This Muslim newlywed rewrote a cultural norm to become the author of her own happiness

A young Muslim couple in Toronto stays true to the teachings of Islam to build a life together

A young lady sits in the garden of the Aga Khan Museum
Noor Fatima Azhar, 23, in the garden of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto on May 26, 2024. Azhar navigated cultural expectations to get married in February. (Li Ho/Toronto Observer) 

Noor Fatima Azhar arrives dressed immaculately in a hijab. Her gold jewelry shimmers and jingles as she walks, her husband, Alban Raka, beside her.

On this spring day in May, the sun shines brightly overhead, illuminating the reflecting pools of water, as people mill around the expansive grounds, taking in the splendour of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto – a place designed to bridge culture and teachings from Islamic civilizations across the world.

Azhar and Raka exchange glances and smile at each other, their expressions relaxed and happy.

“I have a new family and a new life dynamic. And everything has kind of changed completely from one year ago,” shares Azhar.

“I feel like I’m happy that I finally escaped. I feel like I was living in this dystopian way of life.”

The persistence of cousin marriages in Pakistan

Born into a Muslim Pakistani family, Azhar, 23, understood from an early age what the cultural expectations were when it came to marriage.

“One thing that plays a heavy hand is the cultural aspects specifically within Pakistan,” she said. “The culture that they follow is very much Pakistanis can only marry Pakistanis, and there’s a huge weight on cousin marriages within my family and within Pakistan. There’s a huge importance about cousin marriages, to put it in a blunt way, to keep the family line pure.”

Cousin marriages, or consanguineous unions, are perceived by many in Pakistan to be more compatible or beneficial, a tradition that families seek to maintain even after they have emigrated, such as in Azhar’s family.

A demographic survey conducted in Pakistan found that around half of women between the ages of 15 – 49 marry a first cousin, a number that has remained almost unchanged for more than 30 years, according to a 2018 Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey by Gallup Pakistan.

A young lady arranges pebbles in a reflecting pool
Noor Fatima Azhar, 23, by a reflecting pool on the grounds of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto on May 26, 2024. Azhar arranges the pebbles in the water. (Li Ho/Toronto Observer)

Azhar liked the idea of marriage, but having grown up in Toronto, she knew that marrying a cousin was not for her.

“A lot of girls in my family are kind of already … paired up with their cousins as to who they’re going to marry. So, I was paired up with a few of my cousins that I didn’t know about who had a large interest in me.”

“So, I kind of took it into my own hands to try and go and find a spouse in the right way because I do follow Islamic laws,” Azhar says.

‘We talked about marriage from the beginning’

Through a mutual friend, she met Alban Raka, also a 23-year-old Muslim, and sensed a deep connection. They share a profound devotion to Islam, recognizing it as the guiding force in their lives, and the two quickly understood that their paths were meant to intertwine.

“Noor is the only woman I’ve ever met that has the same kind of goal, aspirations, and everything I wanted in a woman,” Raka says. “We talked about marriage from the beginning and in our religion, you shouldn’t really delay marriage.”

However, Raka’s Albanian background meant that Azhar’s parents strongly disapproved.

“My parents had believed that it wasn’t allowed in Islam to go and marry someone outside your culture, which is completely false,” Azhar says.

‘A religion of love’

“A lot of Pakistanis try to shift what Islam really is, according to what they want. So, they try to mix culture into Islam to kind of shift perspectives of women,” she says, explaining how culture is confused with religion, something she was clear to approach separately.

“In Pakistan, to be attracted to anyone or to have a love marriage is extremely taboo. In Pakistan, you’re only supposed to have arranged marriages. But in Islam, on the other hand, love marriages are highly promoted. There’s a lot of good deeds and a lot of blessings that go into marrying for love.”

Azhar says Islam is a religion of love.

“If you get married, God will take care of you,” she says. “If you have kids, it’s said that God will take care of you. So don’t fear getting married, don’t fear having kids, don’t fear starting your life, because God will just take care of you.

“If you love your husband and your husband loves you, then God will protect you both. But these things are extremely, extremely taboo in Pakistan.”

Receiving religious counsel and support

Early acceptance and support for the couple came from Azhar’s brother, Mohammad Ibtahaj Azhar, 19.

The youngest of four siblings in the family, Ibtahaj was the mediator in their family, seeking to resolve the issues that arose between his sister and their parents.

“Everybody just needs to stop trying to interfere in each other’s happiness and decisions when they aren’t even bad decisions. It’s all just about being accepting and once that happens, things will be OK,” Ibtahaj says.

Trapped between Azhar’s parents’ expectations and pursuing their own happiness, the young couple sought the counsel of an imam and local members of their community, remaining committed to abiding by Islamic marriage laws.

It was especially important to them that the decisions they made related to their nikah, or marriage, were halal, or permissible according to Islamic teachings, considering they were traversing deeply rooted cultural norms.

A new beginning

Satisfied with the religious counsel they received confirming that there was no valid reason for Azhar’s parents to withhold their consent, Azhar and Raka got married in February. 

Azhar says she reflected seriously on what she wanted for herself before she married.

“It was a lot of self-actualization and realization about what I want to do with my life, what my life means to me, how important it is for me to prioritize myself,” she says.

When she did decide to move ahead with marrying Raka, Azhar says her friends and family distanced themselves.

“So, it’s a big change. There’s a lot of independence involved. I can rely on my in-laws. Luckily, they are amazing people and I am learning a lot about, self love, importance about family,” shares Azhar.

“My religion is the most important thing to me. Putting on the hijab and kind of changing my lifestyle, according to Islam, is a goal that I’ve met and I continue to work on. And I think it’s brought a lot of positive change to my life. It’s brought a lot of peace within my life as well.”

A young newlywed couple pose for a photo outside the Aga Khan Museum
Noor Fatima Azhar and her husband, Alban Raka, both 23, at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto on May 26, 2024. Azhar and Raka faced cultural objections when they were planning to marry. (Li Ho/Toronto Observer)

She says Raka has “showed me how it feels to be valued as a person.” His parents have also welcomed her with open arms, providing the love and support that the young couple needed to begin their life together.

Raka feels that their marriage has given him purpose, pointing out that it is good to have someone beside him to provide motivation. “I’m very content – at peace, happy, cared for,” he says.

He acknowledges that he is marrying at a younger age than most Canadians, and while he believes that he and Azhar may not yet be established, “but we can establish together,” getting a head start on building a family. 

“This is everything I prayed for. This is everything I had hoped for,” says a grateful Azhar, who admits to being in disbelief at how well everything has turned out for her.

In the next ten years, she sees them having children of their own.

A pebbled heart is arranged in a reflecting pool
A pebbled heart arranged in one of the reflecting pools at the Aga Khan Museum on May 26, 2024 by Noor Fatima Azhar, symbolizing the love between her and Raka. (Li Ho/Toronto Observer)

Breaking a cultural boundary

Azhar wants her story to give other young women who might be in the same position as her hope for change. “I want to break this stereotype and I want to break this cultural boundary that’s been created within our culture.” 

“I feel like if I can achieve this crazy impossible thing, then any girl can achieve anything. Women shouldn’t be limited to what is decided for them.”

Referring to her parents and their objections to the marriage, Azhar reflects, “They did have to get over their own cultural setbacks, their own opinions, their own prejudices, which is really difficult given where we’re from, but it’s still work in progress.” 

Because those objections stem from cultural bias, she believes that her parents will eventually come around. 

“God created us all as one. We’re all equal. No one’s better than anybody else because of their culture.” 

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Posted: Jun 18 2024 3:00 pm
Filed under: Culture and communities Features News Profiles