Can I share a moment of the past with you today?
This is a photograph of me on the occasion of graduation with an M.Phil. in Education from Cambridge University. It’s dated – I think – July 1995, so it’s over 20 years old.
This is a product of the first studio photo-shoot I ever had in my life. We didn’t own a camera for most of my life while I was growing up. So after my graduation, I splurged (I think it was £40) on an Eaden-Lilley session right after receiving my diploma. I was still hijabi, and I was poor, with little disposable income.
I felt incredibly guilty about throwing thousands of pounds at a graduate degree, so I started working immediately after my degree. My first job – which lasted a single day – was as a cleaner at the enormous facilities of British Antarctic in Cambridge. I wasn’t physically strong enough for it, and it took me about 45 minutes of cycling to get there (I wasn’t very good at cycling, and I wasn’t great at directions either). I got a job and a dorm room with a friend as an editor and translator in Northwest London. I think I borrowed the white shirt from a friend, and I bought black high-heeled maryjanes from a cheap shoe shop in Cricklewood, and I took a £5 bus ride from London back to Cambridge for graduation.
On that day, I could not have imagined that I would ever own a car. My finances were extremely fragile. I was fresh from Pakistan, and I still saw myself as more an international student than an immigrant. I taught myself to ride a bicycle (I’d never had the liberty to ride a bicycle in Pakistan.) I was an innocent. I wasn’t clever. I wasn’t quick. I didn’t wear lipstick. I didn’t do my eyebrows. I’d only started doing my upper lip when I was 21, and that was a big deal at the time. I didn’t really watch TV. I watched one movie over two years (my roommates invited me along) and that was “Forrest Gump.” I didn’t have a TV as a student.
I spent all my time studying, socializing with other Muslim students, and leading two Qur’anic study circles (one in English, for women students and one in Urdu for the “aunties”). The Urdu study circle became a pawn in the Sufi-Salafi battle in the small Cambridge community, because now the non-Salafi women could brag about how fun their discussion was. I was fairly prominent in that community.
But as a young woman, I was also a single Pakistani woman abroad. In my kin circle, this was an unusual phenomenon. I wanted to be married. But somehow, I was never an option for anyone. I was intelligent, religious, knowledgeable enough to lead the study circles, popular, well-liked. But I had no family network in the country. This vacuum turned me into an unknown quantity. I met Muslim men who respected me, but somehow the conversation never went there. The only Muslim men interested in me were those of dubious immigration status (and I had a UK passport).
Though happily married now, I still puzzle over this. It took me years to find my spouse. Why? Was I perhaps too smart, too independent, too alone? Was this frightening to Muslim men? The Muslim men who aspired to Muslim fraternity and commitment, they also wanted to marry within their tribal communities (especially in the U.K.), and they also wanted their mothers to meet their prospective in-laws.
Not long after I moved to London, one of the “brothers” (who spent a lot of time discussing religious matters with me) called me to help him play match-maker for one of the British Muslim sisters. He wanted to set up his friend with her and not any of the other sisters because, you know, “Punjabis are coarse and she’s not Punjabi.” I was quite struck with this news. Up until then, in Young Muslims and Muslim Council of Britain and FOSIS and Islamic Relief and Islamic Foundation, all I’d absorbed was a sense of Muslim fraternity free of boundaries. When it came to marriage, this wasn’t real. People called me “brave” for being a single woman abroad, “strong” for my dedication to my education and career, “inspirational” for my religiosity – but no one called me eligible. Raised in an intense marriage market, this wounded me intensely.
It’s no accident, too, that I ended up marrying a White American who couldn’t really care less that I didn’t bring with me a U.S.-based home, family, and upbringing. Perhaps he too had experienced the same invisibility that comes to persons who don’t function as complete clan networks in the marriage market.
I think here, for example, of the family patriarch who arranged all his offspring’s marriages within the US to ensure the network remained intact and that international mobility didn’t weaken their influence and impact.
I don’t bemoan the clannish workings of many Western Muslim communities in marriage matters. It works well for so many. But it works so well that converts, for instance, are left in the cold when it comes to eligibility. And international students.
The fantasy of Muslim fraternity has invisible boundaries.