Foreign husbands, foreign wives —Rafia Zakaria

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Given the burgeoning Pakistani communities across the globe, expatriate marriages are only likely to increase. Similarly, because foreign citizenship confers economic potential, it is likely to remain a denominator in considering the worth of a future matchThe desirability of foreign citizenship in the marriage market in Pakistan is well known to all who have been even minimally involved in the seeking of a spouse. Matrimonial advertisements proudly list the possession of American, British or Australian citizenship as a primary characteristic defining their son or daughter. In the popular show Shadi Online, young men from all over Pakistan are unabashedly honest about seeking a wife who possesses foreign citizenship over and above any other qualifications. In addition, with so many young men of marriageable age based abroad, many Pakistani girls find that marriage means leaving not only their parental home but also their city and


The issue of migration thus has become a curious new dimension in the current age of Pakistani marriages and being so, it has thrown some kinks into an otherwise quite well developed system of arranging marital relationships.

The institution of ‘arranged marriage’, despite the critiques and exoticism heaped on it by the West, ensured that spouses were well matched on economic, social and educational levels. Increased interaction among the families, and the necessity of wider family assent to the match generally assured that the new bride would fit into the larger family. Pre-existing relationships between the families formed either by earlier marriages or filial relationships also ensured that many family members would be invested in the stability and longevity of the marriage.

Given the collectivist family-oriented structure of Pakistani society, the inclusion of a wide family network into the marriage provided some guarantee of minimising future disputes and a set of arbitrators who could put out marital fires. This framework continues to work in marriages where the newly married couple will stay close to their families and often live in an extended family structure.

The expatriate marriage, specifically one that seeks out marriage to a foreign citizen or involves a male living abroad coming to Pakistan to find a wife, introduced a vexing set of complications into this process.

First, unlike other dimensions considered while arranging a marriage, the possession of foreign citizenship adds a power dimension to the new relationship that does not exist in other marriages. Put simply, being an American, French or European citizen says little or nothing about either the character of the persons involved or their possible compatibility with a future spouse.

Despite this, the consideration of citizenship in arranging marriage has the unfortunate consequence of taking an arbitrary characteristic with no moral basis and making it a determinant. An amoral characteristic, citizenship is thus elevated to ultimate importance, often blinding all those involved from other more important factors.

Second, expatriate marriages involve a breakdown of the traditional marriage structure that ordinarily sustains arranged or semi-arranged marriages. In most arranged marriages, the assent of the larger extended family, and the compatibility of socio-economic classes are primary factors with the actual compatibility of the couple being secondary. Couples who continue to live in Pakistan rely on these networks long into their marriage for childcare, help with gaining employment and often share households with extended families.

In reality, thus, they spend little time on their own, and rarely have to rely on only each other for emotional support or financial management or even in the care of their offspring. Personal compatibility between the spouses, while still a necessary and welcome element, is not a crucial factor whose absence can result in the breakdown of the relationship.

The expatriate marriage is markedly different. With the absence of large supporting family structures, the erstwhile couple is left to its own devices in sustaining the marriage. Gone are the aunts and uncles, the parties and get-togethers that otherwise ease the couple into married life. Instead, an unwelcome land, various gradations of culture shock and sometimes even language barriers add to the challenges of the marriage.

If the marriage involved a man who has gone back to Pakistan to get himself a wife, the new bride is faced with additional challenges of evaluating and considering her spouse in a context she has never seen before. Changes in climate and general culture shock add to a cherished loss of independence and place burdens on a fledgling relationship.

Finally, the power differential in expatriate marriages creates incredible potential for abuse. Lonely brides accompanying husbands to new countries following an often hurriedly arranged marriage have little or no support structure to turn to. In some cases, they may arrive in the new country to see their “ideal” husband devolve into a domineering beast with no one to check his behaviour. Others may find that husbands have previous relationships with women that they expect to maintain using their wives’ dependent immigration status as a basis of blackmail.

Indeed, scores of immigrant brides from all over the world are subjected to abuse on the basis of their immigration status. In the United States, special legal provisions have been created under the Violence Against Women Act where women (and men) facing abusive marriages to United States citizens are able to petition for permanent residence even if the marriage has ended. Provisions such as the ‘U’ visa ensure that women who have been the victim of crime in the United States (such as battery for domestic violence) can petition to be legalised even if their spouse was undocumented.

Given the burgeoning Pakistani communities across the globe, expatriate marriages are only likely to increase. Similarly, because foreign citizenship confers economic potential, it is likely to remain a denominator in considering the worth of a future match. As Pakistani society changes to reflect these realities, it is important to also consider the varying power dynamics, the altered social structures and the potential for abuse inherent in such marriages.

Underlying these considerations is the importance of questioning the value of foreign citizenship conferred as it is by arbitrary circumstances as a basis for building a life and a marriage. Thus both those entering these marriages and those arranging them need to be more circumspect in recognising the greater demands of personal compatibility, cultural flexibility and general perseverance required by such matches and the qualitative way in which they differ from a traditional Pakistani marriage.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at


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