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A Pakistani Designer Created A Game To Teach Girls How To Avoid Unwanted Arranged Marriages

Nashra Balagamwala went to RISD instead of participating in an arranged marriage in Pakistan. Now she wants to playfully teach others how to follow her path.

At the age of 19, Nashra Balagamwala made the choice to defy her family: Instead of entering into an arranged marriage in Pakistan, she would go to college in the United States. Five years later, with her student visa set to expire, she’s headed home and trying to avoid the still looming marriage by designing a board game.

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In the game, “Arranged!,” which is funding on Kickstarter, players take the part of a girl trying to creatively avoid a matchmaker and to marry for love instead. Balagamwala hopes to raise enough money through the game that if she’s soon being forced to get married by her family, she can fly out of Pakistan; making a product also makes her eligible for a particular type of U.S. visa. (The O-1 visa for workers with “extraordinary abilities,” which includes a subcategory for artists, could be easier for some people to get than the HB-1 visa, which uses a lottery system; of course, it could be still be hard to get in the current political climate, particularly for a Pakistani Muslim, and a Kickstarter project may not be enough). She’s also hoping that the game can help other young Pakistani women realize they have more options.

“Sometimes they would meet the person and be married to him within the week.” [Photo: courtesy Nashra Balagamwala]
When she left Pakistan to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, “It was really not well received by my family at all,” she says. “Basically, the expectation is that by the time you’re approximately 20, you’ll be a housewife, you’ll have children. There’s no such idea of going to college or finding your own man to marry. I was always extremely baffled by that.”

“Generally I’m a pretty playful person…so I decided to mask the seriousness of the topic by making it into a lighthearted board game.” [Photo: courtesy Nashra Balagamwala]
While in school, she saw friends back in Pakistan get married to strangers. “Sometimes they would meet the person and be married to him within the week,” she says. “A lot of them accepted it as their fate. They didn’t seem to fight it. I think a big reason why they were doing that was that they weren’t educated enough, so even if they decided to run away from it, they wouldn’t be able to provide for themselves…I see them now, and they’re all just stuck in loveless marriages dealing with horrible in-laws, horrible husbands, and there isn’t much they can do about it.”

Each time she returned for visits, she was also scouted by matchmakers hoping to marry her off. But Balagamwala found ways to avoid them–making sure she was seen with male friends, for example, or getting a tan, since darker skin made her seem less desirable in Pakistani culture.

“They’re all just stuck in loveless marriages dealing with horrible in-laws, horrible husbands, and there isn’t much they can do about it.” [Photo: courtesy Nashra Balagamwala]
Cards in the new game employ these same strategies. Wear a sleeveless shirt in public, and you’ll move five spaces away from the matchmaker, also known as an “aunty.” Smile while looking at your phone–a sign in South Asian culture that you have a boyfriend–and the aunty moves four spaces away. Later in the game, when the matchmaker comes across a desirable “golden boy” that the girl actually wants to marry, the girls’ tactics shift to trying to make a match with him. (Wear a burqini while swimming, and you’ll move closer to a match). Girls can also choose their own husbands if they meet someone who matches their “ideal characteristics” list, though this is rarer; Balagamwala wants the game to reflect the fact that love marriages are still rare.

The game introduces Americans to Pakistani culture, but is also meant to shift norms in Pakistan. “This is a big problem, and we need to start getting people to talk about it, to make them aware that it’s actually a problem,” Balagamwala says. “Generally I’m a pretty playful person…so I decided to mask the seriousness of the topic by making it into a lighthearted board game.”

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Among her friends who tested the game in Pakistan, she says that it’s inspired them to take more active roles in their futures. “It’s even giving these women ideas to actually avoid [arranged marriage],” she says.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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