Why engaged couples should forget customs and plan the wedding they want.
My Life: Fatima Al Shamsi on wedding plans
Before attending my first wedding ever earlier this month (yes, I have been informed time and time again of just how ludicrous it is for an Arab to have gone 23 years without going to a wedding), I explained to my father what my big day would be like:
Football pitch, Baba in goal. The groom is set to shoot a penalty kick. If he misses, Baba and I go on holiday and the groom can try his luck again next year. If the groom scores, the wedding is still on.
"What do you think, Baba?" I ask my father.
"Why can't I shoot the penalty?" he replies.
Clearly, my mocking of wedding rituals is lost on him. The point is, I think my version would be more entertaining and more comfortable.
Emirati weddings have elements shared by most Islamic cultures, as well as some specific to the Gulf. The legal facet is carried out according to Islamic tradition. This is known in the Emirates as the melcha, which generally means an intimate dinner party (separate for men and women) where a religious sheikh is brought from the courts to draw up a marriage contract and make sure the union is consensual for both the bride and the groom, as prescribed by Islamic law. By the time the more elaborate wedding parties are held, most couples in the Emirates are legally married, but have not started living together.
Stories and pictures from Muslim weddings of my Pakistani, Indonesian and Indian friends showed culturally specific traditions and customs. This was something I did not experience at the celebration I attended in Abu Dhabi. Women were dressed in the latest fashions, ranging from designer gowns to tailored dresses. While I had one of my roommates from New York at the festivities with me, after seeing pictures our other roommate mused: "Why aren't you guys dressed more like princesses from Agrabah and less like attendees at a midwestern prom?" Though I like to think that most of the dresses I saw that night were more red-carpet-worthy and less prom, I can see what she meant.
Other than the lack of men in the ballroom, from an outsider's perspective there was nothing uniquely "Arab" or "Emirati" about the women's wedding party. The only thing specific to Arabic culture during the week was Laylat Al Henna (the henna night), when the bride gets beautiful henna designs on her hands and feet. This is normally done a day or two before the big celebration and involves her female family members and close friends.
This is how weddings have looked, more or less, to Emiratis for decades. While not as elaborate as celebrations now, my parents' wedding had elements that are continued today: a universally recognised white wedding dress for the bride and a traditional kandura and bisht for the groom.
Still, as people try to navigate the "glitz and glamour" precedent that has become customary, there is a growing realisation that expenses are becoming ridiculous. I would love to see more focus on celebrating the occasion itself, and less tension between what is traditional and not and what is appropriate and not. I think the families and the couple should be able to decide for themselves without feeling like they have to live up to a standard.
Personally, I'd rather not have a segregated wedding. While the henna night should be a female-only event similar to a bridal shower in the US, the actual wedding day is a time to celebrate with family and friends. Being so close to my brothers and my father, I'd want to have them around for the occasion.
Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati studying for her master's in global affairs at NYU in New York.