One of the common myth-conceptions about Islam and marriage is that women are forced into it and have no choice to whom they will be married. Nothing could be further from the truth. Islamically, anyway. Culturally, there has the potential to be a completely different story. However, marriage in Islam is a family affair.
I recently was speaking with someone who's sister had converted to Islam and then married a Muslim man. While I do not know (nor did I ask) whether or not she'd done the conversion because she was marrying this man (though I tend to believe this is much the case as she left Islam after divorcing him), one of the things that turned her family off was that her mother did not get to "give her away." I then had to explain the concept of Islamic marriages and mahrams.
For those of you non-Muslims visiting here (and I'm glad you are!) I'll give an explanation of the concept of mahrams. If any of it is wrong, it is on me, and someone with more knowledge, please correct me.
In Islam, the men are responsible for the women. Yet, they are not responsible in the way that many in western society automatically assume they are - that they control the women, that they must approve of what the women do, that the women are not allowed out of the house or to do anything without the man's permission. While the woman should discuss with the man what she is up to, the man should also be discussing what he is doing with his wife. A mahram is a father, brother, uncle - someone that the woman is not legally allowed to marry - who looks out for her best interests, especially when it comes to getting married. If a woman is a convert and has no Muslim relatives (like myself at one point) then the imam of the community becomes her mahram. The mahram makes sure that the man that is asking for the woman's hand in marriage is someone that they would want their daughter or sister married to. They make sure the mahr is something reasonable. Outside of marriage they also make sure the women are safe and taken care of. I love the concept of mahrams and the fact that, if working as it should, the women are taken care of. When culture, however, plays too much of a part, that is where things go awry.
In an Islamic marriage, not only should both families approve, with the mahram acting as liaison between the women and the man and his family, but it also appears backwards when you begin discussing mahr, or dowry. When you think of dowry, what do you think? Women's families putting themselves far into debt to come up with enough to "convince" the man to marry their daughter? Families that, upon the birth of a girl, commit infanticide or put the child in an orphanage or neglect the baby because they know that, in fifteen or twenty years, they won't be able to afford a dowry? Islamically, this should never happen. Not only because female infanticide was outlawed by the Prophet Muhammad (salallahu alayhi wa salaam), but because in Islam, the mahr is paid to the woman by the man. It can be anything from a sum of money to a promise to be taken on hajj to a ring to a copy of the Qur'an, but it is specified by the woman, with the agreement by the man, as to what it should be.
The more that I have studied and learned about Islamic married, the more that, to me, it is better for the woman than any form of Christian marriage that I learned about as I was growing up. Men have their responsibilities, women have theirs, and while they may be different, they are also equal and specified to the designs that Allah (subhana wa ta'ala) made us.
But at no point, if the marriage is truly Islamic, is the woman forced. Everything along the way is her choice - from whether or not she wants to marry him (she has the right to say no, and her mahram should not force her to say yes) to what she thinks would be an appropriate for a mahr. It's incredibly frustrating to listen to people spout off about how Muslim women are forced into marriage, how they don't have a say in what happens, when in reality, the woman actually has much more control than the man over what does and does not happen in regards to the nikkah - right down to saying "no, this will not happen."