Published in Yen, Issue 31, 2008. Copyright, Sarah Ayoub, 2008
If race does not matter, why are so many young Australians missing out on their chance at true love because of family disapproval? Sarah Ayoub investigates an unrequited love of a different kind…
Imagine bringing home the perfect guy, only to have your family forbid the romance because you’re from two different cultures. If this sounds like a scenario from an ancient, far-off land, you’re mistaken. In our own backyard, first generation Australians are fighting a new form of relationship demon – the pressure to conform to traditional ideals that seem foreign and out-of-date. Yet inter-racial dating remains a major issue of contention among young Australians and their migrant parents, and it is slowly driving families apart.
Growing up in a multi-cultural Australia has meant that relationships have transcended cultural and racial boundaries. In a society where almost one in two marriages ends in divorce, lasting relationships rely on a ‘love conquers all’ mentality. Australia has long prided itself on its diverse culture, inherited by immigrants who enrich it with the traditions they bring from their old countries. But these traditions are proving to be a clashing point between parents and their first-generation Australian children, who are exposed to various elements of culture that their parents do not understand nor embrace. And this is bringing about a divide among the strongest family ties.
According to Michael Fine, Associate Professor of Sociology at Macquarie University, a marriage based on love is only a recent phenomenon, brought to Australia from Europe and thus not accepted by many non-European cultures.
“The idea of marriage…is traditionally based on an alignment between two families…and many [people] from non-English speaking backgrounds are bringing this [tradition] with them to Australia”, he says.
As such, they are expecting their children to follow this tradition, but failing to recognise the pressure that it puts on them as they are attempting to assimilate and establish social relationships that benefit them personally and emotionally.
Elizabeth Saad is a 20 year old Australian-born Egyptian girl raised in a strict Orthodox Christian family. She has been dating her Polish Catholic boyfriend for about two years, a concept that has taken her family some getting used to. She feels that many young Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds are pressured by their families to conform to certain traditions that might not necessarily be right for them. “I am [pressured] to a degree…but I do not want to [be with an Egyptian] and I do not think it is right that I am under pressure, because it is my happiness that matters most”.
Despite desiring the best for their children, parents are driven by other factors when imposing dating regulations on their children that younger generations find hard to understand.
“My grandfather’s view on marriage is based more on something benefiting his family name rather than my self-happiness”, says 30 year old Iysha Ivanova, of Russian background. “These expectations are not widely welcomed in my generation”.
Elizabeth agrees, saying that her parents were more worried about what people would say about her that would diminish their reputation in the Egyptian community.
Michael Fine adds that there are other motives driving parents’ desires for their children to marry within their cultural sphere. Apart from it being a precedent that should be continued among ethnic groups, it can also be an expression of power and patriarchy. However, a parents’ experience of the Australian culture, although often based on generalisations with roots in media representation, can also play a pivotal role in their reluctance to let their kids form inter-racial relationships.
“Parents often see television as a way of generalising on the state of Australian families [because] you see…no absolute traditional nuclear unit”, he says.
Families are often weary of inter-racial marriages because they signify a break in the chain of cultural traditions and they feel that they are more susceptible to divorce and other marital problems. So although Iysha maintains that the “most important aspect of any relationship is personal compatibility and love”, she does recognise that inter-racial marriages can “eventually result in a breakdown of relationship as the customs that each partner was raised with are lost in the mix and not passed onto children”.
But although 21 year old Khadija, an Australian-born Lebanese Muslim girl, understands that her parents’ worries are mainly based on their lack of acceptance in Australian society and a fear that they will “never be understood”, she still feels that their view on inter-racial dating is not relevant in modern society.
“I understand their perspective”, she says. “They want us to stay true to our roots, but we consider ourselves to be Australian, and we live an Australian way of life”.
When prompted about her views of forced arranged marriages overseas, Khadija uses the example of a friend from school who was sent overseas under the guise of a holiday and forced to marry her cousin. For her, it’s a “terribly disgusting cultural construction” established by “chauvinistic old-fashioned men”.
“I totally condemn that… I am so glad that media attention has shunned it, but it is not fair that it is labelled as a strictly Muslim thing”.
Michael Fine agrees, saying that although many assimilated communities do not practice arranged marriages, they are still commonplace among “some Middle-Eastern, Indian and Asian cultures”.
But that does not necessarily mean that other cultures do not practice, as Michael Fine terms it, a type of ‘parental selection’ process, where there is a possible negotiation and flexibility in choosing a partner.
“Sometimes you can just say ‘mum, dad, I don’t love him’, or they can disapprove of a particular person without actually arranging a partner”, he says.
Yet even this is proving to be a point of disagreement between older and younger generations, as continued disapproval of couples leads to them resorting to extreme measures to prove that they know what they are doing in terms of their own life. Iysha Ivanova could no longer handle the dating restrictions placed on her by her family based on her Russian background and chose to elope with her Lebanese boyfriend.
Meanwhile, 21 year old Dani Dimitri of Greek descent, though she prefers to marry a Greek, does “feel strange about telling [her] parents about boys in general”.
“Although they are fairly liberal, my parents definitely have their specificities regarding dating…and my Anglo-Australian friends find that difficult to understand, perhaps because they do not experience the culture in the way that we do”, she says. “But there is a major problem when you can’t be with someone you love because of race – parents should not judge who [their children] want to be with”.
Despite their childrens’ view however, parents are still standing their ground, arguing that they know what is best for their children, and their reluctance is just an expression of their love and knowledge of how they believe the world works. Amar Singh is an Indian father who migrated to Australia as a university student. He obeyed his parents’ wishes and returned to India to marry a bride his family selected. Although he would like his children to marry in the same way to keep the tradition alive, he does not want to force them to marry against their wishes, although he will be disappointed if they do not, and knows that his relationship with them would never be the same. He feels that the media both here and in India are implicitly telling young people that it’s ok to defy parents’ wishes for traditionally arranged ceremonies, and he feels that India’s divorce rate will climb as a result of this.
“Most kids in India now marry for love and it does not work out”, he muses, “so they come back home and the only condition their parents place is that they will choose their partner the second time around. It’s simple, in an arranged marriage; you are forced to work things out because your families are part of it too”.
But despite their good intentions, parents are failing to realise that their children are struggling to grow up in an environment different to their own. Choosing a partner of a particular race when you are exposed to so many different cultures is a major obstacle – growing up in Australia from an ethnic background gives you a certain hybrid identity that is unique depending on how open you are to outside influences, no matter what they may be. So perhaps the point of contention lies in the degree of assimilation of the person involved, and the extent to which they are willing to sacrifice a part of their culture for another’s. This is an issue that 22 year old John, a Lebanese Maronite Catholic, has grappled with, ultimately deciding that he shares his parents’ view that the traditions of his Lebanese Maronite culture are ones he intends to maintain – with a Lebanese Maronite girl.
However he feels that his decisions, and the decisions of young Australians who choose to date outside their cultural circle, should not be criticised, as each participant is ultimately making a decision right for them.
According to Fine, “each person should decide for themselves the extent to which they wish to accept decisions made by others. This is often difficult but no less important as a principle for a democratic society”.
It seems this issue will continue to be fought out under the roofs of Australia’s multi-cultural homes, because it poses a problem that no amount of democratically-implemented, anti-discrimination legislation can fix. So let’s hope that love will conquer all things after all.