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Finding a Wedding Dress Authentic to My Identity As a Queer Pakistani Woman 

Something old, something new — and for Aleenah Ansari, something from her home culture too

Aleenah Ansari

Whenever I visit my grandmother, I ask her to tell me as many stories as possible. Some of them are funny, like the time she’d climb into her neighbor’s yard to eat the ripe mangoes off their trees, or that day her brother braided her thick black hair into her sisters so they’d wake up confused and stuck together.

One day, I was talking to her about my upcoming wedding and asked what her wedding was like. I had seen one black-and-white photo of her and her husband smiling for the camera on the wall, but had never heard much more about what that day felt like for her. She told me that was the only photo she had because her mother-in-law didn’t think they should have a photographer, so this photo was taken months later when her husband noted that they needed at least one photo in their wedding outfits. I’d seen photos from my parents’ wedding too, where my mom is wearing a bright red lehenga with gold accents. That day was over 35 years ago, but I still see that fierce look in her eyes today. 

It’s clear that I have a strong lineage of Pakistani women who were rooted in their culture, but I still had a choice to make for my own wedding. Everything about this choice feels like a delicate balancing act. I hadn’t spent much time dreaming of my wedding until I got engaged, but I had grown up seeing photos of brides in white wedding dresses with trains that went on for what seemed like miles. Usually, their jewelry was simple, their hair was down and they were accompanied by their dad as they walked down the aisle to their soon-to-husband, who was usually blinking back tears. Despite this idea of a bride in my head, I couldn’t see myself fitting the bill, especially as a queer Pakistani woman.

1 Liezel and Aleenah my partner left and me 2
Aleenah (right) with her partner, Liezel. Courtesy photo

I started to fill my head with ideas of what a Pakistani bride would wear, usually a lehenga, which is made up of a long flared skirt and top adorned with sequins, beading or mirror work. They say that you can’t outdress a South Asian bride, and for good reason — an outfit is usually accomplished by bracelets that run up the arm, intricate designs of mehndi on the hands, and some kind of headpiece or tikka.

Much like my identity, my ideal version of a wedding outfit seemed to fall in the middle of what I had seen in Western media and with my own family. After all, I’m just as much Pakistani as I am American. I knew that I wanted to have intricate mehndi on my hands, a tradition I had grown to love during other people’s weddings and during Eid celebrations. My fiancée and I decided that we would both have mehndi, a connecting thread that would bind us. I wanted to have gold statement jewelry that I could cherish and wear forever, but I also wanted my outfit that was more manageable than the 40-pound outfits covered in tiny mirrors that would cover up all my tattoos. Even more ideally, I wanted an outfit that I could wear again and again — the wedding may be one day in my life, but the memories and the pieces I got for it could last forever.

My prtner and me at my cousins wedding
Liezel and Aleenah at Aleenah's cousin's wedding. Courtesy photo

In my wedding dress shopping process, I discovered South Asian designers that made me feel like a modern Pakistani bride. The outfits that I loved had sequins and beading that made me glow from the inside out. The best ones didn’t make me feel like I was wearing a costume — instead, I felt like me, but with a little more sparkle. My mom found me a statement necklace and gold bangles in Pakistan that would add some sparkle to my outfit, but my mehndi would still peek through. Slowly but surely, the pieces of my wedding outfit came together.

Although I felt adamant about having a Pakistani wedding outfit, I still felt like something was missing. As someone who treats many parts of my life like an experiment, I felt like I had to rule out Western wedding dresses in order to be sure, so I made a bridal appointment. As I combed through the racks, I saw everything that I expected: There were ballgowns and mermaid silhouettes, dresses with full beading or nothing at all. It was everything I had seen brides wear in magazines, in television shows and on runways, which often didn’t include queer people of color who were navigating the wedding planning process. One thing did stick from all those conversations between brides and  bridal consultants — the moment when you feel like you can say yes to the dress. Tears swelling up, the twirl and the moment when you put on the veil and know that you were meant to find this outfit.

Ansari
The author looking through options for a South Asian wedding dress. Courtesy photo

I ended up booking two follow-up appointments and trying 10 Western wedding dresses, but only one of them felt different. When I looked in the mirror, I found myself getting teary-eyed and saying, “I’m a bride.” From that moment on, that dress was my dress. It felt like something that my ancestors might have looked at and said, “If I picked a Western wedding dress, this would be the one.” 

I found peace in the fact that I didn’t have to choose between wearing a Pakistani outfit and a traditional Western dress. I could wear both, two sides of the same coin of my identity. My choice is as unique as my wedding, where my fiancée and I are bridging our Pakistani and Filipino cultures through our outfits and traditions. We get to celebrate our love our way, and that’s all that matters to me.

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