“Islamic practice bans unsupervised dating,” says the Washington Post.
And from the perspective of the hadith that discourages one-on-one encounters between men and women, this may indeed seem to be the case. But is it really so? Many Muslims would argue that it is not. In the DC area, Imam Magid and his wife arrange collective premarital counseling sessions for men and women. In New York, Daisy Khan arranged a Valentine’s Day event for Muslim singles. Fifteen men and sixty-three women showed up. The “surplus” of women is indeed an issue. Many Muslim women would say, sarcastically, that the surplus is more specific—of smart, mature, beautiful, professional women.
For years now, I have agonized, along with my friends, about the disproportionately large numbers of such women and the much lower numbers of truly eligible Muslim men. Many friends have wondered if “he” is out there at all. Many friends have asked me if I can introduce them to someone, and friends have asked me if I can introduce their friends to someone. I empty my pockets helplessly; there are few that I’d introduce to them with confidence. The “good ones” are married, engaged, or perpetually single/looking. I can think of a number that I wouldn’t be comfortable marrying myself—too immature, too socially inept, professionally unstable (the perpetual graduate student, for instance), equipped with outdated gender norms, momma’s boy… I could go on.
It’s not that Muslim women don’t have problems. But there are so many of them that are single that the mind boggles at the future that awaits the community.
When I was single in my 30s, my parents and community were rather horrified at the future that awaited me. Marriage is rather important to Muslims. But what is a woman to do if she can’t find someone?
A couple of Muslim women have whispered to me that they had thought of marrying outside the faith. Traditional Muslims hold that Muslim women may not marry outside the faith and that Muslim men may marry Muslims, Christians, or Jews, but there the choices end. There is little by way of statistics for American Muslims as Muslims, so it is hard to tell whether there are just more Muslim women than men, whether there are fewer Muslim men because they may marry outside the faith (or because some men do marry abroad, traveling to their parents’ birthplaces to enter arranged marriages).
But what we do know is that there are large numbers of single, bright, articulate, and professional Muslim women today—in their 40s, 30s, and 20s, and that the community will have to deal with the consequences of this phenomenon. In the homelands of the immigrants, Muslim women were usually protected within the homes of fathers, brothers, husbands, in-laws, and sons. Single women who remained single were not unknown, but were not large in number and remained an anomaly. Wealthy and middle-class or educated single women could hold their own. In the diaspora, professional single women, outside of a traditional Muslim context, will inevitably change the face of the community. Traditional, conservative Muslims may have much to fear from these changes, but they must be faced.
Growing numbers of Muslim women are marrying outside the faith. Until now, they could be disowned by their families, unless the families came to terms with the situation. Or their husbands could fake conversions and no one would ask him too many questions. Now, as Muslim women marry Jews, Christians, Hindus, atheists, and beyond, it will be interesting to see how their children are raised, and how this will affect their children’s identities. It will be interesting to see how this changes the face of the community in the United States.
For the record, I do not feel that marriage outside the faith is an ideal solution for most religious individuals. In my humble belief and experience, religion is a discipline and tradition that requires total living and immersion. Marriage is also a discipline and a process that requires the totality of one’s engagement. At least in my observation, I have not encountered many cases of successful service to these two masters. Then there is the issue of raising children. Intensely ecumenical couples have raised children in two or more faiths, but I do not feel that this does justice to any one faith or even to faith, period. However, I have also observed that there is a genuine lack of eligible men, and I am no believer in subjection to prolonged suffering (the single life is difficult and lonely, especially for religious people who practice chastity).
The dearth of eligible men is not the only reason for marriage outside the faith. Traditional Muslim organizations and contexts have indeed insisted on forms of gender segregation that sometimes make it extremely difficult to find spouses. Under the motto “God will provide,” conservative Muslims have frowned upon single men and women talking to each other (much “talking,” I found in my research on college campuses, therefore takes place on the internet and the phone, because it is much less visible). “Courting” is rejected by the more traditional circles, though many have come to realize that they have to give way. But this grudgingly “look-away” acceptance will have to change and develop into something more legitimate if Muslim men and women are to find mates within the community.
Religion Dispatches contributor Svend White speaks of an Islamic Society of North America convention matrimonial event about a decade ago. Single men and women were chatting with each other, under the eye of supervisors. Suddenly an elderly gentleman appeared, and reprimanded them, “Brothers, this is not permissible. You should not be doing this.” Svend says, “I wanted to tell him, ‘Uncle, you should be grateful they’re here, and not at the bar across the street from the convention center.’” Because the bar is indeed there, and if Uncle doesn’t go there, many of the kids do.
Inevitably, single status will also change some Muslim women’s approaches toward chastity and sexuality. Boys have always been boys, but American Muslim women have been relatively sexually chaste, if anecdotal evidence and observation is to count. Recently I have heard of a Muslim group I will not name that has permitted single women to sleep with men (under the category of dire sexual need).
Notions of religiosity, chastity, and identity in the Muslim community will change under pressure of these circumstances. Notions of difference–for instance “Muslims do not date like regular Americans”–and notions of self and other will also change.