One of my work colleagues at the office is in her early thirties and still unmarried. Being from Java, she war raised a Muslim and follows the rules in her own modern way. She has a good education, is a bright young woman and would like to have a professional career. She has been working at various resorts in- and outside of Indonesia which means she also has an idea how other people live and think. And she’s not in a hurry to get married and have a family yet. Which is a fact that seems to worry her mother a lot. Apparently, every time she calls home, after a while of talking about how she is and what’s happening on the island, her mother inevitably asks her «And how about marriage, dear?». She seems to think that as long as my colleague is working on the island she will never find a suitable husband and that it’s high time she changed that.
In traditional Indonesian families, many marriages are still arranged by the parents or other family members. While my colleague’s parents are quite modern and will not force her into an arranged marriage, the pressure is still there for her to marry a «suitable Muslim» soon, have children und most probably quit any job she may still have outside her family home. This makes me realize once again how very lucky I was to be brought up in a liberal country and family. I wasn’t forced into anything and was free to chose how I wanted to live, whether I wanted to marry and have children or even go and work on a remote island at the other end of the world. My parents may not always have been happy about all my decisions, but they never objected and always supported me.
Living in a western country, we tend to forget how privileged we are in certain respects and simply take them for granted. I’m guessing there are far more arranged marriages in the world than freely chosen ones, considering that densely populated countries often have religions or political systems that favour arranged marriages. If you never knew anything else, then having a husband chosen for you and living a happy life raising children and taking care of the household may feel natural. But if you get the chance to have a good education, maybe even go to university, and are then still expected to abandon your dream of a career or a life without marriage and children, this seems very difficult to me. Please don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with staying home and raising kids! If this is your own choice, then it’s just as good as any career. But if the pressure from your culture and family is so big that you simply don’t have a choice, it feels unfair.
On the other hand, there is a phenomenon that I wasn’t really aware of because it’s not common in Switzerland: many of our employees leave their kids with their parents or in-laws to be taken care of while they work on the island. They sometimes don’t see them for many months on end if their family lives far away. It especially strikes me with the few couples we have where both parents work on the island and are away for a long period of time. I was never an overprotective mother to my children, but I think I would have felt terrible to leave them with someone else for so long when they were small, even if they were in loving care. But I realize again that this is the luxury of a privileged person because I might have been forced to do the same if I were Indonesian, in order to make a living.
I know that my colleague once was very close to getting married to the partner she had a that time, but then the situation changed, and they split up. I’m not sure if she is still hesitant to think about marriage simply because she hasn’t found «the one» yet or because she doesn’t want to live according to traditions. But I can feel that she is torn between two worlds. On the one hand, she wants to please her parents because they want her to do what they think is best for her. On the other hand, she also claims her right to decide for herself about her own life.
As a parent myself, I know what it feels like to be torn between wanting to tell my kids what I think they should do and not interfering too much with their life. It’s the eternal question about how much of our own beliefs and experience are we allowed to force upon our kids and how much do they have to find out for themselves, even if that may be painful. This conflict is regardless of religion, I think. It’s about the balance between support and letting go, and to find this balance will be a challenge for us as long as we live…
I never even dreamt of working on a remote island in Indonesia, but life has a way of taking care of itself…