PodcastBina Shah, Journalist and Pakistan Native, on Arranged Marriages

January 5, 2014by Frank Love0

Podcast Episode:
Ever wonder how arranged marriages work? Today we’ll get the dish from a journalist and Pakistan native. Stay tuned for an intriguing and interesting conversation on this edition of Frank Relationships.



Guests: Bina Shah
Date: January 6, 2014

Frank: Ever wonder how arranged marriages work? Today we’ll get the dish from a journalist and Pakistani native. Stay tuned for an intriguing and interesting conversation on this edition of Frank Relationships.

Welcome to Frank Relationships where we provide a candid, fresh and frank look into relationships with goals of acceptance, respect and flexibility. I’m Frank Love and you can find me, my blog and my various social media incarnations at franklove.com. You can also download the podcast of this and other archived shows on iTunes or with your favorite podcast app.

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Today’s guest is a writer of English fiction and a journalist living in Karachi, Pakistan. She’s the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. Her humorous writings, political satire and clear-eyed view of social issues have earned her critical praise as a devoted following amongst Pakistanis all over the world and this accomplished author is about to have a chat with us over the course of the next hour about arranged marriages. She is Miss Bina Shah. Welcome to the show.

Bina: Thank you, Frank. It’s good to be here.

Frank: Tell us how romantic partnerships are developed in Pakistan.

Bina: Well, they are not as straight forward as they would be in the United States. People are generally are more in favor of relationships that are arranged by families through introduction or through relatives or through very close friends. So, the idea of going to a bar and locking onto a stranger and falling hopelessly in love is pretty alien to Pakistani society.

Frank: I was reading your article and you said that’s the case for a certain percentage of Pakistanis. Sometimes you do have teenagers ogling at each other from across the room and that sort of thing. Some people do sneak and date. How would you say the percentages break down?

Bina: It’s difficult to say. People are people, the world over, so of course people get attracted to each other and they do want to meet and they do fall in love. But we have to remember that Pakistan is a pretty conservative society. I would say the majority of people-I’m not going to put numbers on it, Frank, but the majority of people go a very conservative route and it is a small percentage of, say, perhaps more Westernized or perhaps more liberated people that take the romantic marriage route-the truly unarranged, spontaneous and of their own will and desire.

Frank: Are you and advocate of how to do it one way or the other?

Bina: I think that a successful relationship is a difficult and delicate thing to achieve, so either way, any way that it can be accomplished, I have respect for. There are pros and cons to both sides of the equation.

Frank: Okay, give me some. Give me some of the pros and give me some of the cons for both sides.

Bina: Okay, well in the traditional arranged marriage-and we’re talking about arranged, not forced. That’s an important distinction to make. We’re not talking about a marriage where a woman or a man is married without his or her free consent. But suppose we say that my parents come to me and say, “You know Bina, we have found a wonderful person for you and we think that this is a good match for you. The families get along very well, the person is quite a good person, seems successful, so on and so forth, what do you say?” And it’s my choice to say, “Okay, I’ll take a look, I’ll think about it. Yes, I will meet this person.”

Oftentimes what you have is those kinds of arrangements because they are carefully vetted by people that are very close to the individual who might be able to take a more objective view rather than with the eyes of infatuation. Sometimes we can say that those marriages end up being pretty stable. Pakistan has a lower divorce, for example. Now that’s not just because marriages are so widely successful. There are many marriages that don’t work out, but people are much less likely to divorce, because of the societal pressure for people to stay together.

Now, when you look at romantic relationships on the other hand, there’s something very empowering and I think something very honest and truthful about two hearts that meet each other and match and decide to take a decision to be together. There are pros to both and there are cons to both as well. Perhaps in terms of the romantic relationship after a couple of years, the excitement phase and then you’re left wondering, “Did I really do the right thing? What is the future,” so on and so forth.

Frank: What are you thoughts on divorce?

Bina: I think that divorce is something that is sometimes inevitable. I think sometimes it’s unavoidable. There are clearly marriages where there can be deep problems when there are issues of, for example, any kind of domestic violence, any kind of abuse, any kind of true incompatibility, I think it’s better for couples to separate. On the other hand, I think that’s a decision that we have to really, really give a lot of thought to. In Pakistan, of course, there are societal codes. And in the religion of Islam, most Pakistanis are Muslim. Divorce is seen as it’s permissible, but it is a disliked thing. It is classified not as completely forbidden. It is classified as permissible but disliked by God.

Frank: It’s clearly in Islamic culture. Correct?

Bina: Yes, yes it is, by and large.

Frank: Paint a picture of the landscape of Islamic culture in Pakistan.

Bina: The Islamic culture of Pakistan is very colored by our South Asian culture. You know that Pakistan used to be part of India until we partitioned from them in 1947. So, a lot of our culture morals are not Arab or Middle Eastern, they’re actually South Asian. South Asian culture is very strongly based on the family. The family is the unit of all relationships and everything else is of secondary importance. So when people marry, they marry with the intention of it being for life.

Islam itself is more easy in terms of allowing divorce. For example, in Hinduism, I don’t think that divorce is allowed at all. Now, Islam isn’t like that, it’s more flexible, but by and large, you have people living together, staying together, living in extended family units, really maintaining very, very close ties with their families. That’s not just culturally mandated, but also religiously. It is something that we recognize as the root of a strong society.

Frank: What happens if someone or a couple or two people who want to be a couple, travel-let’s say the come to the States, get married and return to Pakistan, how is their relationship perceived?

Bina: Do you mean in terms of traveling just to get married?
Frank: Just to get married, yes.

Bina: They wouldn’t go as far as the United States. But what you will see is couples coming to Karachi, the city where I live, it’s the biggest city, and it’s the most modern. It’s the most cosmopolitan city. People come from all over to have a court marriage, because the families didn’t approve of the match, but they take their lives into their own hands and they marry.

It is very difficult for them afterwards. There’s a lot of family disapproval, there’s disapproval of the larger clan or the larger tribe and therefore, some of these unfortunate couples have to live in hiding or they have to live ostracized from their family members. It’s very hard for these people. I think unfairly so.

Frank: I did not gather that people taking life into their own hands was a part of the equation but-

Bina: They can, yes.

Frank: Now that you’ve mentioned it, because what? Let’s say a man marries a woman, is it the woman’s family that’s after the man? Is it the woman’s family that’s after the woman? Who’s after them to try to take their life?

Bina: What happens is that-and this is, again, we’re talking about extreme cases. It’s not every family or every conservative family. These are extreme cases and the numbers have risen over the years as women themselves are becoming more empowered and independent and starting to believe that they have the right to choose their own partners as opposed to having to bow down to family pressure and chose an arranged marriage partner that they may not necessarily have wanted to marry.

So, you have these families, these couples, they choose to marry, but it is perceived as a big insult to family honor, especially for the woman’s family. So, you have women that have to actually-they will take out newspaper advertisements saying, “I have married ‘such and such’ person of my own free will. Do not bring up charges of kidnapping against my husband.” You’re seeing this actually happen.

Frank: Whoa.

Bina: This is a result really of a society that has been transitioned, coming out of some very conservative, very time-old traditions and coming into a more modern view of things, I think.

Frank: Now, you spoke of the pressure that women often fell, but it can’t just be the woman. I assume a woman isn’t marrying a woman. A woman is marrying a man, so he has to feel the pressure too. How is it on that side?

Bina: It can be equally difficult for the man. The family can go after the man. The man’s own family can be displeased with his choice of a life partner and they can make things very difficult for him. They can object to the marriage, they can refuse to give their support. That’s a devastating things for a Pakistani to face is lack of support from their family, disapproval from the family.

Frank: Have you spent any time in the States?

Bina: I have. I have. I spent five years as a child and then I went back for college and grad school.

Frank: Alright, let’s hear your thoughts on relationships in the States and I would love to hear your thoughts on Pakistani relationships in the States, whether arranged or unarranged.

Bina: You’re posing me some really complex questions here, Frank.

Frank: Uh-oh.

Bina: As far as American relationships go, they have changed from the time of my parents-my parents were in grad school when they took me over to the U.S. for the first time. I was really small. But in those days, things were quite, I would say, not conservative, but more middle of the road. There was still the idea that marriages are meant to last, that you try to stay together. Divorce was just starting to become more and more of the thing, especially in the early 70’s, which was when I was growing up in the U.S. as a child.

I think we saw the beginning of the change in American society and then when I went back as a college student, at least 50 percent of my college friends, their parents had been divorced. So, their attitudes toward marriage were-

Frank: Wow.

Bina: Yeah, so their attitudes-and we’re talking the early 90’s. Their attitudes toward marriage were very suspicious. They were not trustful that this might be the right choice for them, because they’d seen things go wrong in their parents’ lives.

Frank: That’s marriage altogether. Not even their parents’ marriage, just whether they should even get married or not.

Bina: They lost faith. They lost faith, because they saw things go bad and they lost confidence in themselves about being able to sustain long-term relationships.

Frank: So, there was still a level of value in sustaining a “long-term relationship.” So they saw value in marriage, they just didn’t think that they could cut the muster.

Bina: Well, the funny thing is that even today my college friends 20 years on, all of them are married-long-term marriages with children. I think they have found within themselves the courage to say, “Okay, I’m taking a risk, I don’t know if it’s going to work out, but let’s give it a really good shot.” With varying success, but I think that marriage in the United States, it endures as something to aspire to. I still haven’t seen the rates as much, as say, in perhaps Europe of people refusing to marry and raising families, children without being married. I don’t think it’s equal to what you see in Europe.

Frank: Well, let’s-

Bina: I think there is-

Frank: Let me hear about Europe.

Bina: Well, in Europe, for example, I went to Denmark back in September and hardly anybody was married. If I asked them they said, “We don’t think marriage is necessary to raising a family, to showing commitment, to showing love. The biggest way of showing love is to actually just have a baby together.” I think they have-

Frank: And this was for Pakistanis or this was for anyone you talked to?

Bina: This was just for anybody in Denmark. The Pakistanis living in Denmark would be much more conservative.

Frank: Okay.

Bina: Yeah.

Frank: I realize we’re about to discuss-so I’m going to put on the table, Afghanistan. How close are the cultures between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Bina: Because we share a border that is porous and the ethnic tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan are pretty much the same people. When the border was drawn between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it divided tribes and families in half. So, it was very artificial in a sense. We do share a lot of their culture in the northern areas as the ethnic tribes-the Pashtun, you must’ve heard of them. Pashtuns, that’s the major ethnicity. They are probably the most conservative of people in Pakistan and, of course, spreading into Afgahnistan.

Frank I know, though I don’t know the details. I know in the States, particularly in Washington D.C. where I live it’s almost like Taliban and Al-Qaeda are synonymous. When people talk it’s like they really believe that they’re the same thing-Americans are hearing the same thing, but I know that they’re not. What is the difference?

Bina: Well, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are political movements and that has very little to do with society and culture. Now, when you’re looking at society and culture, you look at customs, you look tribal traditions that have existed for thousands of years, for centuries. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda are a modern invention. They’re barely 15 or 20 years old. You’re really comparing the wrong things.

Frank: Alright, so are you saying they are the same or they’re two different-

Bina: Taliban and Al-Qaeda are not the same. Al-Qaeda is basically the international network of the terrorists that have attacked everywhere from Indonesia from Pakistan to the Middle East to African. Countries in Africa have been affected. Kenya has been affected, Somalia has been affected. Al-Qaeda is sort of the umbrella group under which many extremist groups operate. Attacks have even taken place in parts of Europe and have been claimed by groups that are associates themselves with Al-Qaeda.

Frank: Got it.

Bina: Now the Taliban themselves are more indigenous. They are the remnants of the Mujahideen that were funded by the United States to fight the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. When that war drew to a close and the United States decided to withdraw their support, they left a gap, a huge vacuum in which Afghan warlords were fighting for power and the drug trade was booming and into this gap, the Taliban who were pretty much religious students/joined forces with the Mujahideen and took power. They promised a very tight morality. They promised a very tight control and to the *(inaudible) 19:40 crimes that these warlords were committing.

Frank: Okay, interesting.

Bina: We’ve just gone through 20 years of history.

Frank: Yeah. It just came to me. I just thought I’d ask the questions.

Bina: Of course.

Frank: The lifestyle of a Pakistani female, please, can you walk us through it from the time she’s two years old, all the way until she passes.

Bina: It is extremely difficult to talk about the average Pakistani woman, because Pakistan is such a diverse country. You’ve got women who are born and raised in the most conservative of societies from which they are born, their harsh conditions, they’re made aware of their secondary status. They are not educated. Some of them never go to school. They endure early marriages, pregnancy in early teenage-hood.

Frank: How early?

Bina: Twelve, 13 years old; as soon as she enters puberty.

Frank: And that’s not looked down upon?

Bina: As soon as she enters puberty, she can be considered eligible for marriage and she’ll marry a man who’s older than her. Maybe 20, maybe 30, maybe 40, it depends. She’ll raise many children, she will lose them. Maternal mortality is high. Infant mortality is high and that’s basically how she’ll spend her life.

Then, you have the other end of the extreme where you’ve got people who are educated, Westernized, traveling abroad, doing all of the things that *(inaudible) 21:12 would be expected to do: going to school, going to university, holding down a job. So, as I said, there are real extremes in this society.

Frank: Is teenage pregnancy, particularly one that’s with your spouse, is it looked down upon at all?

Bina: Teenage pregnancy?

Frank: Yes.

Bina: No, there’s no real awareness of-there are campaigns that are trying to educate people about the dangers of early pregnancy and pregnancy for young teenagers, how it’s very brutal on the body, how it’s very bad for health of the child as well as the mother, but there’s no real societal condemnation of that, because it’s within a marriage.

Frank: How about from the man’s perspective? Tell me about how it looks for the male from two years old on as much as you can, even though I’m sure that’s as diverse as for the female.

Bina: It is as diverse. Again, a baby boy is born it’s celebrations all the way. A boy is seen as a real asset to the family. He’s going to grow up, he’s going to provide, so he is given the privilege-if a family is poor, they will still try to educate the boy. They’ll scrape together what they have to send him to school and he grows up with few of the restrictions that women face-that girls and women face. There are no limits on where he can go, what he can do, what he wants to do with his life. The limits are more to do with how educated he is and what kind of family connections and background he has. But generally, the men are told and they are raised to believe that they have a superior position.

Frank: The women are-the females are not celebrated as they’re born? Is that correct?

Bina: No, I would not say that they are, except in the classes that are educated and have been able to come out of this societal belief that a boy’s life is worth more than a girl’s. In those small circles, a girl is as welcomed as a boy. But I would say for the majority of Pakistan, it’s the boy. It’s the boy.

Frank: Seeing that some of the customs from India have continued to live on in Pakistan, what about bride burning? Is there-

Bina: No, no. That’s not something that is an issue in terms of dowry-are you talking-I’m sorry. Are you talking about dowry?

Frank: It had to do with the dowry, yes. Yes.

Bina: Oh, okay. We do have cases of that. We do have cases of that. Numbers are very difficult to pinpoint, because the crimes aren’t always reported. If it happens, the family will say, “Oh, it was an accident in the kitchen,” so on and so forth.
Frank: Wow.

Bina: These things do happen.

Frank: Speaking of dowry, tell us about the dowry system.

Bina: The interesting thing is that in Islam, there’s no such thing as dowry. There is no such thing as dowry. Instead, the groom pays an amount of money as a gift to the bride directly. Not to the family, to her. That is her money to keep and to spend and save as she sees fit and that is part of the official wedding ceremony itself-the giving of the Haq Mahr, it’s called.

However, because dowry as you rightly point out, is a cultural practice across South Asia, when a girl gets married her husband’s family has expectations of what kind of financial package she’s going to bring to the marriage and they can demand many things. They can demand household furniture, they can demand money, they can demand property; they can demand a car. It can go from a needle all the way up to a car.

Frank: Wow.

Bina: Yeah, so it’s very complicated. Officially, it’s not required but unofficially people really want these things.

Frank: Violence against women in relationships and marriage, is that a big prevailing dynamic or is it really not something that goes on in Pakistan?

Bina: No, the numbers of domestic violence is high. It’s been calculated as anywhere from 80 to 90 percent.

Frank: Is domestic violence anything-smacking all the way to beating her up? What is considered domestic violence?

Bina: There’s no concept of domestic violence, because we almost don’t even have the words or the terms in which to describe it. There’s no phrase “domestic violence” in our local languages, but it’s recognized that especially the lower you go down-it’s not to say that it isn’t a problem amongst the more educated the affluent, of course it is. It’s across the board.

Frank: Is there a political movement around that? What do you think if they do something wrong?

Bina: If they are seen to be or immoral or flouting authority, I think that’s the unspoken justification. But nobody’s going to go around saying, “Yeah, I beat my wife. I’m so proud of it.”

Frank: Is that a form of-

Bina: There’s very little implementation of laws. There are women’s protection acts. There are laws against domestic violence. There are laws against forced marriage. There are laws against everything. The problem is that of implementation. People just don’t take this as a priority. They just don’t think it’s something that is worth really enforcing.

Frank: Is the man beating his wife or smacking her, however that’s considered a way of him enforcing of his family?

Bina: No, I think that people widely understand that of course he’s frustrated by his powerless situation in life and he has to take it out on somebody and it’s the poor wife who’s in the way. I think that’s, by and large, very understood.

Frank: You’re listening to Frank Relationships and we’re talking with Bina Shah, a journalist living in Karachi *(inaudible) 27:52 four novels and two collections of short stories. Miss Shah, how can our listeners find you and your work?

Bina: I have a presence on the internet. I have a website: binashah.net. I’m on Facebook and on Twitter, so I am easy to find, Frank.

Frank: Tell me about your blog.

Bina: My blog is something that I’ve been doing on and off for a very long time in various incarnations. The latest one is called 21st Century Woman. It’s a nickname somebody gave me awhile back before the 21st century came and I just really liked it, so I started writing this blog and before I could even think about it, it started to take on some very strong feminist overtones. And before I knew it, I was writing about all things relating to feminism and women’s rights and women’s issues in Pakistan, amongst other things, but I think that’s the predominant flavor of this blog.

Frank: So, you do consider yourself a feminist?

Bina: Absolutely.

Frank: What do you think of feminism in America? How do you compare and contrast the two?

Bina: I think that there’s some interesting conversations taking place about feminism in the United States today, especially between groups of feminist white women, for example, and women of color. We’re seeing a lot of classes about how women of color are saying that white feminists don’t really understand or refuse to understand the way that feminism and issues of race and religion and power intersect-cross-sectionality, you can call it. So, those are some very interesting conversations that I’ve been following Twitter and on the internet and across people’s blogs.

Of course, that doesn’t come into too much of consideration in Pakistan if you’re talking about Pakistani feminism. But when you’re talking *(inaudible) 29:58 that we sometimes want from our international feminist sisters, sometimes there can be a lack of that support because they don’t understand the cultural issues at play or they don’t understand Islam, the basic tenants of Islam. They go by what they’ve been told, which is a lot of misinformation. So, sometimes people think, “Well, in order to empower women, you’ve got to tell them to get rid of Islam stuff, the Muslim stuff, following the religion,” and that’s not compatible for us. Oftentimes there are feminists in Islam-Muslim feminists who want to be able to combine their faith with their feminism. Then, there are some that don’t really care. They are more secular. But there needs to be a deeper understanding of that as well.

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You noted some of the misinformation and you also said that some of it had to do with just Islam, any other misinformation that’s of note?

Bina: I think that the problem is that really people aren’t traveling enough to Pakistan to really see things through their own eyes. I think they’re really relying a lot on media distortions and that’s a pity, because the best way to build bridges across cultures for people really to meet and to sit down together and to talk and to know each other. That’s another kind of relationship. I think it’s missing.

Frank: A great point. So, if I was out of the country and I wanted to describe the States, I may say, it varies, you can go to Seattle, it could be sunny one minute and gloomy and rainy the next. I’d say the same thing about San Francisco. I could say D.C. has lots of monuments and whatever.

Bina: Absolutely.

Frank: Tell me about Pakistan and I have no doubt that there is absolute beauty in Pakistan. Let’s hear it.

Bina: It’s a beautiful country. Where I live there are the most amazing beaches. You travel half an hour, you’re in the desert. You travel two hours, you cross the Indus River, you’re in some of the most fertile agricultural land you’ve ever seen, the most productive. We have all sorts of beautiful fruits: mangos, you name it, apples, bananas. You keep going north, you get to the plains. You go more north, you get to mountains that are more beautiful than Switzerland.

So, we are an incredibly diverse country. We are the crossroads of history. We have had the Persians, the Greeks, the Indians, the [Molevuls] sp 33:35, the Mongols, all conquerors come through this land. They’ve left their imprint, but they have been changed completely by coming through here and that rings true up until today. Any people that come to visit Pakistan, whether it be just for a short holiday or to come and work here for a couple of years, diplomats and diplomatic missions, they fall in love with this country, with its people, with its warmth, with its hospitality. So, Pakistan is a completely different country from what you will see on your 6:00 P.M. news.

If you want to know Pakistan but you’re not in the mood to come over here, and I can’t blame people who don’t want to right now, the best thing to do is find Pakistanis in your community. They are active. They are great members of American society. They are into community service. They are into business. They’re into all sorts of interface movements. Talk to them, make friends with them. Find out about where they come from and what life is like for them at home and in the United States-their new home. This is the best way that we can get to know each other.

Frank: Very nice, and we can simply round it out there. Do you have a take-away message for our audience? If you don’t have an additional one, you certainly provided a heck of one in that recap.

Bina: I think I just want to tell people, don’t prejudge us. Talk to us. We are friends. We will be friends. That is the way it has to be.

Frank: How do you address the people that will say, “Well, I’m not prejudging you, I’m watching the news and the news is giving me real information. So I’m not prejudice, I’m actually acting this way based on real information.”

Bina: I would say go to the source of your information. Who’s writing that news? Who’s producing that news? Who’s filming it? Who’s analyzing it? If it isn’t Pakistanis, it’s not real news.

Frank: Nice. You’re listening to Frank Relationships and we’ve been talking with Dr. Bina Shah, writer of English fiction and a journalist living in Karachi, Pakistan. She’s the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. Miss Shah, how can our listeners find you and your work?

Bina: All they have to do is Google my name, “Bina Shah.” You’ll find everything there: Twitter, Facebook, my website, my blog. I made myself deliberately easy to find.

Frank: Very nice. Thank you so much for being on this show.

Bina: It was a real pleasure, Frank. Thank you.

Frank: Along today’s journey, we’ve discussed arranged marriages, divorce rates, amongst Pakistanis in Pakistan and the United States and violence towards women in Pakistan. I hope you’ve had as much fun as I’ve had learning and discussing arranged marriages and Pakistani culture.

As always, it’s my wish for you to walk away from this conversation with a heaping helping of useful information that’ll help you create a relationship that’s as loving and accepting as possible.

Let us know what you thought of today’s show at: facebook.com/relationshipflove, on Twitter @mrfranklove or franklove.com. On behalf of my producer, Phileta Legette, my assistant producer, Anayza Stewart and my engineer, Jeff Newman. Keep rising. This is Frank Love.


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