You’re lucky if you’re in an environment that promotes a healthy and rational way to build a lifetime deal. You are also lucky if you have fallen in love, and know who you want to spend the rest of your life with and have the opportunity to do that. And, you’re daaaamn lucky if you’ve had a traditional arranged marriage and it worked out beautifully for you. – “Banoota.net”
The following is a guest post by Rawiya in response to our recent series on the Muslim Marriage Crisis.
I’ve just gotten off of the phone with my mother, a Pakistani woman in her 50s, who bore six children and has watched on the sidelines as we all become mired in the murky territory marriage. She offers me the above advice as a joke, delivered with a lilt of tired laughter, but she’s also up against a brick wall, without any other advice to give me, her 27 year old daughter, on a topic that she’s come to understand less and less in her thirty plus years of marriage.
By the blessings of God, I was given the most incredible parents in the world. In my youth, I took them for granted, complaining of course about their strict rules about slumber parties and gender-mixed social events. But through the years, and after speaking with countless other Muslim children who have grown up in the United States, I understand the extent to which my parents are exceptional South-Asian Muslim parents. They raised their five daughters and one son to be independent, critical thinkers, challenging them to think beyond the world that they knew and were comfortable in, while still instilling a sense of respect for faith and tradition. So, while my Dad taught us how to read the Qur’an and perform prayer and while my Mom taught us how to cook and sew, my parents also encouraged us to go beyond the world of their familiarity and comfort. I took piano and voice lessons, ran cross country, sang and acted in school musicals, and wrote music, all of which were strange and alien things for Mom and Dad, but nonetheless, they were always behind me, supporting me when I had to turn down “kissing” parts in plays or fighting for my right to wear track pants instead of shorts in cross country races. Furthermore, my siblings and I were encouraged and expected to pursue higher education. That has meant two PhDs (and one on the way, God willing) and one MD. My mother, married at the age of 18, brought to the United States at the age of 20 without a word of English, and illiterate, knew the value of education, and was adamant that her daughters would be able to support themselves, married or not. She instilled in all of us the fierce desire for independence and self-sufficiency, while at the same time reassuring us that they would always be there for us. Always.
The one shady area in which my parents had no strong words of advice was marriage. We knew the general ground rules. Marry a Muslim. Preferably a “Pashtun.”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pashtun But my parents were not naïve; they knew that the fact that we lived in rural northern New York limited our scope significantly. While there was occasionally mention of an interested suitor in Pakistan to my elder sisters, my parents did not fight when met with eye rolls and protests. In truth, they didn’t want their daughters moving back to Pakistan either, so far away from them. So it came as somewhat of a surprise when my second eldest sister, “Adila,” told them at the age of 19 that she received an offer of marriage from a distant cousin in Pakistan, and was that she had accepted him and was moving there. My parents were shocked, and asked her to reconsider. Life in Pakistan, thousands of miles away from family, would be difficult. But furthermore, my parents knew the suitor’s family to be very traditional and of a conservative bent, which they were sure would clash with Adila’s upbringing. But Adila would not relent. She was in love, and was determined. So my parents, being the parents they are, consented and watched Adila leave for Pakistan at age 20. Within several years, Adila had two children, and was happy performing her household duties in the extended family’s home. She would occasionally visit the United States with her family, and she and her husband talked about getting him U.S. citizenship. However, upon researching this, they realized that in order for him to achieve this, they would have to spend a good deal of time in the United States, something which his family back in Pakistan was against, and he would have to get a job. A wealthy land-owner in Pakistan, this was also something that he was not used to. But they began the process. Along the way, her husband became frustrated and decided to return to Pakistan. Adila, who had gotten her own job at this point, and was starting to realize that she missed her independent lifestyle, that she missed life in the United States, and that she wanted to raise her children with the same values she was raised with. My parents’ anxieties about my sister’s match were manifesting. And at this point, my sister is still in limbo. She has refused to go back to Pakistan. Her husband travels back and forth, and her children travel to Pakistan in the summers. But her marriage has undergone intense strain and at this point, they are only together for the sake of the children.
My eldest sister brought new issues to the marriage table. One evening, over the phone, my sister “Zainab” apparently told her that she had fallen in love with a non-Muslim, and that they were going to get married. He was going to convert to Islam, albeit for her sake, because he knew how important it was to her and he didn’t want to estrange her from her family. This was a blow to my parents. While they encouraged independence and critical thinking, religion was always incredibly important to them. They were against Zainab’s marriage, because a conversion for the sake of marriage was superficial and illegitimate in their eyes. They also felt hurt at her hiding her relationship from them for a considerable amount of time. But at the same time, my parents did not even begin to entertain the thought of giving Zainab an ultimatum, of threatening her with disowning her. They disagreed with her choice, but loved her and stood by her. Zainab’s husband was accepted into our family, and she now has three beautiful children, may God protect them.
My parents were seasoned stoics when yet another sister, Farah, told them over the phone (again!) that she had fallen in love with a non-Muslim and that they were getting married. Only this time, there was no mention of conversion. Farah had been dating an atheist for years, was living with him in secret, and finally outed herself when he proposed to her. I watched them, resigned, and was hurt for them. I saw how much they loved their children, how little they asked of them, and how disappointed they were. But still, they stood by their children, dealing with censure and ridicule from family and from our community. I was determined to give them what they deserved. I closed off myself to any possibility of marrying a non-Muslim. I vowed that I would find someone that they accepted and approved of, and felt estranged from my siblings and their “selfishness.”
It was around this time that I started “dating” an Arab Canadian Muslim man from my undergraduate university. He was everything that I had ever dreamed of: devout and socially engaged. A Muslim, an academic, a critical thinker, an activist, a romantic. We began as friends, but things quickly became serious and we discussed marriage from the very beginning. I was relieved. I had succeeded in finding someone who satisfied my religious, intellectual, and emotional inclinations. But as time went on, the engagement kept being postponed. He had met my parents, but his parents were still an enigma to me. I came to find out later that his parents were not happy in his interest in a Pakistani, and had been hoping that he would marry an Egyptian cousin of his. I was resolute; I had decided that I wanted to marry him, and he was adamant that he wanted to marry me, so I remained in limbo for three and a half years, waiting for our relationship to become legitimized. But that never happened. After three and a half years of sacrifice and waiting, I had to give him an ultimatum. After all of this, he turned the ultimatum down.
There were many complexities which led to our parting of ways, which I won’t get into here. But the fact remains that I’m now 27 years old, distrustful, cynical, and unsure of what I want anymore. It’s been almost two years now since my relationship ended, and I am still coming to terms with all of the emotional repercussions of what I’ve faced. I know I still want to get married, but I barely know where to begin to look. I’ve met men through friends, created profiles on online Muslim marriage sites, and have also spent periods of time just throwing up my hands in the air and telling myself to “trust God” that the best will come of it all. But the truth is, I’m scared. I just haven’t found “him” yet. I haven’t found someone who meets my needs as a critical but devout Muslim woman, who values her independence and career, who still writes music and goes for runs while pursuing her PhD. And after sacrificing and forbearing patiently for three and a half years in a relationship that never panned out, I feel justified in being a little bit selfish right now. I’m not willing to sell myself short. And I have to face the fact that that might mean never getting married. And if I’m being completely honest, *this thought scares the hell out of me.*
Sure, in non-Muslim communities, 27 is young, but let’s face it. For us Muslims, 27 year old women are looked at with suspicious eyebrow raises. “She must be too self-centered or career-oriented.” Recently at an dinner on my university’s campus, I found myself sitting amongst a group of Muslim women my age, most of whom were already married. One laughed saying, “I’m so glad that we can come to these catered dinners. It spares me of having to cook my husband dinner for an entire month!” Most of the women nodded vehemently in agreement, laughing.
I just sighed.
I don’t even cook dinner for myself every night. If this is the expectation that Muslim men in the United States still have, then I guess I’ll be by myself for awhile. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there aren’t Muslim men out there who value independent and career-oriented women. I just haven’t found one yet…
This was the topic I was speaking to my mother about over the phone today. My brother was just engaged last week to a Muslim woman that he met over naseeb.com. My parents went with him to his fiancee’s parents house and had a ceremony, and were overjoyed that their son had found someone to share his life with. However, after spending time with the bride-to-be’s family, my Mom isn’t sure again. She was confiding in me that she thinks that my brother’s fiancée, Saadya, is manipulating him. After my brother gave his fiancée a Tiffany’s engagement ring, her family demanded a “mahr”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahr of $50,000 and two sets of gold, amounting to about $20,000, and marriage clothing. My mother feels torn, wanting her son to be happy and wanting to give him the independence to make his own choices, but at the same time, she fears him being duped under the guise of “religion” and “tradition.” She admits to me that she doesn’t understand why things have been so difficult when it comes to her children and marriage. She is confused, and barely knows what she wants from her children anymore.
This is the context for her advice to me, to “marry a Jewish man.” Tradition and innovation, Muslim and non-Muslim, have caused stress to her children in terms of marriage. There are no more ground rules of, “you must marry a Muslim.” She just wants me to find someone who can truly be my partner in life. Traditions, rings, dowries… these things are secondary. She watches in admitted surprise as Farah’s marriage to a non-Muslim seems to be the most stable and rewarding marriage of all of her children’s marriages. As much as I’m embarrassed to admit it, I’m surprised too. I feel ashamed at being so judgmental of my siblings and their choices. It’s not easy. We all have ideals and values and expectations in terms of who we want to end up with. But life isn’t that simple. God takes us on twists and turns and I have to believe that S/He knows best. So while it might seem a little strange for Mom to say, “marry a Jewish man,” I know it’s her way of saying, “I won’t judge you if you marry outside of the faith. I know how hard things are for you.” I’m still not quite ready to let that go yet, myself. But I’m thankful that I have the support of incredible parents who understand just how difficult it is for us, living on the margins of multiple societies, battling with complex identities that we choose for ourselves and that are imposed upon us, to find a marriage partner.
Related Link: Life Mergers and Acquisitions over at Banoota