach each other about your different cultures, you’ll be able to take part respectfully and understand each other’s identities better.

For me and my partner, it was little things like him teaching me to say salaam properly and me teaching him Punjabi words. It makes me feel closer to him because I understand more about him and his family and can appreciate his culture through these customs and traditions.

Be prepared to confront harsh realities
Even if both of your immediate families are accepting of the relationship, you’re likely to have at least one aunty who will gossip or look down on your relationship, or a situation where a bigoted comment is said. (In my case it’s my Nani who I know to this day would prefer I be with a Punjabi guy). The divides between our communities run deep, and our parents and grandparents’ generations were taught to distrust one another, but it doesn’t make disrespectful behaviour acceptable by any means.

The harsh reality is that those outdated attitudes are still held by our own family members, and it’s up to us to teach them that the prejudices they’ve grown up with are wrong and need to be addressed. I’ve had to deal with islamophobic comments and attitudes from within my family, and as disappointing as it was to see, addressing it also made them to confront the beliefs they held and let go of stereotypes. It also showed my partner that I not only had his back, but also that my family were putting in the effort to make our home a safe space for him.

Set boundaries with family members
If you do have family or community members who are disapproving of your relationship, or even try to tell you what you’re doing is wrong, I have two words for you – ignore them. If you love your partner and you have a healthy, loving and positive relationship then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be together. No matter what your family or the community say about you, this is your life and no one should tell you who to love. I know that is very much easier said than done for brown womxn, but we need to fight for what we want because the community sure isn’t going to give it to us.

Whilst I’ve never had anyone in the community say to my face that they don’t approve of my relationship, we’ve felt the judgement and nazar from afar more than once. I simply don’t engage or have contact with people like that, and focus on my own life and relationship.

Resistance to change comes from fear
More often than not, the negative responses to an interfaith relationship are nothing more than projections of fear and bigotry, and have nothing to do with the two people actually involved. So remember that. You owe it to yourself to stand up for what you want and are well within your rights to distance yourself from people who are detrimental to your happiness and safety.

Interfaith relationships are tricky to navigate in many ways, but coming from different backgrounds shouldn’t stop you from being with the person that you love. As brown womxn, we deserve love, and we deserve choice; two things that we are taught are off-limits. But we do. We deserve those things and so much more – and it’s time we took them back.

By Henna Amin


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