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A Designer’s Game About Arranged Marriages, Inspired by Her Own Journey

In Nashra Balagamwala’s board game, players are teenage girls pursued by an aunty who wants to marry them to any boy she can locate.

"Arranged! – The Arranged Marriage Board Game" (courtesy Nashra Balagamwala)
Arranged! – The Arranged Marriage Board Game (courtesy Nashra Balagamwala)

Five years ago, designer and illustrator Nashra Balagamwala left Pakistan for the United States to study at the Rhode Island School of Design, and to avoid an arranged marriage. Now her student visa has run out, and she’s crowdfunding a game about arranged marriages on Kickstarter. It’s partly a way to fund her escape from a loveless union, as well as to support her application for an artist visa.

“There is a higher chance of people having a conversation about something when they experience it together,” Balagamwala told Hyperallergic. Arranged! – The Arranged Marriage Board Game is designed as an accessible platform for dialogue about the issue. In Pakistan, arranged marriages remain prevalent, with women often forced to marry men to improve their family’s social, financial, or business status. Sometimes refusals can lead to violence: Human Rights Watch cites an estimate by Pakistani human rights NGOs that there are around 1,000 “honor killings” a year, including women who married someone of their choosing or rejected an arranged marriage.

"Arranged! – The Arranged Marriage Board Game" (courtesy Nashra Balagamwala)
Arranged! – The Arranged Marriage Board Game (courtesy Nashra Balagamwala)

“Speaking up about this topic was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do,” Balagamwala said. “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.”

The players of Arranged! are three teenage girls, all pursued by one “aunty.” This matchmaker aims to marry them to any, and every, boy she can locate, while the girls find ways to avoid her, whether by pursuing a career, an education, or even gaining weight. For instance, one card reads: “You were talking about having a career. The aunty moves 5 spaces away from you.” Another increases your matchmaker appeal: “Your 24 year old sister just had her fourth child. The aunty moves 5 spaces closer to you.” Littering the board are suitors, with one “Golden Boy” possessing both green eyes and a coveted foreign passport.

“It was inspired by my own life and the numerous things I’ve done to get out of an arranged marriage myself, such as talking about pursuing a career, having male friends, or getting a tan — darker skin is considered to be less appealing in Pakistani culture,” Balagamwala said. “The game also references many other issues faced by these societies, such as the culture of skin whitening, dowries, and secret boyfriends.”

"Arranged! – The Arranged Marriage Board Game" (courtesy Nashra Balagamwala)
Arranged! – The Arranged Marriage Board Game (courtesy Nashra Balagamwala)
"Arranged! – The Arranged Marriage Board Game" (courtesy Nashra Balagamwala)
Arranged! – The Arranged Marriage Board Game (courtesy Nashra Balagamwala)

Balagamwala often addresses complex cultural and societal themes in her games. Paltering Politicians has participants role-play as Pakistani politicians, deciding whether to be political puppets or act independently, and in Crit Happens, players navigate a color chart that represents the emotionally grueling cycle of art school, from demoralizing critiques to constant caffeine.

Arranged! ends when all the players are married, either by their own choice or, more likely, by the matchmaker. The game is designed with bright colors and the kinds of lacy patterns that appear on wedding invitations, yet its mechanics underline just how powerless South Asian women often are in these 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 just sit them down and talk about such deep and dark issues,” Balagamwala explained. “What I’ve noticed is that at the beginning of the game, players think it’s all fun and games. However, they slowly start to realize the deeper issues that are present and have the urge to talk about it.”

Arranged! – The Arranged Marriage Board Game is fundraising on Kickstarter through September 7.

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