Single, Muslim, and female: a gendered forecast of the American Muslim community

The following is the complete article on which “It’s not raining eligible Muslim men” is based. It is rather long, which is probably why Religion Dispatches blog cut it to a more reasonable length. But if you’re a sucker for punishment, enjoy. For further discussion on the subject, please see my friend Javed’s post on the subject.
In traditional faith communities, single women are usually looked upon with fear and desire. They are objects of desire because they hold out the promise of a traditional religious home complete with traditional wife and progeny to perpetuate the lineage and community. The unfulfilled promise they seem to hold out is ripe for the plucking. But they are also feared, and as objects of fear, they inspire often intense monitoring behaviors. In traditional communities, single women are watched and judged far more intensely than are single men. Single women’s main marketable commodity – virginity – is guarded and desired – and feared because it is capable of being spent – and with this spending, the honor of the collective may also be metaphorically dissipated. Men’s honor does not have far-reaching implications for the community; men are the community and the arbiters of its honor. Women’s honor is guarded and watched as well as cherished and honored.
When single women become numerous in a faith community, leaders and gatekeepers worry. Or should worry. First, because single women, unlike men, may not seek sexual fulfillment (legitimately) outside of wedlock. Second, because they, in fact, can.

Muslims in the diaspora often claim, as does this article that Islam does not allow dating or even that “Muslims don’t date.” This is an interesting claim, and one that merits extensive scholarly examination. Briefly and simplistically, from the perspective of the hadith that discourages one-on-one encounters between men and women because the third of the two is satan, this indeed seems to be the case. In many ways, intimate social engagement between men and women is pregnant, if I may put it thus, with sexual potential. As even popular culture puts it, they’re never really “just friends.”

Many liberal Muslims would argue that the case is not so simple, and they may cite cases from the Prophet’s life and his Companions. Or they may argue that times have changed; that marriage, divorce and indeed gender are no longer what they were, and that it is the spirit of the law rather than the letter in its entirety that must be fervently preserved. Well then, return the conservatives, what is that spirit if it is not include the practice of chastity? And how may chastity be preserved if the floodgates are opened to the Muslim masses by putting single men and women in continuous, risky contact with each other?

And then there are the Muslims who are in-between, neither absolutely conservative nor very liberal. The writer occurs somewhere in that mid-way space. I am committed to the ideal of religious chastity. I am also very aware of the human condition, and the Muslim diasporic condition.

Many traditional, conservative Muslims (I use both so you can take your pick, really) seek arranged and semi-arranged marriages. Community leaders, parents, relatives, friends and acquaintances set them up with potential mates after the desired characteristics have been explained in full. The couple then meets: this may be anything from a glance at a social event (my brother married an amazing woman in this way, and hit gold), to a meeting between the two while Mom watches over them. At times, the couple may even meet at a restaurant and chat at length, as long as they’re not in a private booth. The purpose in all these arrangements is to prevent the nature of courtship from becoming unduly sexualized. All that  comes after marriage.

But not all Muslims marry in this way. Many acidly argue that they don’t have access to the networks that would help set them up with the right person. (And that’s not just converts, by the way, though converts suffer this situation the most). Many would sneer at the past attempts at being set up, and steer away from them. Many, really, do date-date. All the way.

What dating means for individual couples varies a great deal. For some, they may socialize one-on-one extensively, hang out for long periods, and watch movies. Some may even engage in some physical contact without going too far. And of course, some will have sex. And yes, some sleep around. But because the meaning of the term can vary contextually, many Muslims say, to keep it safe and simple, as does the article cited above, “Muslims don’t date.”

The Quran forbids fornication and adultery and describes it as lewdness and a bad path to take. This does not mean that Muslims do not commit fornication, whether in the diaspora or in the Muslim homelands. But from observation, I would argue that, whether because of their recent immigrant origins, their cultural characteristics, global religio-political trends or, as some would claim, something about Islam itself, Muslim women in the US are *relatively* less likely, *overall,” than indigenous faith groups, to have premarital or extramarital sex.

As I have watched the community over the past decade, I feel that while religiosity is on the rise, so is something else.

When, in New York, Daisy Khan arranged a Valentine’s Day event for Muslim singles, 15 men and 63 women showed up. The “surplus” of single women in the community is being identified as an issue. Many Muslim women would say, sarcastically, that the surplus is more specific – of smart, mature, beautiful, professional women and no one to match them up with.

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 questioned 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 pull out my pockets helplessly. Few that I’d introduce to them with confidence, I say. The “good ones” are married, engaged, or, mysteriously, perpetually single. In a community that is dispersed heavily over a geographically extensive area, there are so many single American Muslim women that the mind boggles at the future that awaits the community.

When I was single in my 30s, my parents and community were horrified at the future that awaited me. What would I do? Would I lose my mind? Would I lose my virginity? Would I fall into penury? What does a single woman do when she lives on her own? There were few precedents to guide their wonderment about my future.

Marriage is important to Muslims. Chastity is important. Celibacy is frowned upon. Marriage is the Prophet’s way. It is “half of your religion.” It’s not mandatory, but it’s pretty close.

But a strongly recommended religious practice – one that requires a whole other individual for the practice to be performed – can change, under the pressure of circumstance, from “strongly recommended” to “challenging,” and even optional. Sociologically, religious practice is contained within and shaped by the vessel of culture and cultural change. That which today appears to be of momentous consequence to one’s faith may not always have been so.

So what is a woman to do if she can’t find someone to marry? In the ‘80s and ‘90s – that’s how long I was single! – I could be bullied to hurry up and “marry someone” (read “anyone”). Precedence could be cited: all of my peers were married and most of them had teenage children by the time I got married. Many of those peers had married not Mr Right but Anyone, and had thereby made good time.

Today, a 30-year old woman, if harassed by community elders, can turn around and ask exactly whom she is supposed to marry. She can wait longer for the right person. She can also argue that a large number of her peers are still single. Numbers cannot be used against her. And numbers – “everyone’s doing it” – is a nest of immense security.

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. So is there a smaller pool of Muslim men available for Muslim women because some of them are marrying non-Muslims? There is little by way of lifestyle-related statistics for American Muslims, so it is hard to tell whether there are just more Muslim women than men, whether Muslim men’s marriages outside the faith impacts numbers significantly, or because some men do marry abroad, traveling abroad to their parents’ birthplaces to enter arranged marriages. The last-mentioned is neither here nor there because some Muslim women also marry abroad. However, since cultural patterns of gender norms affect women intimately, Muslim women are often heard loudly protesting against the idea of marrying a man from the motherland. For many Muslim men, on the other hand, marrying a woman from the motherland means marrying a momma-replica who looks pretty and is “sweet.” (The reality may or may not be so).

What we do know is that there are large numbers of single American Muslim women today – in their 40s, 30s, and 20s, and that the community will have to deal with the consequences of this phenomenon. These women aren’t your spinster Aunties who spent their autumn years tending to their brothers’ families. Many of them are bright, independent, extremely articulate, professionally successful, and quite unlikely to take the single status lying down, so to speak. They will not suffer in silence, as the community pities their single plight. They will see that certain norms and practices render their lives difficult, and they will speak out.

In the Muslim homelands, Muslim women were usually “protected” (in good ways and bad) within the homes of fathers, brothers, husbands, in-laws, and sons. Single women who remained independent were not unknown, but were not large in number and remained an anomaly. The protection of a man was essential to a woman’s fulfillment. Wealthy and middle class or educated single women could hold their own, but most single women had to rely on the largesse of relatives. Economic dependence was part of the ugliness of spinsterhood. In the diaspora, a single American woman still has much to fear when by herself in an apartment or on the street, but independent single women, living and flourishing 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.

For instance, 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 American Muslim community.

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 limited experience, faith is a discipline and tradition that requires total living and immersion and not a cafeteria that allows one to wander in and out as one pleases. Marriage is also a discipline and a process that requires the totality of one’s engagement. In other words, neither is a picnic. At least in my observation, I have not encountered many cases of successful service to the two masters of God and marriage. 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.

At the same time, 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. Part of the problem is what I discussed earlier in this article, modes of courtship or the lack thereof. Traditional Muslim organizations and contexts have often insisted on forms of gender segregation that sometimes make it extremely difficult to meet and identify 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 less visible and, in fact, not really happening.

“Courting” is rejected by the more traditional circles, though many have come to realize that they have to give way. But this grudging “look-away” acceptance will have to develop into something more concrete and theorized if Muslim men and women are to find mates within the community.

Svend once spoke of an Islamic Society of North America convention matrimonial event that took place about a decade ago. Single men and women were chatting with each other, under the eye of organizers. Suddenly an elderly gentleman entered, observed, 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.

Many uncles, who had no clue that young people had such choices, have helped young people to silently and without protest drift away from the mosque and the community center. Feeling detached from community contexts, these young people will often behave with perfect reserve from the opposite sex when in Muslim settings (ironically, the safest contexts for courtship to take place), and moved on to dominant majority spaces where they meet and date non-Muslim women.

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. (I am not claiming that “Muslim women don’t sleep around.” I’m making a claim, on the strength of qualitative and not quantitative research, about relative levels of sexual promiscuity.) 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). My friends have been shocked by the phenomenon.
Like the organization I mentioned, I predict that others will smell the coffee brewing under their noses (responding in perhaps less dramatic ways). Notions of religiosity, chastity, gender, and identity in the Muslim community will change under pressure of these circumstances. Notions of difference, notions of self and notions of the other will also change. Muslims, when they socialize with Muslims in mosques and Islamic centers, watched over by aunties and uncles from the homeland, may advance claims about what Muslims are and what Muslims do. When more and more Muslims in mixed marriages socialize with mixed-faith/culture groups and raise mixed-faith children, it becomes harder to claim that “Muslims don’t date/drink” or “Muslims eat biryani” or “Muslims don’t sleep around like White folks do.”

I predict that American Muslim identity under such pressures will probably become a much more fluid notion. I do not say this with eagerness. The coziness of a discrete and – well, even slightly insular, contained cultural-religious identity is a comforting thing to come home to. These are the ways in which minoritized and marginalized groups preserve identities that are precious to them, in the midst of pressures to assimilate. Homogamy is one of the main means of maintaining communities and identities. Exogamy is one of the main means that minority faith and cultural groups in the US have dissolved a little (or a lot). And while it’s not all going away, I think it will be a little less possible to bank on it in the future. For this, if nothing else, we will all have to think hard about our futures and our options.

Extremist women want in

Excerpt:

Al-Zawahiri should have known. Extremists draw upon the fiery of soul, the passionate, who are desperate to act, who thirst to do something. Try telling a person of this nature that s/he must stay at home, picking up after children and washing up pots and pans. It doesn’t work for the men and it won’t work for the women.

My latest post is up at Religion Dispatches.