Games designer Nashra Balagamwala fled Pakistan to escape matchmaking hell. Now she's turning that experience into a board game.
Arranged! and its creator, Nashra Balagamwala. Photos courtesy of Balagamwala
When Nashra Balagamwala began working on her board game, Arranged!, she didn't expect that it would actually help her get out of an arranged marriage. "I've spoken up about a topic that Pakistanis are uncomfortable with, and now I'm no longer the perfect submissive bride they're looking for!" she laughs. "It's great!"
Most of us are familiar with the life-ruining consequences of playing Monopoly with your family or significant other, but it's a rarer game that actually comments on family life and marriage—especially one that tackles issues like arranged marriage. In Pakistan, where Balagamwala was born and raised, parents typically act as matchmakers for their children. "I don't know anyone in my parents' generation who had a love marriage," the 24 year old says.
As Balagamwala grew up, she came under increasing pressure to submit to an arranged marriage. There were multiple proposals and engineered meet-ups with potential suitors, none of whom appealed to her. "I couldn't accept the fact that I'd have to spend the rest of my life with someone I've only known for a couple of weeks, and someone that was chosen for me based off his wealth, social status and other superficial factors," she explains.
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Instead, Balagamwala fled to New York to study at the Rhode Island School of Design and worked at games behemoth Hasbro "on and off for one year." As the expiry date on her visa drew ever closer—and with it, a return to Pakistan—Balagamwala began working on a board game that encapsulated her own struggle to avoid an arranged marriage, and the experiences of friends who had been forced into loveless unions with people that they barely knew.
"I took examples from the numerous things I've done to get out of an arranged marriage myself," she says, "such as talking about pursuing a career, wearing fake engagement rings, having male friends, or getting a tan—darker skin is considered to be less appealing in Pakistani culture—and turned it into a lighthearted game that is both fun to play as well as eye opening."
In Arranged!, players must do everything they can to avoid the matchmaker, who is moved by another player known as the "rishta aunty." Cards drawn at random help to push the action forward for the runaway brides, with commands like "you want to pursue a career… move four steps." If players land on the same tile as the aunty, they face the threat of being married off to one of the many male suitors scattered around the board game. There is also potential to marry a man that the player has chosen for themselves, though the chances of that happening are pretty slim ("I wanted it to be an accurate reflection of Pakistani culture," Balagamwala explains).
The response, she says, has been hugely heartening. "People from all over the world have reached out to help with my visa and living situation, as well as to provide moral support. I've had many Pakistani girls reach out to thank me for finally speaking up about something so important," she says, adding, "I've also dealt with a lot of criticism. Many Pakistanis have had negative remarks and have said I'm a disgrace because I'm badmouthing the society."
In Pakistan, arranged marriages can also have a much darker side. In June 2016, a mother in Lahore strangled her daughter and set her on fire because she had rejected her family-approved fiancé and married a childhood friend. In another case, a teenage girl was drugged and burnt alive after helping a friend elope with their boyfriend. A 2011 report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that 23 percent of honor killings were related to the victim's desire to choose their own spouse—and it wasn't until 2003 that Pakistani women were legally allowed to marry someone without the consent of their guardian or father.
Arranged!, Balagamwala says, provides an accessible, interactive way for people to discuss the serious implications of arranged marriages. "I think it's easier to address it in this setting, because it's more likely that you can get someone to play a fun game, rather than to just sit them down and talk about such deep and dark issues," she says. "There is a higher chance of people having a conversation about something when they experience it together."
The Kickstarter for Arranged! surpassed its $6,000 target 17 days ahead of its deadline, and with over 200 advance orders, the board game will soon go into production. "As of now," Balagamwala says, "I think it's going to be close to 500 games for the first round of production."
Balagamwala had to return to Pakistan when her US visa ended earlier this month, but she says she'll continue working on the game and talking about arranged marriage. "Speaking up about this topic was one of the most difficult things I've had to do. I've risked losing a lot, but I did it in the hopes that someday, a girl out there will look at this story and it will give her the courage to do the same."
As for her own arranged marriage, "If I have anything to say about it, it's not happening! I'm going to keep fighting my way out of it till I meet someone I actually want to marry."