It has been some time since Nashra Balagamwala made headlines. So I’m guessing that by now even the most reclusive amongst us have heard about Arranged! Simply put, it is board game that simultaneously mocks the ridiculousness of arranged marriages and tries to initiate a conversation about them.
It is also the passion-project of New York based game designer, Nashra Balagamwala. While attending the Rhodes Island School of Design, she started working in the game industry. Over the course of a couple of years she designed projects for the likes of National Geographic and American multinational Hasbro Inc.
Five years into her journey and her resume reads like a never-ending tirade of remarkably fearless projects.
Often, the games she comes up with have a panache for the controversial. Take ‘Paltering Politics’ for example; a role playing game where players take on the roles of Pakistan’s many “paltering politicians”. It ends when a player, “proves himself to be either the saviour of Pakistan or the reason for its demise.” Yes. Dramatic irony for the desensitized generation. Because of her creativity and the nature of her ventures, she has often been the subject of popular media pieces.
But her most recent work is definitely her most influential.
Nashra Balagamwala’s Arranged; a long time coming
Nashra developed an interest in game design at an early age. “I’ve been experimenting with that since I was very young,” she says, “my cousin and I would buy several games, throw out the rules and try to come up with our own versions of the game. As I grew older, I realized I was very interested in the medium, and took a class on Game Design. After that, I designed games independently as well as worked with a couple of game design companies, including Hasbro.”
Like many women across Pakistan, she was also very young when the prospect of an arranged marriage entered her world. “I had a lot of pressure from my family to get an arranged marriage,” she says, “however, I wanted to pursue my dream of being a designer and wanted to find my own guy.” So, five years ago, she left the country and the pressure behind. Opting instead to pursue a creative degree and career.
But as is the unfortunate norm, the matchmaking ‘rishta aunties’ never really went away. So, in 2017 Nashra combined her long-harnessed love of game design with her personal struggles and created Arranged!
The game takes a lot of influence from the culture that it is commenting on. According to the young designer, “the game mimics the look of traditional Pakistani designs, the rule book looks like a wedding invitation and it has been inspired by mehndi (henna) patterns.”
The influences extend into the gameplay as well. Arranged! consists of three teenage girls and a rishta aunty, who aims to get all of them married off. The girls try to dodge the matchmaker’s attempts by doing things like prioritizing their careers or wearing fake engagement rings. Excuses that Nashra herself has had to use in the past. The game ends when all the girls are married.
Deconstructing arranged marriages
To say that arranged marriages are common amongst South Asians would be like acknowledging air. Of course they exist. But hardly ever are they discussed, or worst, debated. For many people, they are acceptable if not preferred. Some even defend them. For example, in her article for Vice, Javaria Akber made a distinction between ‘arranged’ marriages, and ‘forced’ marriages. Her point was that just because she had agreed to a match made by her family, that didn’t mean that her relationship with her husband couldn’t be wholesome and loving.
It was an interesting piece, and I don’t disagree with her at all. It is absolutely possible for an arranged marriage to turn out well. Just as it is possible for the alternate ‘love’ marriage to go horribly wrong. However the issue isn’t always the couple or the marriage in question, but rather the culture that surrounds it. A culture that Nashra is all too familiar with.
Statistics draw attention to the worst cases, which are often accompanied by acts of violence. But even in the mildest sense, the road leading up to an arranged marriage is ridden with polite blackmail, laments of ‘I’m not good enough’ and pressure, a lot of pressure. As Nashra explains it, this means that women have to, “present themselves as being the perfect bride all the time.”
Now, I can’t really relate to what Nashra is talking about, because my parents are even more awkward than I am when it comes to the subject of marriage. Coming from a business centric family, my mother also made it abundantly clear that getting an education and a job were essential if I wanted to have anything to do with her. In fact, the only thing about me that truly disappoints her is the fact that at 24 I still haven’t gotten a driver’s license. (Just to clarify, it’s not that I don’t want to get it, I’m just terrified of the road.)
But I’ve always known that many if not most Pakistani women do grow-up under the matchmaker’s watchful eyes. For them, the problem isn’t that it is impossible to end up liking the guy they are matched with. Rather the real issue is that they are expected to pick from a list of approved suitors, and are expected to say yes to a guy, any guy. Arranged! cleverly focuses on this set-up.The crux of the game, and its creator’s argument, seems to be the illusion and ultimate absence of choice. The game continues until all the girls are married off. Rather playfully, they can also choose to marry a man they have picked for themselves. But according to the rules of the game this is an unlikely outcome.
And ultimately, despite having a myriad of suitors to chose from, the players can’t opt to say no to all of them; they can’t choose to stay single. And I guess that’s kind of the problem.
Dividing public opinion
Since setting up the Kickstarter page for her game, Nashra Balagamwala has become a viral topic. “It’s actually changed my life,” she says. Much of the fame is positive. The Kickstarter page for the game passed its funding goal 17 days before the deadline, and everyone from BBC to Now This have covered it. Individuals have also been reaching out to Nashra herself, thanking her and offering to help.
But not all the responses have been positive.
As she explains it, she has either been met with praise or resentment. Given how common such situations are, it wouldn’t be difficult to guess where the support is coming from. I’d imagine that like-minded individuals or young women in similar circumstances would be more than willing to support her venture.
But where does the hate come from? “I think the hate stems from people not being willing to let go of century old traditions,” says Nashra, “even though they know that those are outdated customs and it’s about time to let girls make their own decisions. I think they’re against it because they think I’m badmouthing the society, and exposing everything that is wrong with it. They’re afraid of ‘log kya kahein ge’ (what will people say).”
Already a success?
The game will go into production mid-September, and be shipped out in December. But in a way, it could already be called a success. In her promotional video for the campaign, Nashra said that Arranged! was an attempt to discuss the issue in a “very light-hearted setting”. So, the fact that so many people are talking about her game and debating about arranged marriages because of it could be taken to mean that Nashra Balagamwala’s Arranged! has already met its goal.