This article is from the Essays on the topic of Women and Disability.
Marriage-able? Cultural Perspectives of Women With Disabilities of
South Asian Origin
by Lynda Nancoo
Immigrant women with disabilities are vulnerable to being
used as a passport to Canada.
"I wanted to run away," says Shabana as she discusses how myths
surrounding disability within the Pakistani community almost
destroyed her self-esteem and confidence when her parents began
searching for a suitable marriage partner for her.
My disability was only discussed when for example I would go to
Pakistan and would trip over things and they would say things
like, 'Oh!you are blind, aren't you, oh'.
Marriage is an important issue in Shabana's culture. Seeking a
marriage partner in this community is much different from the
western experience. In the Muslim culture, parents from both
sides arrange a "meeting" where both families and prospective
bride and bridegroom meet for the first time. Prior to this, the
parents of both families will research each others' background,
religious faith, extended family, education, employment, etc.
Although both families are present during the "meeting," the
couple is left alone for a while, where they can speak freely to
Parents will go to extreme lengths to find suitable partners.
Shabana was flown around the world for arranged meetings. She
recalls one of these meetings with bitterness because women with
disabilities are seen as unmarriageable.
My parents took me to New York. As far as they were concerned
this guy was ideal. He had the qualifications they were looking
for, he had an MBA and was working and he had sent his picture.
My mother took me shopping like usual (for dowry purposes).
When alone, Shabana decided to test this perfect partner and told
him about her vision disability. "He tried to be sweet about it
but I knew that it was going to be a problem."
Two weeks after returning to Eastern Canada she received a phone
call from him. He told her he had talked to doctors and friends
about her disability. The majority of them told him there was a
possibility that their children would have a disability.
I told him that it was the best thing to talk about my
disability and if you feel strongly about it then it's best you
don't call me again.
He never called again, and the rejection devastated Shabana. "If
he had rejected me for any other reason, I wouldn't have taken it
Shabana was born in Pakistan with a vision disability called
"retinitis pigmontosa." Retinitis pigmontosa (RP) is a
hereditary degenerative disease of the retina. People with RP
usually experience a loss of peripheral and night vision. It can
eventually lead to blindness.
Shabana's disability is invisible most of the time. She does not
use physical devices to maintain independence, although her
vision is greatly reduced at night.
After the rejection, Shabana rushed into marriage with a good
friend who knew of her disability.
... We knew each other from the time we were children. In
three months time we were married. Suddenly I realized
what I had done and thought, 'why did I do this ?'
Two years later, the marriage produced a healthy baby boy and a
divorce. "I felt that I used my first husband, who was also a
good friend, to prove to myself that I can be accepted...."
In part, Shabana blames her culture for what happened.
I wish disability could be more open and accepted. It's not
something we should feel guilty about. It's not a fault of ours.
Once we're made to feel better/good about it then we can feel
good as individuals and from there on we can go on to other
aspects of our lives. We need this confidence. Marriage is a big
issue, a very big commitment.
In Shabana's community, disability is rarely discussed. Lack of
education and awareness means that people in the Muslim
community will continue to hide their disabilities.
Regaining her confidence, Shabana married again. This time, the
couple allowed enough time to learn about each other. She is
still married to her second husband and now has three children.
What I have gone through is twice as hard as someone without a
disability. I felt I had to try twice as hard.
Her second husband knew about her vision disability prior to
their marriage, and accepted her the way she was.
If it wasn't for her husband's support and sensitivity, Shabana
feels she would not have been able to cope as a mother with a
disability. She enjoys being a mother, and talks fondly of her
three children (none of whom have a vision disability) and
passionately about her husband.
The next hurdle is to tell her children about her disability.
Though they recognize that 'mommy can't see too well,' she feels
that her children are entitled to education about disability
issues. By making them aware of her disability she hopes that
they will be openly accepting of all people with disabilities.
My children help me a lot. When we go out they say, "Mom let me
hold your hand, Mom there's a step here," even in broad
daylight! ...But lately, I want to tell them about what is
medically wrong with my eyes. I feel my children should be very
secure. Maybe it's my inner feeling. I want them to know.
She also intends to keep discussing her disability openly at the
family dinner table. "[My parents] have been very supportive but
the culture is what's preventing them from fully accepting my
Like Shabana, marriage is very important to Aisha, who longs to
find a suitable marriage partner. "Men don't look upon us as
potential partners or wives, or they don't look upon us as
desirable or capable of sex."
Myths that women with disabilities are sexless, desireless, and
incapable of childrearing and childbearing leaves many women like
Aisha in despair.
...From a Muslim cultural perspective, culture itself
stigmatizes people with disabilities. I have to marry within my
religion. That's extremely important to me. It's difficult to get
partners within the Indo-Caribbean community because of stigmas
toward people with disabilities.
Unlike Shabana, Aisha's disability is very visible. Her electric
powered wheelchair is a dead giveaway. Aisha was born with polio
in the Caribbean. She talks about her desire to get married, but
unfortunately, negative stereotypes of disability within her
culture prevent her from finding a suitable partner.
The perception is that, due to my disability, I would not be able
to do things like non-disabled women, such as, I won't be able to
take long romantic walks, won't have children and
wouldn't be able to have as many children as they want. "
When Aisha told her parents she was thinking of marriage they
were very supportive. They started to talk to friends, family,
community members, and others. Aisha looked forward to the
She eventually decided to return to her homeland in hopes of
meeting someone. Aisha did find a suitable partner there. She
married him and upon returning to Canada immediately did
whatever was necessary to bring him to her.
She was devastated when she learned that her perfect partner only
married her to immigrate to Canada. Immigrant women with
disabilities are very vulnerable to being used as a passport to
Canada. She remains optimistic, however.
There are good people and bad people. I had to make a decision in
a couple of days. I got married. After l got back and we started
corresponding on the phone, I realized he wanted to get married
to me to come to Canada and nothing else. So I called it off I
stopped the sponsorship....
Fortunately, Aisha's parents supported her decision to end the
marriage. Her disappointment has not stopped her from wanting to
experience the roles of wife and mother. She wants a partner who
will understand and accept her the way she is. But why is
marriage so important?
I have an extended family; people who care about me, lots of
friends. What I don't have is a husband. From a religious point
of view I can't have a boy friend. I am not allowed to go on
dates. My religion considers marriage as half of fate. For me,
marriage means fulfilling half my fate. Also, I have a strong
desire to have children.
Loneliness is often a major issue for people with disabilities.
Because Aisha is a wheelchair user, spontaneity is almost
impossible. She must book accessible transportation at least four
days in advance. Aisha does not go to parties, bars, or other
social events or gatherings where alcohol consumption and smoking
are practised because they are not compatible with her religious
and cultural beliefs.
Western culture does not concentrate heavily on promoting
marriage, and the disability rights movement has not
concentrated on the cultural impact of disability.
The disability rights movement in Canada has done nothing
to raise awareness of the marriageability of disabled women. They
are concentrating on issues such as, violence against
women, building self-esteem, sexuality, but not on marriage.
In Aisha's culture marriage is the norm. She has watched sisters
and brothers, friends, other family members, people from the
mosque and others, marry and have children. She feels that her
community should be educated about issues surrounding
disability. Perhaps if more Muslim people with disabilities spoke
up about exclusion, disabilities would become more
Marriage, says Aisha, makes you think about your physical
appearance. What is a beautiful body? Can a woman in a
wheelchair be beautiful? Can a man be attracted to someone like
this? What would make him more interested? What would his
concerns be? Will he be open about all of these concerns? And
what about inner beauty? These are questions many women with
disabilities don't have answers to.
Both Shabana and Aisha have chosen to maintain their identities
as Muslim women with disabilities living in Canada. They both
agree that the cultural impact on marriage should be discussed
more often, and that communities like theirs should be better
informed about disability issues. Also, Canadians must be more
sensitive and accepting of cultural differences. This will help
encourage the acceptance of people with disabilities and most of
all, it will promote the marriageability of women with
The names and places of residence of the women in this article
have been changed to protect their identities.
Lynda Nancoo is a freelance writer/researcher. She has written on
issues such as disability, immigrant women, poverty, housing,
social policy, education, employment, self-help, transportation,
and racial minorities. She is currently working on a book about
it runs in the family
this gazing down
this embarrassing lapse of sense
only on her side so her husband says
he found her set the parameters
she was the one to be cared for
clouded she accepted the veil
all his lapses of sense her burden
when will she be the stronger
she picks through the cobwebs
the self crafted long ago
her husband on the outside
arranging for her exile
her separateness from him
yes she always wanted this but
not in this green-walled hospital
not in this white-coated presence
Diane Driedger's poetry has been published in Prairie Fire,
Women's Education de femmes and Visions of Flight. She has been
active in the disability rights movement for over twelve years.
MARIANA COLLEEN PERRY
Today, I met a man from Montreal.
Tonight I dreamed I rode
to Dorval airport
astride a giant aerosol can of
Whipped Topping n wheels, like a nineteenth century cannon. I
rode up and down the runways,
hugging with my arms the button marked 'push',
engulfing DC-8's, Boeing 707's,
and even the brand-new Tri-Star.
And from the Air Canada desk
there came a metal voice
apologizing to the people for the
in two languages.
Mariana Colleen Perry teaches at the University of Calgary and is
a freelance editor. A car accident in 1975 left her unable to
walk or talk. After much hard work, she has regained both speech