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My Big Fake Straight Wedding: We explore the hidden world of marriages of convenience with filmmaker Mobeen Azhar

BBC

“The reason I didn’t come out to my parents is because I would straight up be disowned.”

Journalist and filmmaker Mobeen Azhar’s revealing new documentary short My Big Fake Straight Wedding for BBC Stories explores the hidden phenomenon of Marraiges of Convenience (MoC) in the UK.

With private chat rooms and Facebook groups giving the queer community links to find each other and arrange MoCs, the film follows three different people who all have their own reasons for seeking MoCs. Shockingly, it’s also revealed that one third of all gay Asians in the UK are in, or are seeking, a MoC.

‘Junaid’, the main speaker in the film, entered into a fake marriage with a lesbian friend. While the marriage started off with a mutual agreement that they could both seek real relationships elsewhere, it turned sour when she decided to change the terms to become a monogamous relationship.

“I think the stresses of not being able to do what I really wanted to do, which is able to have a successful relationship, had it’s toll.”

Now single, Junaid says he has no plans to marry another woman.

All three anonymous interviewees put their motivations down to societal pressures, as well as a need to satisfy family members. Junaid remembers one of the best parts of his wedding day as seeing his family members happy for him. You can watch the documentary short for yourself below.

A hidden section of gay culture, and one that may come as a surprise, we spoke to director and producer Mobeen Azhar to get a deeper look.

At a first look, you wouldn’t think Marriages of Convenience would be a big thing in the UK. Was this the most shocking part of making the documentary?

I was shocked to find out how many people are still having Marriages of Convenience, yes! One contributor said that one in three of all the gay British Asians he knows are looking for, or are already in, a marriage of convenience.

There’s no way of assessing how accurate that estimation is but the number of people looking for MoCs surprised me. They are online. They are friends of friends; they are real people! There is a whole hidden industry in MoC match making. There are private Facebook groups, chat rooms and even club night websites that have space dedicated to MoCs.  It’s a sub-section of gay culture that is hidden and most people involved want to keep it that way.

Through making the documentary, how detrimental do you think MoCs are to an LGBT+ person’s wellbeing?

Many people I spoke to would start off by telling me how the MoC system was misunderstood. The more they’d open up, the more they would share stories of familial pressure, lies and the inevitable failure of the MoC. One of the contributors ‘Junaid’ explained that the parameters of his MoC changed once he was married. Originally, his wife planned on having a girlfriend and Junaid planned on having a boyfriend alongside the marriage. But Junaid’s wife decided that she wanted her MoC to be monogamous. It’s an unworkable situation.

Some contributors also explained that despite the MoC ending in divorce; it would allow families to understand that the individuals had at least tried heterosexual marriage. They would therefore look for an MoC as a way to relieve some pressure in the short term, rather than a ‘happy ever after’.

I believe constantly lying about who you are and who you love is bound to have consequences.  It’s not healthy, in my opinion.

What do you think is the main motivation behind these marriages in this country?

I was looking at MoCs in the context of gay men and women who want to hide their sexuality. As one person put: “It’s a way to hide who you really are.” The same themes would come up again and again; familial pressure, an inability to be honest about sexuality and a desire to fit in with the expectations of family and community. The motivations were almost always the same.

In your experience, were those who had entered into a marriage of convenience satisfied with their decision, or did they regret it?

Even those who spoke about initial happiness and relief in entering an MoC eventually regretted the decision. I had some correspondence with people in online forums who told me they were in MoCs were great but they would not contribute formally or even speak to me over the phone.  Generally, I think the MoC can sound palatable if you can’t see a way to make your life work. For example, if you truly believe you can’t be honest about your sexuality, that you have to enter a heterosexual marriage and that there are no other options, a MoC may seem like a palatable option. But in practice, there are inevitable complications.

What was your personal motivation behind making the documentary?

I’m interested in hidden cultures and sub cultures. I’ve known about the MoC culture for a while. I think it’s a story that should be told.

Do you think the LGBT+ community should be more open minded concerning marriages of convenience?

I searched for contributors who could offer this perspective. One woman I interviewed suggested gay people are ‘too judgmental’ about the MoC system. In her view, it can be a ‘brave’ thing to do. I don’t agree, but I do believe everyone has the right to make their life work in the way they see fit. I think some gay people may see the MoC system as a kind of attack. The community has fought hard for equal marriage so when a gay man or woman rejects that, and instead ‘cover up’ who they really are by entering an MoC, it can feel like a betrayal. The important thing, in my opinion is that people are allowed to conduct themselves as they see fit. I think we should be more open minded about the range of experiences and backgrounds LGBT+ people come from. That would allow the community to be more supportive in helping people be honest about who they really are. Perhaps then, less people would turn to a marriage of convenience.

Click here for more information on Mobeen and his work, and click here to follow him on Twitter.

Words Lee Dalgetty

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