Onika first met Yaqub, who was visiting London from Ireland, five years ago when she stopped him in a shopping centre. In the time since their relationship has survived long distance, reservations from Onika’s Bangladeshi parents about her choice of a Pakistani partner, and now, a pandemic.
In September, the couple will get host a wedding reception with 200 friends and family members. While their planned number of guests is still more than double the average UK wedding size (82 people) it is a far cry from the figures her family is used to. When her brother, the eldest son, got married in 2016, her parents invited around 1,000 people.
Onika, 27, jumped at the opportunity to have a smaller wedding, saying the pandemic means she can do so without worrying “too much” about offending her parents. “In Asian culture, we like to invite a lot of people. My dad wants all his friends and their families,” she says. “But I don’t really know them, so I’m not keen on having them there. For dad, it’s a respect and community thing; he’s been raised to thinks its courtesy to invite them.”
In the last 15 months, weddings have been upturned by the pandemic - either cancelled entirely or made to operate under strict rules and regulations, including extremely tight guest lists. For many people this is a challenge, but it is a particular problem for the Asian wedding industry where guest numbers average around 300 people, with some events reaching a figure of 600 people, according to Guides for Brides.
Although this has led to some criticism that the government is ignoring the industry and the cultural norms for some communities, it could be the opportunity some have waited for to shatter the expectations of parents and elders. LaToya Patel, CEO and co-founder of Asian wedding planning service SW Events, says enquiries for this year and next have ranged between 100 and 150 people.
Patel says the pandemic has given young couples the opportunity to break from these norms. “The guest list was always something that was a negotiation. Many couples never wanted to have a big wedding, but they couldn’t see a way around it with their families,” she says.
As well as renegotiating expectations around numbers, the pandemic and lockdown has changed lots of aspects of dating, relationships, and marriage: including how people are approaching matchmaking and finding a partner, pressure to find a partner in non-traditional ways, and the budgets for the big day.
There was always a taboo around using an app to find our spouse. But during the pandemic, how else are you going to meet someone?
Samia Hussain, owner of Zobia’s Marriage Bureau, a paid-for Muslim matchmaking service in east London, is dubbed a “traditional” way of finding a spouse. Those in want of a significant other (or their parents) sign up with a “profile” and picture. Hussain then matches potential couples and if they like the look of each other, she exchanges their details.
Due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, Hussain says enquiries have been high. “People are more on the case because they are scared. Parents are saying ‘we don’t know what’s happening, our sons and daughters are sitting at home [unmarried]’, so they are more active in looking.”
However, success rates have been low because Hussain’s way of working usually involves parents from the onset. As lockdowns restricted meetings, and many parents fell into the elderly or “vulnerable” categories, prospective brides and grooms found their searches came to a standstill.
Another matchmaker, Raisa Murtaza, who operates from Modmusmatch on Instagram, only deals with the two people looking to get married. She also noticed a similar trend, where matches ultimately fell through. “People were just talking over text, a lot of those failed. Matches would decide very early on that they weren’t getting anywhere. That was quite frustrating because if it wasn’t for lockdown, they might have worked,” she says.
While traditional matchmaking services somewhat hit a roadblock, Muslim dating apps boomed. Over the last year, Muzmatch grew 57 per cent, with 50,000 “successes”. A success is defined as a person who joins the app and later deletes it, citing their reason for leaving as having found a partner. Users say this shift is because previously there was a taboo around using an app, but the pandemic left it as one of the only viable options.
“There was always a taboo around using an app to find our spouse in the Muslim community. But during the pandemic, how else are you going to meet someone? There are no social events, no matchmaking events, all of that stuff is out of the window,” platform founder Shahzad Younas, says.
“People have come out of the woodwork, including those who before, would have stuck to the traditional ‘rishtha auntie’. The way I’ve looked at it is, it’s sped up the adoption of online dating,” he adds.
Ayoub, 30, and Iman, 26, got married in January after matching on Muzmatch in July 2020. “Within a week of talking, we exchanged numbers,” Ayoub says. After just a couple of meetings, they told their parents they wanted to marry. The couple got engaged via Zoom in November 2020 and had a very small nikkah at a mosque on 1 January.
Iman, who is from Pakistan, had moved to London last year to take a pastry course at Le Cordon de Bleu. Finding herself bored in lockdown and spurred by her mother’s pleas to find a husband, she downloaded the app but never used it. “One day my sister was with me, and she swiped on Ayoub,” she says. Ayoub still thanks her sister for that fateful swipe.
Other couples have also found each other online during the pandemic. During the first lockdown, Rima, 26, was placed on furlough. Finding herself experimenting with makeup to pass the time, she set up an Instagram page to showcase her looks. This page became the link between her and her husband-to-be, Farhan, 27.
While Rima and Farhan’s story is a fitting Covid-era romance in that it started online, it is also transatlantic. Rima grew up and lives in Surrey, UK, while Farhan is from Toronto, Canada. They first met in September 2020, when Farhan was able to come to the UK. By the end of his visit, they were sure they wanted to get married.
As well as facilitating non-traditional ways of meeting, the pandemic has thrown into perspective all the expectations around the wedding itself including how much money will be spent and how the day will look. As per Asian Wedding Insurance, the average Asian couple spends approximately £50,000 on their wedding. Depending on the cultural background and religion, events can span several days. Then there are the costs of traditional, heavily-embellished clothing, the gold jewellery, the extravagant décor and hair, make-up and henna artists.
I realise it’s more special to celebrate with people that genuinely care for you, and want to celebrate you and your marriage
Rohita Pabla, the owner of Rohita Pabla Wedding & Events, says post-Covid couples are making different decisions on entertainment and catering. “More people are choosing a pre-plated dinner [as opposed to help-yourself options] because they have fewer guests. Some have said they don’t want to have a traditional dhol drum player, and would rather have a live band,” she says.
She attributes the shift to changes in social attitudes. “Previously, what would you do on a Saturday night? You’d go out [to a club]. Whereas now, you would go out for a meal; the food is the experience. That is what they want to bring to their wedding,” she adds. Wedding planner Patel agrees that although “budgets are not coming down, and weddings are not getting less lavish at all,” couples might be spending their money differently.
Growing up, Rima wanted a “big, glamorous wedding” but the pandemic has made her reevaluate what is important. “Now, I realise it’s more special to celebrate with people that genuinely care for you, and want to celebrate you and your marriage, so we are having a small, but grand wedding,” she says. Patel says she has also seen this in her clients where they are willing to spend more because they know they will be celebrating with “those people that they really want there”.
While the last year means that Asian couples are starting to look elsewhere for partners and reframing what is expected from weddings, it seems it will take more than a global pandemic to sound the death knell of the albeit now smaller, yet mighty Asian wedding.