In a wealthy suburb in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, a group of young Pakistanis veered between laughter and distress as they played a board game that echoed their lives in both funny and painful ways.
The name of the game is “Arranged” and the goal is to avoid at all costs an arranged marriage – and the matchmaker who sets them up. She’s known as Rishta Aunty, slang in Urdu and Hindi for a certain kind of middle-aged, busybody matchmaker who knows all the single men and women.
To stay out of her grasp in the game, you draw cards that tell you how many spaces to move. It’d be a good thing if you get a card that tells you to act scandalously according to the conservative standards of South Asia. Because that would be a dealbreaker.
“You are in the contraceptive aisle of a pharmacy! Run before somebody sees you!” reads Ahmed. Since tradition has it that women aren’t meant to have sex before marriage, shopping for contraception definitely put you on a matchmaker’s “do not match” list.
“The Aunty moves five spaces away from you,” Ahmed continues. “Thank God.”
One night she began listing the ways she deflected pressure from matchmakers to meet a man. She tried to make herself as ineligible as possible.
She wore a fake wedding ring. She pretended to have a boyfriend. She got a tan, in a country where pale skin is prized.
“I was like, my life has been a struggle to run away from the matchmaker!” laughed Balagamwala.
And then she had a eureka moment: “I turned it into a lighthearted game of running away from the matchmaker!”
Lighthearted, yes. But the board game “Arranged” is also darkly funny as it skewers the South Asian tradition of arranged marriage.
In Pakistan, the tradition is for parents to put forward a marriage candidate. Their children are expected to agree. The ideal woman is young, pale, slim, meek, educated and moneyed — and from a good family. An ideal man has an MBA and a foreign passport. Marriages fuse families together, not just individuals.
For most women, “omnipresent in their lives is the expectation that they will get married at a young enough age that they can start having children,” says Bina Shah, a feminist writer.
Even if women don’t want to, “we have been raised in such a way that we feel obligated to our parents,” Shah says. “There’s the emotional blackmail: You’re going to give me a heart attack! What is the family going to say?”
In the game, while some cards help players evade Rishta Aunty, other cards force them to move closer to her by making them conform to South Asian standards of what makes a good, demure wife. And every player — even the guys — is a potential bride.
“Your rotis are perfectly round,” read another player, Rabia, referring to homemade flatbread that is a staple of Pakistani meals. The Rishta Aunty — a smiling, rotund cardboard figure of a woman on the game board — inched six spaces closer.
“Oh God!” she cried, visibly distressed.
“Arranged” hit a nerve on Kickstarter, where Balagamwala raised $21,788, far more than the $6,000 she sought. It was enough for her to start producing the game. It will go on sale in Pakistan in December.
And there’s an unexpected prize for Balagamwala.
When the game makes its debut, she says with a laugh, “I essentially become the least eligible lady. Now I can go and marry whoever I want!”
What would a Rishta Aunty say to all this?
For 36 years, Mumtaz Qureishi has arranged marriages for the rich and powerful. In her apartment on a recent day, two women who work for her were answering four black landlines and buzzing mobile phones.
They frequently flipped through binders. One was simply titled “Doctors.” Another was titled “Overage” –- it means women over 30. They were crammed with detailed application forms that demand excessive detail: Education. Province. Religious sect. Caste. Employment. Phone number. Marital status: single, divorced or widowed. Father’s job. Siblings. Address.
And then: appearance. Qureishi fills that section out herself, grading the women A, B, C.
The As, are white. “Fair complexion,” she says. “Tall, slim, smart,” she says.
She says its what future mother-in-laws want in a bride — and they usually select women for their sons.
But there’s a broader, quiet shift going on in this conservative country. In urban areas of Pakistan, about half all marriages are no longer strictly traditional, says Naeema Saeed, a professor in sociology at Karachi University.
She calls them “arranged-plus-love.”
Her research showed the trend now is for men and women to meet before they marry.
Then the man asks his parents to set up the match — a nod to tradition without being totally traditional.
The new approach reflects a society where social media is connecting people, where women are studying and working alongside men. Women are earning their own money, empowering them to make more independent decisions, she says.
It’s a quiet negotiation, not dramatic change, says Shah, the feminist writer. “In Pakistan our way of obstacles is not to smash through them but to go around them.”
And even a Risha Aunty can’t buck the tide. On a wall of Qureishi’s office, there are family wedding photos. She points to her son, beaming beside his wife.
He picked out his own bride — putting his mother out of a job.