WHEN I THINK ABOUT MARRYING: Zeba Iqbal
Many of my single women friends are over 30, and some are now over 35. Together we either laugh till we cry, or cry till we laugh when we talk about the challenges of meeting and marrying Muslim men. The situations we find ourselves in today are both funny and sad – at the same time.
I’m glad to have women (and now men too) with whom I can share my myriad of emotions and observations on this topic. I feel much less alone now than I have in the past in this regard. I know that Allah is with me, which definitely does give me solace, but having support that I can see and feel makes a big difference.
For a long time, I felt shut out by the community for not fitting into their little box. Why am I an ‘outlier’? Well, I have been above that arbitrary line-in-the-air called the ‘socially acceptable’ marriageable age since I was 27. I have a mind and speak it. I care about more than make up. I am not drop-dead gorgeous. And last but not least, I am not a doctor (or the daughter of one). I know that I don’t sound very different from many other single women out there, but those are some of my reasons for being an outlier.
How many times in how many ways have I been judged (we all have) by the community? We are creatures of our environment and the judging has affected me. By the same token though, how many times have I judged (again, we all have) the community? I don’t know whether they are affected by me, but I am sure that I mimic the community in its behaviors more than I know. The community ties us together, but can also bind and gag us, to conformity and to unachievable expectations, thereby causing us to limit our own aspirations in efforts to be more ‘acceptable’ to the community.
I have recently realized that whatever I do, the community is never going to embrace me. Some parts of the community will, but others won’t. Even InshAllah if and when I do get married I will never be a young bride or a young mother. The time for that has past. I will never be in sync with my friends and their kids age wise. I will always be an outlier. It’s not where I wanted to be, no one likes to stick out, but there is wisdom in everything, and despite the fact that I am willing to speak honestly and directly, I am not willing to question and condemn things I don’t know and definitely don’t understand.
I spoke out about three weeks ago on my feelings and observations on the ways and means of meeting and marrying in the Muslim community. I made a sincere request on a friend’s blog to the Muslim American community, eligible men and their mothers, matrimonial sites and event organizers, and rishta aunties. I asked them to pay attention to me, and other women like me who are part of a growing population of single Muslim women over 30 (I am over 35) in our community.
I am glad I did, and was heartened to receive such resounding support for my observations. I was certain I would be stonewalled, but my words seem to have started an interesting dialogue. We have reached an impasse on marriage and talking helps. Even if we are opening up a Pandora’s Box full of complex issues, open and honest dialogue can raise the level of discourse on this topic and others throughout the community.
Some soul searching is in order for us to understand why meeting and marrying are so tough these days in our community. We haven’t even touched the topics of staying married and dealing with divorce. Perhaps meeting and marrying are difficult because we judge and critique ourselves and others constantly. At some point, we need to let go, to live and let live. We are Allah’s ambassadors on this earth, not His police force. Allah is very particular in asking us not to be judgmental, and to be tolerant. I wonder if it will be possible for us as a community to follow Allah’s Will in letter and in spirit – seeking to find solutions to the challenges we face instead of creating more problems.
Back to meeting and marrying, I have personally become extremely ambivalent, after many years of being very hopeful. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to get married, I just feel that I have wasted time, money, worry and effort I have wasted on what have really been futile efforts. Maybe it’s all just emotional baggage, but I don’t want to dismiss my ambivalence quite so casually.
We know rising singlehood among women and conflict between genders are universal phenomena affecting our societies. Thus far, our community’s response to these phenomena has been particularly weak. Perhaps we can use our keen critiquing skills more usefully, to create very Muslim, very American solutions to these issues?
The issue of marriage is discussed ad nauseum in our community. With so much discussion we should have a deeper understanding of it all by now. We don’t though because behind closed doors parents are beating their chests and women are being asked to repent for being accomplished, educated and independent. Ironic because that is exactly what our parents wanted for us when we were growing up. Somehow we have failed by being successful, pretty counterintuitive.
“A bad marriage is better than no marriage at all”, “so what if he doesn’t read, he’s rich”, “marry someone who likes you more than you like them”, “men can have their pick, don’t hold your breath that some great guy is going to come and sweep you off your feet” – are typical ‘helpful’ pieces of advice that I am given. I don’t find any of them helpful, or enlightened, but I do find them ringing in my head, raising questions and doubts about my own powers of reasoning and perception.
Gender conflict is also an issue. Already due to the general lack of dialogue between the sexes, and the lack of a proper framework for decisions relating to marriage, there is a great deal of ill will and misunderstanding between the genders. Normalizing basic gender relations between Muslim men and women is critical to smoothening the path to marriage and a stronger community overall. Our men admit to having become increasingly passive (or passive aggressive) and our women admit to having become increasingly aggressive. The gap in trust and understanding between the genders is further complicated by issues of identity, insecurity, judgment/criticism and social pressure.
As we look forward will we develop solutions that are responsive and thoughtful? Muslims can be cautiously conservative in the practice of their faith, but Islam is progressive and encourages directness, simplicity, tolerance and openness. How will we incorporate these into our answers to the questions, “What will we do within the framework of Islam to help our single women over 30 get married?”, “Is a halal form of dating a viable option in the community?” and “What happens if some of our women decide to marry non-Muslims or nominally converted Muslims?”
Regarding a framework to help our single women over 30 get married, at minimum, we need to engage actively in discussions and endeavor to foster relevant and meaningful interaction and dialogue between the sexes in forums for broader discussion and guidance (“khutbas” or sermons, dialogues, discussions, roundtables on Islam, marriage, gender relations, sexual relations, etc.). Additionally, if there are matrimonial events and sites, the events and sites have to be more nuanced than the current options. The goal is coming together in halal settings with other Muslims who seek to get married.
On halal dating, I think it’s a viable option if we are clear on the terminology and the parameters. Dating encompasses the communications and interactions between a man and a woman based on mutual interest and potentially leading to marriage. These interactions can be controlled and adapted to be halal, relevant, thoughtful and transparent.
From the perspective of Muslim singles today, there are limited options to meet other Muslims, and historically, marriages were arranged. This is not the case anymore. Now, we are on our own. Family and friends may suggest individuals, but once the introductions are made, it’s just us.
There will be some Muslims who decide to marry non-Muslims or nominally converted Muslims. In fact, the suggestion has been made that single Muslim women should start looking outside the community (after all that’s what Muslim men do right?). Conceptually, I agree with my friend who says that it’s a form of ‘dawah’ (educating non-Muslims). She mentioned to me that in her very conservative community there is a position that women should be allowed and encouraged to marry non-Muslims who take the ‘shahada’ (the proclamation of faith in Islam) because Islam has the capacity to evolve in one’s heart over time.
The way we respond to these issues will dictate the future complexion and makeup of our community. If we choose to marginalize, the community will continue to stratify ethnically and ideologically. If we choose to include and accept, the community will be more united and more diverse.
By not considering progressive, inclusive and pragmatic positions on issues like marriage, dating and gender relations we are allowing the community to be crippled by emotional underdevelopment. I wish that all I could think about when I think about marrying was roses and chocolate. That’s not the case, but maybe someday it will be.
(Photo: scholesyfynn via flickr under a Creative Commons license)
Zeba Iqbal is the Vice-Chair of CAMP (Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals) and the conference manager for their 2009 Leadership Summit. She is an active social and community networker and an activist for the Muslim American community. She lives in NYC and currently works at Princeton University. Other recent pieces from the Goatmilk blog by Wajahat Ali, are “Over 30 and Unmarried” and “Dating While Muslim“.