I was raised in the Middle East, educated in Australia and London, but my Sri Lankan Muslim background was always in the foreground regarding marriage. I was 32, divorced, and living an independent life in London when I met the dashing Dauda in the London Lloyds insurance market, where we were both pursuing ambitious careers.
At that point, it didn't matter to me what his culture was. I enjoyed his mindset, attitude, and energy which focused on topics like diversity and inclusion in our sector, the shared struggles of immigrants, and methodologies for leadership and growth. Yes, our initial dates were like business meetings!
Dauda was raised in New York, London, and the Gambia, meaning we both shared the nexus of immigration, determination, and being self-propelled from a young age. The key similarity was that our parents had raised us with many things in common; a good education, hardworking ethics, and integrity.
I had never considered marrying a person of African descent, mainly because of underlying conditioning. In Sri Lanka, cultural norms and beauty standards are strongly associated with skin color. Although not preferred, marriage to a white person received justification, "at least their babies will be beautiful and sudhu (white)"
I have many family members who married outside of the Sri-Lankan culture — everything from Scots, Greeks, Iraqis, and Japanese. But me marrying Dauda was a first. Our marriage was only sufficed by the fact that "at least he was Muslim".
Dauda was extremely patient with my anxious need to please everyone and manage the messaging. The implication of our union wasn't so much a factor for me because I knew my immediate family would be receptive, but I thought it would impact my parent's reputation within society back home.
Many Sri-Lankans have forgotten what a melange of cultures have made up our tiny island. There are centuries of inter-mingling consisting of visits from the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Arabs, Indians, Javanese and even the Sephardic Jews. Yet, in the wake of post-colonial nationalism, we cleaved to just three racial identities, Sinhalese, Tamil, and Moors (Muslims), and never the twain shall meet in matrimony.
Sri-Lankans will be the first to scream racist in the West but will consider it beneath themselves to marry or work for a Black man. This is why marrying Dauda meant even more because he brings a different perspective to the table to educate those who have not ventured out of their cultural enclaves and rely on social media to shape their judgments. There were concerns about "honor killings" on the African front, as this is the pervading stereotype in the UK around Pakistani communities. These fears had to also be allayed.
My father said it best - "A man with any culture is better than no culture, and Africans are very similar to us. Africans have strived under colonialism, so if you are a successful African, that's like the effort of three white men."
Telling my family required working with a life coach in London. First, I had to build confidence and be resolute in my decision, and have done all my due diligence so that I could answer their questions around his family, heritage, and circumstances.
I started to meet Dauda's family and friends who were just as impressive as him, and I already knew his work colleagues and how he operates in a professional setting. After taking a steer from my brother on telling my parents sooner rather than later, I couldn't have received a better reception. They impressed me, and I realized that most times, the issues we face are in our minds, and with the right conversations and approach, you can seek approval and support from those who matter.
There are still murmurings, "You heard she married an African?", "Somalians are very Radical Muslims (even though he is Gambian). Can he afford to take care of you? , You know your children will be dark, right?" I receive all these comments with open arms due to a lack of education and exposure. Our key takeaways from experience are setting a goal together, communicating with each other, showing maturity and consideration in your decision-making with your family, and letting your love speak for itself.
Sadly my father passed away one month after giving his blessing to us both. We subsequently got married in December 2021 to honor his approval. Given the reception we received from both sides of the family and communities who find our story inspiring — we want to ensure that anyone who would like us to counsel them or even speak to their families knows that they can reach out to us for support!
@zaynab_zubair photocredits: @gokhangoksoyphoto