With a red embroidered veil draped over her dark hair, Punam Chowdhury held her breath last week as her fiance said the phrase that would make them husband and wife. After she echoed them, they were married. Guests erupted in applause; the bride and groom traded bashful smiles.
Just then, the Internet connection cut out, and the wedding was abruptly over.
Normally one of the most intimate moments two people can share, the marriage had taken place from opposite ends of the globe over the video chat program Skype, with Chowdhury, a US citizen, in a mosque in Jackson Heights, Queens, and her new husband, Tanvir Ahmmed, in his living room with a Shariah judge in his native Bangladesh.
Their courtship, like so many others, had taken place almost entirely over the Internet - they had met in person only once, years earlier, in passing. But in a twist that underscores technology's ability to upend traditional notions about romance, people are not just finding their match online, but also saying "I do" there.
These are called proxy marriages, a legal arrangement that allows a couple to wed even in the absence of one or both spouses. They date back centuries: One of the most famous examples was between Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who were first married in her native Austria in his absence, before she was shipped to meet him France. Proxy marriages via telegraph have also been documented.
The procedure had been used infrequently in the United States, usually by deployed members of the military worried about being killed and leaving loved ones without benefits. But it is increasingly being used in immigrant communities, where people are seeking to marry partners from their homelands without the expense of matchmaking trips abroad.
Such convenience has also raised concerns that it will facilitate marriage fraud - already a challenge for immigration authorities - and make it easier to ensnare vulnerable women in trafficking networks.
The practice is so new that some immigration authorities said they were unaware it was even happening and did not typically provide extra scrutiny to ensure these types of marriages were not misused to secure citizenship. But even those who conduct or arrange these ceremonies have expressed reservations as the practice has grown more widespread.
The imam Mohd A. Qayyoom, who runs the New York Qazi Office in Jackson Heights and officiated Chowdhury's wedding in February, said he had turned away people seeking to marry cousins back in Southeast Asia in order to get them to the United States. Mazeda A. Uddin, a community activist from Queens, who often plays matchmaker, said she stopped organizing proxy weddings after witnessing people being married and left brokenhearted by unscrupulous foreigners seeking a green card, not a life partner.
"Part of the reason for having the two people come and appear before a priest or a judge is to make sure it is a freely chosen thing," said Adam Candeub, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law who has studied proxy marriage. "There are some problems with willy-nilly allowing anyone around the world to marry."
Technically, the Chowdhury-Ahmmed marriage "took place" in Bangladesh, where it was legally registered, not New York, where the practice is not allowed. Only a few states permit proxy marriages, and most require one partner to be in the military. But the United States generally recognizes foreign marriages as long as they are legally conducted abroad and do not break any laws here.
George Andrews, the operations manager for Proxy Marriage Now, a company in Fayetteville, N.C., that facilitates such unions worldwide for a fee, said technology like Skype was driving the growth of proxy marriages. In the seven years the company has been in existence, business has increased by 12 to 15 percent annually to between 400 and 500 weddings a year. The share not involving someone in the military has grown to 40 percent.
Some of those couples are trying to circumvent restrictive local laws, like those in Israel and other countries, which recognize mixed-religion marriages but will not perform them, he said. Others who live in different countries seek marriage to pave the way to be together, a first step to attaining a visa or citizenship for a spouse, he said. Couples usually dial in to a ceremony in El Salvador, which has comparatively little red tape surrounding the process.
All people applying for U.S. citizenship through marriage must first be interviewed by officials from the Homeland Security or State departments who are charged with rooting out fraud. Officials said that if the spouses were to explain that they had been married thousands of miles apart over the Internet, it would quite likely raise a red flag.
And yet, while the agencies ask interviewees for details of their wedding during the immigration interviews, they do not specifically inquire whether it occurred by proxy.
Archi Pyati, the deputy director of the Immigration Intervention Project at that Sanctuary for Families, an organization that helps battered women, said the center frequently saw ways in which proxy marriage was abused.
Some cases involve women, many from West Africa, who were married by proxy without their consent, or as children.
Other cases have involved proxy marriage used to bring women into the country who then find themselves pressed into sex work by traffickers.
The practice is particularly widespread in Islamic countries where the Quran has long been interpreted to explicitly endorse it.
"After all these advancements in technology and all kinds of telecommunication tools, scholars came to the conclusion that it is acceptable," said the imam Shamsi Ali, of the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens.
"Skype is making it easier," he added. "These days you have Google Hangout, too."
There are those who oppose the practice for traditional reasons.
"It seems strange. I just feel like a wedding begins your new life together, not apart," said Angela Troia, who owns the Wedding Company, a shop in Manhasset, N.Y., on Long Island, that sells invitations and offers planning guidance for many Queens couples. "I think it takes away from the meaning of it."
But for Chowdhury, 21, and Ahmmed, 31, the giggling pair in Queens pretending to feed each other wedding dessert by holding forkfuls of cake to their computer screens that day, it felt full of the gravity of any other wedding. Chowdhury noted that her aunt had married similarly, long before the Internet age - by telephone.
Peering from the screen of a laptop, Ahmmed agreed. "This is my lawful wife," he said.
At the last word, his bride squealed with joy.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service