Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wanna b a Bride? - On the problem of marriage amongst American Muslim women

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  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.


  1. I most certainly want to marry within my faith for so many reasons. But, I just don't understand how we can truly justify 'prohibition by omission'. I can't help but wonder if it's solely due to tradition. This is a huge deal, and most forbidden things are stated explicitly in the Qur'an.

  2. some of the most comment complaints from Muslim women... women are becoming more highly educated than the men, make more money than many of them (which they cannot handle), and cannot find men worthy of their intellectual standards. additionally, a frequently made comment by many women is summarized as ' we are expected to marry Muslim men yet ... See Morethey have only raised Muslim boys for us'. I disagree with you, however, on women marrying outside Islam based on what I have seen as an American Muslim woman raised Muslim in the U.S. surrounded by Muslims of every shape, size, and color. a man being Muslim is not remotely sufficient nor is his not being a Muslim sufficient reason to not marry a man. also, FYI, Azizah Magazine did an article on this topic not too long ago if I remember correctly.
    - Samia van H.

  3. I checked AZIZAH magazine site, but I cannot find the article you mentioned. Kindly email me the link or post it here.

    I also would like to post your FB comment on my site to make it more available if you do not mind.

    I do not see the issue as whether there are men of other faiths than Islam that would be make good husbands. That is taken... See More for granted. The real issue for many is whether their is a solution that does not violate a religious boundary or line that many feel should not be crossed (like a clear Quranic verse).

    Religions, in contrast to generic spirituality, are defined by certain bounds that represent to the faithful a core immutable and divinely inspired content, as well as certain dogmas (i.e., tenets taken for granted regardless of the logic behind them). The scope of the tenets may sometimes vary based on an individuals perception, but if all is open for discussion religions loose any distinctive form.

  4. I thought it is forbidden for Muslim Women to marry Non-Muslim. But I am surprised that you are suggesting that it is allowed. What happens to the children? Do they become Muslim or Christian or Hindus? Or is it some kind of joke? Please clarify.

  5. I am definitely NOT suggesting that a Muslim woman can marry a non-Muslim man. I am actually saying that the verse dealing with interfaith marriages does not suggest that.
    The article in the Washington Post, on the other hand, is presenting opinions of some activists that suggest that it is OK for Muslim women to marry a non-Muslim man.
    I do NOT agree with their interpretation.

    I recognize that there is a problem, but the answer is not to reverse a stance that is consistent totally with the Quranic verse, but the answer is rather in 'restricting the right of Muslim men to marry non-Muslim women.

  6. I have a question, how do Muslim communities in the Arab world find enough wives for everyone if some have more than one wife. I met one Arab kid in Israel and his dad had three wives. The kid also has 32 siblings.

    I'm assuming that Muslims put a lot of value in family, and not marrying is looked down upon. If some men have more than one wife, does that mean that there is also a proportional amount of men with no wives?

  7. "I met one Arab kid in Israel and his dad had three wives. The kid also has 32 siblings. "

    - And I once met a Jew that has 9 children. how come the population of Jews is not increasing by a factor of 8 or 9 every generation???

    "and not marrying is looked down upon."

    - No that is not true.

    "If some men have more than one wife, does that mean that there is also a proportional amount of men with no wives?"

    - Because that proportion of polygamous men is tiny. I lived in Egypt for 30 years and have not known of a single person in my family, friends, family friends, coworkers and other immediate contacts that married more than one woman. It does happen (more commonly in rural areas, especially if first marriage did not produce children), but the proportion is very small.

    That could theoretically still lead to disturbance of the balance between men and women available for marriage, but only if one does not know enough about the man-female sex ratio in population at different ages and under different conditions of society dynamics.

    Natural discrepancy in sex survival rates, tendency in ALL societies to maintain few years difference on average between husbands and wives, emigration sex biases, wars, etc, all result in about 5% bias in favor of women. You can research this if you will. I already have.

    Of course if polygyny becomes a goal in itself (usually in rich spoilt societies of the gulf), it looses the actual legitimacy that comes from the very tight regulation on polygamy in Islam. The only verse that allows polygamy (i.e., polygyny) in Islam has pretty tight conditions for that practice and, still, it was in the context of extending supportive family structure to a large number of orphans after some of the early battles that was associated with significant losses amongst Muslims men in the battle, leaving behind unsupported women and children in a society where support comes traditionally in the form of nuclear family structure.

    Many Arab and Muslim societies have legally restricted the right to have more than one wife to varying degrees, and in most Muslim society polygamy IS looked down upon unless its legitimacy could be gleaned from the circumstance. Men who marry a new 18 year old girl every few years are not considered appropriately behaving. Polygamy in early days of Islam meant to marry an older woman, usually with children, as a second wife, not a 'trophy' young girl to prove that you are 'the Man'.

    While I do not intend, or need, to justify polygyny under the strict limitations in Islam by mentioning extramarital affairs, I think it is most telling that rates of polygamy among Muslims is a small fraction of adultery among married men AND women in Western societies (where more statistics are available). And by marriage, I mean ongoing marriages - not past marriages or among separated couple.

  8. 1-Dating is a phenomenon that is no longer hiding in the Egyptian society.
    2-illegitimate, secret marriages amidst 13 YEAR OLDS IN SCHOOL! also in Egypt...
    I think exploring those two phenomenons in this society of mine should get us to other conclusions about this marriage crises in Egypt.

  9. Salama:
    These are interesting comments about the social situation in Egypt. Having lived in the North America for over 20 years does not make be capable of making first hand knowledge of those issues, but what I hear from friends and read online in Egyptian media gave me the impression that was the case. How is the older generation (parents and grand parents) handling this 'revolution'? I also know that divorce is increasing tremendously in Egypt, which is both bad and good. Any thoughts on that?

  10. about dating, the older generation at first were completely rejecting the idea, but then as they saw how the economic and political situations we are going through are effecting the rates of marriage, they started accepting it. (by the way i think that this is another aspect of it, people no longer afford to make a living out of their salaries, let alone getting married and having children)...about divorce, well, it has suddenly transformed from something that was very unacceptable and shameful (especially for women) to something that is no longer an issue, its starting to sound normal to hear that people have married more than once or even twice...I guess our society was suddenly faced with wt it cannot accept traditionally but it just cant do anything about it...I think most divorces revolve around the bad economic conditions as well...No one knows where it might take us after that, but people are certainly not doing anything about it, they are just waiting for salvation or smthng :S...hoping that who ever comes after Mubarak would snatch them out of their miseries?! sounds absurd...but we'v been suppressed for so long, we cant make any decisions for ourselves anymore...

  11. I agree with your interpretations as to the economic stressors shaping many social traditions that was believed by individuals to be ingrained in religion, an immutable frame when discussed in abstraction from the societies it is practice in.

    Changes in divorce incidence and its social impact is something I am contemplating posting about, and I do not view the changes and its impact as negative at all. Religiously, Islam is inherently more flexible about divorce than how Islamic societies became - with detrimental impact on the family structure in those societies. I hope to be able to post about that soon.
    "Waiting for salvation": you hit the nail on the head with this one.
    Every where, the majority is waiting for a savior. Not out of faith, but out of laziness to take control over their own life. In other words, they are waiting for someone else to do the job for them.
    I feel in Egypt, the psyche of people would make it impossible for anything big to change. Everyone - or most to be fair - wants [الدكتاتور العادل] , the Just Dictator. It seems like a serious dream for people in our region of the world (and yes, I left 20 years ago, but I still call it our region of the world). People deserve better that what they have, and they have the brains to do it, but not the 'guts' to take responsibility for the change.