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“.

14 thoughts on “WHEN I THINK ABOUT MARRYING: Zeba Iqbal

  1. Zeba,

    this is a very good follow up to your previous articles. Its time the community at large wakes up to the challenges that face muslim women. Such articles should find their way into more mainstream muslim media.

  2. The problem could perhaps be traced to the baggage that South Asian Muslims brought with them as first generation immigrants to the US.So the issue has to be forced upon them in their traditional strongholds….the Masajid.It is where a campaign for understanding, dialog and introspection should start.And don’t expect men to do that.They never will.You have to slowly penetrate the Women’s enclaves of the Masajid, perhaps on Fridays, and kick off a debate on this complex and dangerous problem which has the potential of turning into a disaster like it happened with Parsis.Their race is almost perished.There are only about 400,000 Zorastrians living across the globe now.
    Shame for us fathers who are condemning our daughters to social and intellectual infanticide.
    Keep being vocal Zeba, you won’t be alone anymore.

  3. Good article and should be discussed openly. However, I take issue with your stereotype of a woman who is married ‘early’. I know plenty of educated women who speak their minds, who are not daughters of doctors, who aren’t really into makeup, and who have married before 30. From my perspective, as a married woman, I get irritated at both single Muslim men and women who are constantly finding flaws in “potential” mates, specifically superficial flaws which don’t matter after day 1 of marriage. I think that this problem arises, especially in Muslims of South Asian descent, from being raised with Bollywood in the background. No marriage is easy. Don’t marry a complete loser, but be realistic and look at faith and character over physical appearance.

  4. @sehba

    My statement was in no means meant to stereotype a woman who married early.

    If one is over 30 and does not have a ‘unique selling point’ – ie some of the things I stated — or something else that is highly valued – you are an outlier – no one is interested in you – not the moms, not the sons, not the rishta aunties and not the matrimonials events.

    Your point re: finding flaws is well taken – if singles are focusing too much on the superficial – then as a married person – what are the things that do matter?

  5. Zeba,
    Excellent article. . . I have enjoyed reading your observations in this as well as your previous articles, and find the following commentary to be of particular interest and importance. I am going to quote the entire section:
    “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.”
    By the way, I really have to personally disagree with one of your criteria for being an “outlier”– “and last but not least, I am not a doctor (or the daughter of one).” In my experience and from what I have seen amongst my female medical friends (Muslim or non-Muslim), and what I have heard from my male medical friends, it seems as though any form of higher education (post-graduate) seems to place a woman into the “outlier” category– especially so if you are a woman in medicine. I have never once heard a man say that he wants to marry a doctor. In fact, I have heard quite the opposite. . . men saying that they would and want to marry anything BUT a doctor. And the female “outliers” I have encountered the most are actually female doctors. . . I just find it interesting that not being a doctor is one of the things you feel makes you an outlier yourself. . .

  6. Very interesting article and well written. From my limited experience (I am still in my 20’s) I am already seeing the disturbing trends that Zeba mentioned.

    I have found the root causes of many of these issues. Parents in our community want the best for their children. However, many of their definitions of ‘best’ brides tend to be between a certain age, certain profession (such as doctor, dentist), tall, fair, slim, from the same family background, same cultural background (same part of India/Pakistan/Bangladesh) etc. Instead of focusing on what is important to the children, the parents focus on factors that are beyond control for prospective brides. This attitude trickles down to the sons. Anyone woman who doesn’t fit the traditional mold may not be given a chance to talk to.

    We are all superficial to a certain extent. I dont want to deny the fact that I also look for a certain amount of superficial qualities in a person, aside from the goodness of character and morals. However, the issue is magnified in the desi muslim community and people are judged solely on the basis of these ‘qualities’. Also, the communities are very divided. People are judged on what part of South Asia their parents are from, what their grandparents did for a living, etc. This does not help the community because we have such a limited pool of people to choose from, and division makes it worse. The issue is not about women over 30. If a single 35 year woman had gotten a “decent” proposal from a muslim guy when she was 26, she probably would not have been in this situation. I can see a lot of women in my generation who could also be in the same boat if we dont take action now. That action could include increased interaction within the community, less division, and proper dialogue. If these steps are not taken, many of us may end up marrying non-muslims or converts who may treat us like human beings instead of a page in a bio-data.

  7. Very eloquently written Zeba! I fall into this category of women that you describe and let me throw one more thing into the mix that I experienced that made me even more of an outlier – being a Shia Muslim. Muslim men who may initially show interest suddenly hear the word Shia and run in the other direction. What befuddles me more is that parents of Muslim men are more willing to accept non-muslim women then they are willing to accept Shia women. With the limited muslim community that we have in this country it is truly quite disturbing that the elders of our communities are not enlightened enough to understand the bigger picture of what a Muslim really is and that to create these differences only limits the pool of their children even more.

  8. Zeba,

    You talk about a very pertinent problem. We have friends around us asking the same questions. Meeting someone is a matter of chance given the mileu we live in. Not making a choice is better than making a bad choice. But how can one tell? On the other hand, have we become overly selective? The arranged marraige system never did focus on the compatibility of the individuals involved. Both the Asian and the Western marriage process has bias when it comes to partner selection. Given that marraige is all about adjustment, give and take, one may make the best guess with what comes around and move forward. I do also understand there are a lot of unfortunate women who are not educated or do not have the same resources as their modern counterparts and that is another part of the issue that society as a whole should address. On the other hand, if one has made the choice to be single or married, it should not matter what a certain section of community thinks or says. In this day and age, who cares? I do like the idea of making muslim individuals more socially interactive with each other as it will be a large part of the solution.


  9. Zeba I absolutely adore your piece. I am only 21 and I suffer already. I cannot imagine marrying without knowing the man enough. Yes, I am definitely an outsider even though I haven’t reached a undiseable age of marriage. All these superficial proposals from aunties of doctors, engineers and the alike comes where the the mothers seem interested. I will be married to their son and not them. I don’t understand how they are so obsessed about it. Leave it to the kids. Seriously! My fear is to wake up beside someone I have to put up with all my life.

    As for marrying a Non-Muslim man, it is forbidden as far as I am aware as it is usually the father’s religion that the children follow and Muslims are trying to multiply in number, not the other way around.

  10. It’s like you were speaking what was on my mind. I truly understand your feelings and emotions. It is very heartbreaking and overwhelming at times. They keep saying Allah has someone better for you, they say don’t hope for it, things will just happen, they say be grateful with your life, others have it worst. People say a lot of things but no one knows the path you are walking on, the hurt, frustration and anger within.

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