Overcoming the cultural divide
February 18, 2011 2:50 PM   Subscribe

How to tell my Muslim parents about my white boyfriend?

Hi all,

This is part question, part brain-dump, but I hope you'll forgive me because I'm feeling incredibly anxious right now and could use some advice/reassurance.

I'm a mid-twenties woman with Pakistani Muslim parents. I wouldn't call myself Muslim, to be honest I'm not really sure what I believe, if anything. My parents were always pretty liberal with me growing up - they let me go out with friends unsupervised, wear Western clothes, then they let me leave home to go to university. It was while I was at university that I realised that I didn't really believe in the religion and wanted to live my life a different way. It was also towards the end of this period that I met my now-boyfriend, a white guy I've been with for over four years now, and whom I am very much in love with.

The thing is, my parents don't know about our relationship. When I was an adolescent my dad was much stricter and harder to communicate with than he is now. He told my mum to tell me that if I ever ran off with a white boy, he wouldn't consider me his daughter any more. Of course that terrified me, and when I met my boyfriend I couldn't imagine telling him about it. When I finished my degree I told my parents I was moving abroad - they were shocked and very hurt and tried to get me to stay - my dad even threatened to disown me, but eventually they came around and now they're, if not happy, accepting of me living abroad.

Over the years my dad has mellowed considerably. He talks to me like an adult now, asking my opinions instead of merely holding forth with his own, not 'ordering' me to do things. He has also started thinking a lot more about religion and its true meaning, i.e. what it really means to be a 'good' person, and whether that always gels with what your culture dictates. He and my mother always used to think I'd have an arranged marriage. They never made steps to set one up, but I know they're both still hoping I'll move back to the UK and find a nice Muslim boy, or get them to find one for me.

Now that I have been living abroad independently and successfully for so long, and am confident that I want to marry my wonderful boyfriend, and my dad has mellowed a bit, I know it's time to tell my parents the truth. In fact, I'm flying home tomorrow to do exactly that. But I'm terrified. I'm crying all the time and having panic attacks. I'm so afraid that my dad will disown me. I know my mum, kid brother and sister all don't care whether I marry someone who is white, brown or green, but it's my dad who of course is the decision-maker of the household.

Can anyone give my any tips on how I can gently but honestly and confidently break this news to them? Or just any reassurance that somehow it'll all be okay? I just don't even know where to start right now...
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It's like ripping off a bandaid (or like moving to a new country...) - the anticipation of pain is worse than the whatever the worst-case-scenario will be.

One tactic is to tell your mother in private and have the both of you jointly break the news to him - this way you don't have to deal with the combined shock of both your parents at the same time, and your mother perhaps can act as the rational person during the conversation. You know your family better than I do, and whether or not this will be a good idea.
posted by muddgirl at 3:00 PM on February 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

Hi, I'm a Pakistani Muslim girl who married her white boyfriend. First and foremost, feel free to MeMail me. I am now in the UK, so if you wish we can even chat on the phone or on email. I would prefer not to go into some specifics in AskMe as this username is linked to my real identity.

Here is what helped with me: the most important thing was to get my sympathetic family members on my side, especially my mother and my brother. Much later, the support of an elder male whom he respected was absolutely critical in ensuring that his doubts were allayed. With my father, the trouble was both his concerns about religion, and about what people he respected in the community would think. Your father might find it even harder, as he lives in the UK, and feels his culture and way of life is threatened.

To be honest, another thing that helped was familiarity. My then-boyfriend was a close family friend. He was a friend to everyone in the family, and even my father already knew him. It was several years between the time we first became friends to when we decided to marry. In between we were dating but in the classic Pakistani style, everyone pretended it wasn't happening.

So basically, my advice for now: get your allies together, take it slowly, and try not to let your father feel his culture, religion and worldview are threatened by the powerful forces of the world around him.

If you can, I would suggest starting with your brother, as both your parents will instinctively give his opinion weight. If you can delay things, and without knowing any more about your family dynamics, I would also suggest that you not announce your planned marriage just yet, but give them more time to get used to the idea that you're not bringing home a good Pakistani boy.

I'm afraid I don't have time right now to write more, but I'll be back online in the morning here in the UK, and will add more as I think of it. Please feel free to ask, through MeMail or the mods, if there are more specific things I can think about other than those you mentioned above.
posted by tavegyl at 3:21 PM on February 18, 2011 [21 favorites]

Egyptian-American here. My little sister is going through something similar right now, but the big difference is she's a freshman in college and still somewhat dependent on my dad's support. Things have been really tense between them since she started dating her boyfriend, who despite being a good guy, is a white American. But, just like your dad, my dad tends to overreact, and then realize over time that perhaps us, his kids, are not on the express train to hell, and perhaps our happiness is more important than abstract cultural concerns.

He seems to be more resistant to accepting my sister's relationship because of the Arab world's twisted sense of chivalry; my sister being a woman, my dad's supposed to protect her or something. From my perspective, the only problem she needs protection from is the fact that he won't accept her as she is.

You have an advantage over my sister, though: you're a financially independent adult living in another country. It's like muddgirl says, it's a bandaid, and you're going to have to rip it off if you want to be treated like the adult you are. I'm willing to bet your dad will come around eventually, but for now he may very well not accept your relationship. I agree that you should talk to your mom separately if you think she'd be more accepting.

You are an adult, and you have to live your life the way you see fit. Your dad may not like it, but for now he's just going to have to sit there and groove on it, because it's your life. Just trust that he's ultimately like any other caring father; he will recognize eventually that he wants to see you happy, despite cultural conflicts.

I think it's tough being an ex-Muslim, because we're largely invisible in the larger culture. But, we're out there, and we have a right to live our lives the way we want to. Just take a look at that previous question. Rip off the bandaid, we're rooting for you!
posted by malapropist at 3:40 PM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

You say you want to marry your boyfriend, but has your boyfriend proposed or have you two talked about getting married? Unless you two have settled that, there's no point in revealing it to your parents. Because once they find out you two are an item, and it turns out he isn't serious or isn't ready after four years of dating you, then you'll have been better off not bringing it up just yet because he might leave you.

In short, I would only tell them if you guys are hoping to get married in the next year. Because if I were your parents, I would be suspicious that you're going to be just another ex-girlfriend in a string of ex-girlfriends since there's been no proposal and engagement yet and it's been four years, and you obviously want to marry him.

I know some Indian girls/guys who were in relationships with white guys/girls, and when they were dumped or something in the relationship caused a breakup....well, arranged marriages and dating guys/girls in the same culture didn't seem like a bad idea anymore.
posted by anniecat at 3:48 PM on February 18, 2011

I lived in Glasgow for a long while and met several Muslim girls who got with white guys. The Islamic law is you got to marry a Muslim so the thing to do is have him convert - it doesn't mean he has to follow it afterwards or anything - to sort the rules out. This tends to mollify the parents, particularly as a lot of folk are converting to Islam now. It takes like three minutes and it's easy to act Islamic around parents and then be otherwise elsewhere.

I know lots about Islamic law and whatnot and, particularly among Pakistanis, so please feel free to memail or email and I'm totally glad to advise.

The most important thing for him is to participate in the family culture, as you know this can be full of win so properly briefing him and getting him on board here is the thing to do.
posted by By The Grace of God at 4:03 PM on February 18, 2011

Also - the main thing about Muslim culture is the family orientation, if he does this for you you will get to have all the awesome time chilling with your family. Let him learn that Islam is mostly about the family time, and it will be good - and good for him. So many Muslims now just practice around the families to keep that amazing connection.

p.s. have some biryani for me!
posted by By The Grace of God at 4:08 PM on February 18, 2011

Appeal to his sense of virtue, ie, the man i love is a good man, honest, hard working, etc.
He may not be a muslim but he is a good character.

I know a Jordanian who married a catholic woman and was ostracised from his family for it, but they came round eventually, though it took several years. Good luck ;)
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 5:08 PM on February 18, 2011

As others have mentioned, have you and your boyfriend actually discussed marriage? Does he feel as strongly about the relationship as you do? If not, I'd agree that it might not be best to tell them about this relationship.

A friend of mine is Indian and ended up marrying another friend of ours, a Mexican/American. Their relationship lasted for years before she told her parents - two or three of those years they were actually engaged. She was terrified of telling her parents that she wanted to marry him, fearing that she would be disrespecting them and their culture. They visited her in the US many times during their dating and engagement, but only ever knew him as a friend of their daughter. The was frought with much anxiety about what to do.

During this time, her boyfriend/fiancee learned all he could about India and its culture. He went with my friend to religious ceremonies, weddings, holy days at the temple. He did all this because he knew that when she made the decision to tell her parents (and the decision to tell them was wholly hers, she made this clear to him), they would be able to see that he respected their culture and would hopefully trust him to respect and love their daughter.

When she finally decided to tell her parents, she made sure to do it in person - when they visited the US - and she brought her fiancee with her. He was to ask for her hand in marriage, but was prepared to honor her father's decision (or as prepared as he could have been). The two of them spent weeks anxious and scared of what would happen.

When it actually came time to tell her parents, my friends described it as very anti-climactic. Her parents asked lots of questions, but there was no yelling and nobody got disowned. Their reaction had a lot to do with who serious my friends were about being together, and how respectful her fiancee was of them as her parents. They married in India a few months later.

It took a lot for these two people to be together - years and years of waiting, understanding, and mutual support. But they made it work. Many people make mixed-culture relationships work. Before taking this to your parents be sure that the two of you are ready to make the commitment - not necessarily marriage right away - but the commitment of being there to support each other if you family is upset about it. And the commitment to stick with the relationship if you family is fine with it.

Feel free to memail or email me if you'd like - I'd be happy to try and put you in touch with my friend or pass along any specific questions you have.
posted by youngergirl44 at 5:09 PM on February 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

What is the bigger issue? Your boyfriend's race or his religion?

Just some background about myself that you may want to consider before deciding to use my advice or not. I'm a Muslim guy, born and raised in the United States with parents who immigrated from India. I married a Muslim girl raised in the US by Pakistani parents. We both had parents who threatened to disown us if we married a white girl/boy. However, when we came of marrying age, they didn't care about the race, but they still cared if they were Muslim or not. I ran this question by her and we both came up with the following advice.

They way you wrote your question says that you think the answer is race. We suspect that you are discounting the religious angle.

1. Your perception of what is liberal may be different from reality.
You say that you were raised by "liberal" parents. However, many Muslim parents send their sons and daughters away to be educated. If you think that is liberal, then it means the Muslim community (friends and family) you were raised in is actually relatively conservative.
You also say you were allowed to wear western clothing. My wife takes issue with this because many women wear jeans and t-shirts. Were you allowed to wear mini skirts and bikinis at the beach as a teenager? Only truly liberal Muslim parents would allow their daughters to show that much skin.

2. You may have earned your fathers trust under false pretenses.
The part that gets us is that you believe your dad treating you as a mature adult/mellowing out is somehow a prediction on how he will receive the news. You may be assessing this totally wrong. Your family sent you abroad to get educated, not to pick up a white boyfriend, who you now think of marrying. You haven't told your parents about your boyfriend for so long, they assumed you were doing nothing but studying and being a good girl. When you break this news to them, you may raise all other kinds of doubts.


1. Don't tell anybody until it is real. Your boyfriend hasn't asked to marry you. If you think he is going to, that's another story.
2. Tell your mother. Sounds like you can tell your mother.
3. How does your boyfriend feel about conversion? While a person shouldn't have to change their religion to marry someone, and Islam requires people not convert on the basis of compulsion, but rather true belief ....that may be a principle your future husband may be willing to sacrifice for his love for you.

Because plenty of Pakistani or Indian Muslim girls marry white men who converted to Islam before the marriage. We know these couples and their marriages have been, at the very minimum, accepted by their families. The parents still feel some fear that the culture will be lost (will their grandchildren speak Urdu?).

However, there are many parents that feel proud that their children's religion was not lost, rather, they were able to bring another person into the Muslim faith and that this racial diversity is what Islam is really about.

4. Tell your dad
But if we're totally off, and it turns out that you think he is just against his race/culture, then you in fact have a much easier time. That's because your dad is mellow, as you say, and he will realize that a good man is a good man regardless of race and culture. He may have his own expectations for this daughter, but you and your boyfriend should be able to persuade him.


Does full disclosure really matter here? I don't think so. You haven't been honest up to now. Are you hoping to get a fresh slate with your parents based on something you setup behind their backs for several years?

No. Life and love are messy.

Step 1 - Don't tell anybody your boyfriend this trip
Step 2 - Tell your boyfriend about your family, ask him if he's serious about marriage, and if he's willing to convert. If he isn't serious about either - then you continue living this secret life until your parents realize you're not getting any younger. At that point they may be amenable to you getting married to anyone, rather than you becoming a spinster.
Step 3 - If he is serious about marriage and conversion, get him to convert ASAP and get him to start going to the Mosque and Muslim Student Association meetings
Step 4 - Tell your parents you met a nice white Muslim guy at college - ALL TRUE, JUST MISLEADING ORDER - and you both are interested in getting married
Step 5 - plan the wedding and get married
posted by abdulf at 6:18 PM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, in additona to the race question, the other question is, is he white or is he white and a khafir, and if so, is he willing to make shahada?
posted by orthogonality at 6:49 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've gone through a similar situation, but with genders reversed (I'm a guy and my father passed away a while ago so it was just my mom I had to get onside). Here's a couple of things that helped in my situation:

1. We were serious about getting married. If we were just seeing each other for fun I am certain that there would be much less tolerance, but I made it clear that this was someone who I wanted to marry and that we had both put some thought into the matter.

2. Both my wife and her family are fairly traditional. That meant that even though there were cultural and religious differences between the families, the core values weren't really all that different. How my wife's family interacted with each other was pretty similar to how a Pakistani family would.

3. Race. We are a racist, racist people. While I'm sure my mom and brother wouldn't care, I'm equally sure that her being Japanese made her much more acceptable to my extended family than if she were white, latino, black or Tamil.

4. My wife was willing to convert to Islam. Our family wasn't particularly observant anyways, I don't think my mom started praying five times a day until after my father passed away and we used to eat at McDonald's and get the Quarter Pounder, and my wife, like most Japanese, didn't already have a religion, and she didn't drink so there wasn't going to be any difference in her life anyways.

5. I was living abroad anyway. Being so independent and separate from the family meant that even if they did have serious problems with my choice, they had very little leverage to do anything about it. What does disowning really mean if you're only going to see each other once a year in any event?

6. My parents didn't have an arranged marriage and my older brother didn't either. So there was no precedent in the family to break.

7. My father had performed quite a few interfaith marriages and some of my parents' closest friends were couples where one spouse ended up converting to Islam.

8. Even if your father does end up disowning you now, all will be forgiven once you have children. There is nothing people like more than their grandkids.

9. My wife was educated and had a decent job. Parents in general want their children to have successful spouses. If your boyfriend has a good job, or is a "professional" then that will do wonders to his acceptability.

10. There isn't a 10, I just don't have any concluding statement to end this list with.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:51 PM on February 18, 2011

My white, non-muslim reaction to the idea of your man converting to Islam to help gain your parents' approval is that I'm quite horrified, mainly on my (possibly wrong) impression that someone who renounces Islam can be put to death, but also because pretending to a belief is nasty in itself. Living a lie is destructive.

I wish I had advice for you on how to tell your parents, but many of the earlier replies seem good, apart from those suggesting conversion.
posted by anadem at 7:33 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I read your question, I found myself thinking of the process of coming out to my family. I was particularly worried about my father, who's more conservative than other people in my family. My aunt said to me: "I don't think your father will let anything get in the way of you being his daughter." In the long run, she was right.

Do you think that might apply to you? If so, that might help deal with a negative short-term reaction.

I agree with the people telling you to tell your allies in the family first. It will lend strength to your position; it gives them a little more time not only to get used to your news (even if they're supportive, they might need time); and you'll be able to turn to them for support and advice on telling your father.
posted by bassjump at 9:50 PM on February 18, 2011

Living a lie is destructive.

I kinda agree with that, but not in every circumstance. For example, I've discussed with my therapist my intense anxiety about revealing my agnosticism to my (conservative Christian) parents. I mean it would devastate them, because they would believe I was damned, and they love me very much.

My therapist says there may be such a thing as a "black truth" (as opposed to a white lie)--a truth that can cause so much pain it is better left unsaid. In a case like this you have to decide whether being "true to yourself" is more important than avoiding pain for others.

I'm not speaking here about the norms or requirements of Islam, about which I'm pretty ignorant, but about the ethics of going along to get along. IF the OP's boyfriend were willing to convert, and maybe to think of it all as a cultural thing instead of a religious one (and all that is a big if), I don't know that it would be so wrong to do so.

Also, I don't get the impression that this couple would be living in a country where capital punishment for apostasy would be a danger.
posted by torticat at 9:52 PM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

I suspect that your dad already knows you have a boyfriend who may be white, and that you may be intimate with him. My only point to add to what is said above is that the act of telling you father has to provoke a reaction from him, be it benign approval or severe disapproval.

I suggest being very clear why you are telling him, and why telling him now. Is it to gain his approval, is it because you want your bf to be recognised in the family. The point being if you want to bring him or others round to a conclusion, then know what you want that to be and why you want it to be.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:36 AM on February 19, 2011

I'm going through a similar scenario (Pakistani girl, white boyfriend; parents don't know yet). I haven't figured out how to go about telling them, but if you need someone to talk or vent to, please feel free to message me! If you're interested in getting help from a community of interracial/interreligious couples, check out http://livejournal.com/users/masalacouples
posted by raintree at 10:03 PM on April 11, 2011

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