What do Muslim Egyptian women and Muslim American women have in common?
Until recently, I would have answered: very little other than their religion. But over the last couple of years I have become more aware of another thing in common: a rapidly growing problem of finding a suitable husband. The problem is no laughing matter, and it threatens to be a very ominous threat to social structure, both in Egypt (and likely many other Arab countries) as well as in the American Muslim communities.
The title of the post is borrowed from a hilarious series of blog-posts turned into a book by a talented 30-year-old Egyptian bachelorette pharmacist who decided to go public with her 'adventures' while looking for a husband (or waiting for a husband to find her). If you can read Arabic and understand Egyptian dialect, that blog and book will give you hours of thoughtful fun that will make you laugh out loud. Sorry, but it is an Arabic only site, although the blog and book are being translated into - of all languages - Italian!! Do not even ask me why.
But this blog post is not about the problem in Egypt. And I have been contemplating writing about some marriage and divorce problems in the American Muslim community for some time. Today I want to talk only about marriage - or lack there of - amongst highly eligible American Muslim women.
Getting married has rarely ever been an easy process for both men and women in Muslim minority communities. But more recently the number of American Muslim women getting married has dropped significantly below the number of Muslim men getting married. Anyone that is involved in 'matrimonial activities' can tell you that matrimonial events tend to have 6-8 times as many women as men.
Two obvious factors have perpetuated the problem. One is of a religious nature, and the other is of a social/cultural nature.
Islamically, and if the Quran is understood at face value, Muslim men are allowed to marry a 'believer' woman outside the Islamic faith. This usually means marrying a Jewish or Christian woman. There are subtle constraints but, in general, such marriages are not looked down upon within the Muslim community.
On the other hand, Muslim women are not supposed to marry outside the Islamic faith. The Quran (5:5) gives an explicit permission for Muslim men, without mentioning Muslim women. That 'prohibition by omission' has been the undisputed norm in Muslim societies since the early days of Islam.
I am fully aware of the reasoning behind the distinction between the case for men and women, and I do not see that the Quranic verse that discusses that issue tolerant to any other interpretation. But I also understand that the permission given to Muslim men to marry outside the faith is not an unrestrained permission. It is even more constrained when the exercise of such permission leads to serious harm to other Muslims, above all Muslim women in the same society.
But marrying outside the faith is not the only reason for the problem. Another reason, that I personally believe to be a more sinister one, is the tendency of many Muslim American men to marry a Muslim woman from 'the old mother land'.
I do not really understand why that is happening, and I have few guesses:
- Larger extended family in the old country for those that want to marry within the extended family only (a tradition in some conservative societies).
- 'Mother-in-law-to-be' favors marrying a girl from the old country believing that she would make a better daughter-in-law.
- Some conservative men believe that a 'good girl' from the old country is more 'pious, pure, and – more importantly - obedient' than an American born and raise Muslim girl.
- And finally, and as a woman friend once put it, Muslim young men in American societies tend to be less mature intellectually and socially than American Muslim young women of similar age, social status and education. Thus they feel threatened by their female counter parts, and want to seek a woman that does not make them feel threatened.
Regardless of the reason, the abundance of very well qualified American Muslim young women who cannot find a suitable husband is a serious problem. The worst part is that the religious and social implications of that problem are not even discussed frequently enough.
This definitely is not a problem that harms only women in the longterm, but because only women appear to be adversely affected now community leadership, mostly older immigrant men, does not seem to be interested in tackling it or even shedding light on it.
A recent article in the Washington Post covered that topic, but the conclusions were slanted in a direction that I do not agree with. Still, I am happy that some Muslims activists are bringing the issue up, and are doing something about it.
Their conclusions are unfortunately difficult of me to swallow. They actually argue that since the Quran did not explicitly prohibit Muslim women from marrying out side the faith, and since permitting men to do that leads to the current problem for Muslim women, the answers to the problem should be to allow Muslim women to marry outside the faith, i.e., Muslim woman can marry a Christian or Jewish man.
I tend to support a different approach to solving the problem. It is a well know rule in Islamic jurisprudence that restricting or prohibiting the exercise of what is permitted and lawful is allowed if it leads to harm. Many Muslim countries, for example, have strong restrictions on polygamy – and for very good reasons.
Some Islamic scholars have actually suggested that marrying outside the community (Islamic American community in this case) should be forbidden as it leads to an obvious harm to half the society: Muslim American women. Of course in a free society, no one can 'force' Muslim men to restrict their 'lawful rights', but like in many other cases (e.g., polygamy), strongly-held social pressures have effectively restricted the exercise of polygamy in societies that have not yet had legal restriction on it.
Traditional religious and societal leadership in American Muslim communities tend to be sluggish and scared of change. They are more comfortable sweeping problems under the carpet, and would rather talk about generalities than offer a specific solution to a specific problem. That attitude applies to a wide range of religious, political and social contemporary issues relevant to the community. I do not have much expectation from them anymore.
It is difficult to say if the threat of revolt by Muslim American younger women to adopt alternative jurisprudence opinions is conceivable. And, I do not personally agree with the alternative jurisprudence opinion expressed in the WP article mentioned above. But I also realize that nothing short of revolt by American Muslim women can wake up our intellectually stagnant leadership.
As usual, short comments and opinion are welcomed and can be made anonymously. But if you feel strongly about that issue, and regardless of which side you are on, please put your thoughts in a short posting format and email to email@example.com. If it is respectful and intelligently-argued, I will post it as a full posting. Your anonymity is guaranteed if you want. May be we can have a serious conversation about this topic.