When we first met, R didn’t believe for a second that I was a Muslim; I had this skimpy dress on that merely flattened out whatever curves remained in my ectomorphic body. I didn’t have a veil on and spoke without any accent. My peculiar name was the single, albeit tenuous thread to my glorious heritage, frequently inspiring automatic cross references to Abu Sayyaf, Camp Abubakar, and Abubakar Janjalani (we are not related, by the way). For a while, this knowledge immobilized him from taking any drastic and immediate action. But skimpy dresses proved to be too difficult to resist, and almost in no time, R was sitting on my parents’ living room sofa, asking for my hand in marriage, sweat beads rolling down his gently-sloped nose.
“You have to excuse my daughter for her strange behavior,” my father glowered at me. “She grew up here in Manila.”
And my father regaled R with stories about how he’s unlike any Muslim father you’ll ever meet, having studied both the Bible and the Koran, having many Catholic friends, having lived in Manila for so long, and having a decadent urbanite like me for a daughter. He said, back in Sulu, a Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim was downright unthinkable. “Our weddings are huge; some last for days. And there are dowries to be made.”
“But…but…” my poor beloved stammered. “I’m not rich!”
I promptly handed him a glass of water and patted his back. He didn’t know it yet, but a dowry could actually be anything from a million pesos to a prayer mat, depending on the man’s ability to pay and the woman’s capacity to reciprocate his affections. If the woman isn’t particularly smitten with the man, her family raises her dowry to a level that is sure to turn the poor suitor away. A particularly insistent one will try to haggle for a lower price and enlist the help of the whole clan to raise the money.
But not every father is inclined to grant his daughter’s every whim and fancy, my father explains, glowering at me yet again.
But first things first: what is a dowry? Not only does it serve as compensation for the parents for raising a marriageable maiden; the dowry is also a security blanket for the wife if the marriage leaves her cold.
I also saw the whole situation as a test; if R were nonchalant about this whole dowry business and about Islam in general, then maybe he couldn’t be that serious about me. I had inherited my religion and my surname from my father, and I wanted R to realize that if he were going to love me, he also had to love the assortment of strange people I loved, since I did not subscribe to the you-and-me-against-the-world school of relationships. And Islam was the scaffold that supported my otherwise ambivalent relationship with my father. You see, my father and I argue all the time about his conservative worldviews— that women and men have divinely-defined roles, for instance, and that Islam is the religion for humanity. But I do appreciate how Islam – at least in theory – utterly respects women’s rights: in Islam, women can retain their maiden name in marriage, can find gainful employment outside the home, and can even ask for divorce (yihaaa!).
Anyway, I wanted to get married right away to appease my father. You see, a Muslim woman enjoying the company of a man other than her father or brother in public constitutes jinna, a mortal sin in Islam. My father once told me that he had witnessed a couple walking together being stopped by the police in Saudi to ask for their marriage certificate. At least, if R and I do decide to meet up with King Fahd, the certificate could come in handy, I said, as R gave me his “not bloody likely” look.
And I almost forgot, I wanted to get married right away to be with R forever. He didn’t have money and neither did I, but we were so in love, we just couldn’t wait another day. And we definitely wanted to have sex any time, any day without my father scowling at us at the back of our minds.
My father almost cried on my wedding day – not because he was about to lose a daughter but because he was about to lose her in a most heartbreakingly desperate fashion. No cows were slaughtered, no dignitaries were invited. There wasn’t even a decent venue. But as far as I was concerned, it was the most beautiful and solemn wedding I had ever attended.
The ceremony was held in my father’s cousin’s house at the Tandang Sora Muslim Compound, behind a sari-sari store where passersby would steal a long peek at R, my father, and four witnesses sitting in a circle on a decrepit Persian rug. R had been taken to the toilet by the non-Tagalog-speaking witnesses to be cleansed and baptized, and now, he looked like a wet chicken. My Mama and I, who were sitting on the sofa a few feet away, could barely hide our amusement, more so when the Imam asked R. to recite the Al Fatiha, the Islamic equivalent of The Lord’s Prayer. I was near tears when R finished stumbling through the Arabic prayer.
Then my father asked me to look the other way as R stood up to press his thumb against my forehead.
“So that’s it? No kiss?” I asked my father. He answered me with a stern look.
After the ceremony, which lasted all of thirty minutes, Pa Adi, my father’s cousin, gave us soft drinks and crackers from the sari-sari store. R could barely understand the conversations; they were mostly in Tausug.
“Are they selling me out?” my husband asked me with a smile.
I smiled my sweetest smile back and translated that Pa Adi would take care of our marriage certificate.
“What about the dowry?” he asked.
“They’ll take care of it, don’t worry.”
Later, my father approached R and gently took him aside. “This is just a kawin ceremony, a preliminary wedding. As soon as you have enough money, we could have another wedding, a grand one, in Jolo. We’ll invite the Sultan. How’s that?” he said in his characteristic booming voice, patting the back of my poor husband, who could only nod his head and clear his throat. The pressure was too much.
But that night, I made sure he was happy, no, ecstatic.
A few weeks later, Pa Adi handed us our marriage contract, duly certified by the Office of the Civil Registrar.
Attached to it was another sheet, a municipal form that stipulated the amount of mahr or the dowry.
Cash: Php 50,000
Others (specify): One sheet GOLD
“Where in the world will I get 50,000 pesos and a sheet of gold?” my husband frowned. I left him to ponder the question as I sang Jennifer Lopez’s “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.”
Pearlsha Abubakar is a Tausug writer-music composer-performance artist based in Manila. A Palanca award-winning writer, she has been a fellow to the Iligan National Writers Workshop and the UP National Writers Workshop. This essay was first published in 2000 in a now-defunct website. Her marriage has been blessed with a child.