Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Crossing Over or Joining Hands?

Interfaith unions, though now increasingly common, bring a unique set of issues that couples and their children have to deal with all their lives.

Though now subject to varied definitions, marriage is a complex relationship traditionally acknowledged to be a happy union between a man and a woman. Ideally, also, marriages take place between people considered compatible in beliefs and values that would make the union fulfilling and long-lasting.

Interfaith marriages are described as marriages in which the spouses follow different faith traditions. There can be many forms of such union, i.e. between members of religions of ‘the Book called the Abrahamic religions - which include Islam, Christianity and Judaism - sharing the same monotheistic belief system; religions which are completely different owing to Eastern or Western roots, like Christianity and Buddhism or Taoism; religions based on ethical systems like Humanism and polytheistic philosophies like Hinduism, etc.

In general, an increase in interfaith marriages over the years is due to increased globalization. The world has turned into a global village and close contact between peoples of varied faiths and traditions is unavoidable. This contact leads to closer ties and couples may decide to form stronger bonds through marriage. In the past few decades, people from South Asia have migrated in large numbers to developed countries in search of financial security. A vast majority of these men and women from countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka moved to Europe, the UK and the English-speaking countries of North America. First generation immigrants largely remained concentrated in groups they identified with. As the second generations of the South Asian Diaspora slowly became more integrated, interfaith marriages were a natural outcome. However, these have not been easy due to the cultural or religious baggage each person brings to such a union.

The challenges in interfaith marriages are usually directly proportional to the difference in the background of couples. Hence, some studies suggest that interfaith marriages have a higher rate of failure. However, difference in religion may not be the only difficulty for couples since beliefs within the same religion tend to vary too, and a moderate Muslim and one believing in a radical interpretation may find not much to relate with, just as in the case of a liberal Christian and a conservative Christian. Conversely, a liberal Jew and a liberal Christian may find much to agree on in many of their beliefs.

One reason for failure of these marriages is the fact that despite everything, societies by and large still remain skeptical and less supportive - some more than others - of intercultural and interfaith unions. Eastern societies with their close-knit joint family systems generally tend to be more demanding than Western models of family life. The basic values that define relationships are very different in the East and West, and couples who discuss their aspirations and expectations before the wedding generally fare better. As a general rule, Eastern cultures - and South Asians specifically - are male-dominated, and the Eastern man is used to taking on the main burden of financial responsibility and being more assertive in decision-making. Eastern wives, conversely, are expected to be supportive, stay-at-home moms, managing the affairs of the family and not expected to pursue careers outside the home unless economic circumstances compel such a decision. Western men, on the other hand expect their wives to be equal earning partners and might find them to be lacking in perspective and ambition if they don't. Hence, a Western woman marrying an Eastern man might find herself hard pressed to fulfill her duties, while an Eastern wife might be equally bewildered by the expectations of her man.

In an interfaith marriage, not only the couple has to deal with the usual pressures of marriage, but also the added responsibility of maintaining better than usual religious decorum for fear of being labeled ‘traitors' of their respective Faiths. What they see as ‘joining hands' may be considered more like ‘crossing over' by families and societies at large. Then comes the question of whether one of them would convert or whether each would follow their own beliefs - one estimate puts the number of conversions at 40%. Conversions are largely seen as an effective solution to issues that might rise after the birth of children, but they also come with many problems for the spouse who has converted under some sort of pressure. Feelings of betrayal for the previous faith, trouble relating with newly adopted concepts and doctrines, and difficulty in connecting with God in a new context may create psychological problems and unnecessary tension in the relationship.

The question of whose religion would the children follow creates much friction and sometimes couples debate whether they should have children at all in order to prevent such dilemmas. If the parents are unable to reconcile their religious differences, over time these can cause friction in the home and affect the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the children too. In some homes a compromise is reached by teaching the children both religions and allowing them to decide for themselves once they are old enough to make that decision. Mostly, however, one religion dominates over the other, e.g. the Islamic Faith requires the children be raised in Islamic tradition, while the Catholic Church requires that the Catholic parent ensure the children are raised as Catholics. These frictions sometimes continue to plague relations and result in separation.

Interfaith marriages in India have been more common between members of the Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism) than between Hindus and Christians or Muslims because of their basic religious differences. In the Indian society Dharmic intermarriages tend to have fewer problems than Muslim-Hindu or Christian-Hindu couple. Although India has a state policy of freedom of worship, a U.S. State Department report in 2000 observed that the tensions in the society between Hindus and both Muslims and Christians had increased alarmingly, discouraging such unions. In Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim majority country, a Hindu or Christian spouse is expected to convert before the vows are taken.

To review a global trend, in the Muslim majority country of Malaysia the law requires the non-Muslim spouse to convert before the marriage ceremony can take place. It is estimated that in 1999 there were 150,000 intercultural couples in Malaysia. The National Jewish Population Survey conducted in 2000-2001 and updated in 2004 in the U.S., showed that 47% of Jewish marriages were interfaith, while more than 40% of couples married in the Catholic Church in Canada were of mixed religions according to The Catholic Registry. However, the percentage of Muslims seeking interfaith marriage remains low in Canada. One study in the U.S. also estimates that 91% of Muslims marry within their Faith. Even though a 2007 Pew Research Poll concluded that about 62% of American Muslims consider it acceptable to marry a non-Muslim, yet the tragedy of 9/11 and its subsequent events have divided the world so sharply on religious lines that perceptions have changed drastically and the option may not seem very attractive to other faiths in the West, anymore.

As cultures and traditions continue to hold sway over actions of individuals, choice of a life partner remains one of the most important decisions one makes. For any commitment to sustain in the long term, communication of expectations before the vows are taken and determination in the face of hardships, might offer the best hope.

Published Feb, 10 Southasia Magazine as Faith and Marriage

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