When Trent Carl, 24, accepted Islam in 2007, he expected the changes that living a Muslim life would bring. But when he was ready to begin his journey in completing his religion with the sanctity of marriage, he did not expect the challenges he encountered.
“I didn’t encounter racism until after I became Muslim,” says the Texas native about the resistance he felt from immigrant Muslim parents unwilling to accept a convert into their families. Carl found himself under a microscope; his mixed ethnic background, his job and his religion became critically scrutinized. Needless to say, this became a source of great stress to the young Muslim and how he related to his greater Muslim community.
However, Carl is not alone in his struggle. The challenges he faces are a part of a greater problem facing young Muslim Americans today who are striving to get married. Many Muslim families are still resistant to marrying outside of their ethnicity. Not only does a generation gap exist between these parents and their American-born children, many of these families are also completely unaware of their children’s bi-cultural identity, which causes parents to reject suitable mates that are outside their race or ethnicity.[a]
“The phenomenon of second generation [Americans] is still growing. This is a challenge,” says Imam Mohamed Magid, ISNA president and imam at ADAMS Center in Sterling, Va. This is one of the four main challenges that Magid cited as existing for Muslim Americans going through the marriage process. “We live in a multi-religion, multicultural society. You don’t know who is who because the Muslim community is scattered throughout the country,” he says when discussing the hesitance Muslim Americans feel when finding suitable partners. In the U.S., there is an underlying fear that both parents and children feel when choosing a spouse because they don’t know people’s backgrounds and families.
“There is a lack of networking. People need more social situations where they can get to know one another and be more comfortable,” Magid says, “and parents need to start realizing that this is a multi-cultural society.”
This challenge was definitely a road block for 30-year-old Nadia Benhaddou from Chicago. For years, before eventually finding her soulmate, she faced adversity and disappointment. Growing up in a predominantly Palestinian, Muslim community on Chicago’s Southside, her options were limited as Palestinian parents preferred Palestinian girls for their sons.
“Palestinians are very tied to their culture and to their hometowns,” she says. Benhaddou, whose mother is from El Salvador and whose father is from Algeria felt discriminated against when meeting marriage prospects.
This specific challenge to getting married is not only leaving young Muslim men and women unwillingly unmarried, but it is also leaving many to question their identities as Muslims. For many, the frustration can be too much to bear.
“Many girls do feel after years of trying to get married that following the Islamic way causes hardship. And the non-Muslim way might be easier,” Benhaddou says. But she didn’t give up hope and was married in 2010 after meeting her husband while volunteering at the annual ISNA convention.
In reaction to his disappointments and struggles through this process, Carl also found himself building closer ties with Muslim convert communities.
“It just reinforces my sense of estrangement,” Carl says. This sentiment maintains a separation between Muslims of different ethnic backgrounds, leaving more young Muslims feeling despair.
Another challenge Muslim Americans face is the generation gap between them and their parents, causing a clash between what the parent is looking for in a spouse for their child, versus what their child actually wants.
“You really just have to find someone on your own,” says Leena Saleh, 23, a communications coordinator in Chicago. “Less and less can you rely on your parents to arrange it for you. They have different ideas of what marriage is and isn’t.”
Although more young adults are looking for a marriage companion on their own, there are still boundaries that exist between the sexes that one has to be weary not to cross.
“The separation between the genders is helpful, but it needs to be in a certain context,” Carl says. “Because this separation exists; families need to be open and help facilitate people meeting.”
The Age Problem
A third major challenge facing Muslim Americans today in the marriage process, says Magid, is the issue of age. More women are seeking higher education and professional careers, delaying marriage until their late 20s and early 30s. A problem occurs when men of their age range look for younger mates, leaving suitable, mature and educated Muslim women single.
“Many post-college women in their mid-30s have a real challenge in finding someone compatible,” says Salma Abugideiri, a licensed professional counselor, running her private practice since 2001. “By the time these women are ready for marriage, most men their own age are no longer single.”[b]
The issue of age is one of the many reasons more Muslim women are finding themselves moving toward non-Muslim men. As devastating as this may be, there is a shift taking place that is causing Muslim women to turn to non-Muslim men for companionship and marriage.
“Many women find non-Muslim men that treat them in a respectful way and it makes them question marrying Muslim men. It is the sad truth,” Abugideiri says. She says has been counseling Muslim individuals and couples for years and has seen many examples of this shift.
In addition to the stigma of age in the Muslim community, the stigma of divorcees is also problematic. Although the marital ostracizing affects both genders, women tend to bear the brunt of it.
“There is a stigma about divorced people or even widows,” says Magid. “This phenomenon needs to be addressed. People who have been married before actually know more about marriage. We need to give them a chance.”
Ihssan Tahir, 25, who was divorced almost two years ago, says that, having been married, she has a clearer view of what she wants out of a marriage and what it takes to make a marriage truly work.
“I’ve been divorced, and I don’t want to be divorced again,” she says. “I have bigger criteria now. [Being divorced] made me feel stronger. I know who I am and who I want.”
Magid says the stigma was created out of modernity and not the Islamic tradition. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, these negative stereotypes did not exist. The Prophet himself was open to marrying different types of women regardless of age, wealth or previous marital status.
A final, and possibly the most daunting challenge, facing Muslim Americans trying to get married is the role that expectations play when choosing a mate. Instead of using criteria set forth by Islamic principles, a new set has been created by society and culture that Muslims today are enforcing.
“Males have Hollywood criteria of what women should look like,” Magid says. “And females look for wealth and prestige.”
Not only is the issue of expectations keeping more young Muslims single, but it is also the main contributor to divorce. Today, according to Magid’s experience, 40 percent of Muslim marriages end in divorce. False expectations of marriage are commonly seen among young couples. For example, explained Abugideiri, many men and women are expected to marry someone from their parents’ home countries. Not only do they find that they have little in common with their spouses, but they have completely different expectations of what the marriage should be like.
Counseling young married couples on a daily basis, Abugideiri has seen a lot of depressed young women who emigrated from their countries to the U.S. who have no family or friends here and are trying to adjust to their new surroundings. However, their husbands don’t know or understand why their marriages are falling apart when they thought they were fulfilling all the expectations of a husband: providing money, a nice home and children.
Many are unaware of the needs of their wives.
“I’ll teach them the communication process to increase listening along with empathy and help them to develop a connection,” says Abugideiri.
What’s my role?
Another major contributing factor to divorce is role confusion. Many people do not know what it takes to run a household, both financially and emotionally. The needs of their partners aren’t met, Magid says.
“People are failing at making the shift from being single to being married,” he says. “You are then left with what I call ‘single married people.’”
Other reasons causing divorce include problems with intimacy, finances, issues with in-laws and infidelity.
Although challenges do exist to getting and staying married, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And there are many practical ways of getting married without sacrificing Islamic values, Magid says.
The[c] Internet is a helpful tool for connecting with other single Muslims throughout the country. Being open to meeting people in the workplace and at school can create wonderful opportunities for marriage. Being active in your community is a unique way of finding someone who shares the same beliefs and passions as you.
This was definitely true for 29-year-old Tarek Yusuf of San Francisco. He met his fiance through doing activist work for Palestine.
“Because we can’t date, meeting through activist work gave us an opportunity to find someone,” he says. “Everything just fell into place easily. It wasn’t forced. It was very organic.”
Singles looking for marriage are encouraged to keep their friends and family in the loop on their interests.
“Married people should be looking out for their unmarried brothers and sisters,” said Leila Khan, 30, who, after great struggle and disappointment, was married in 2010.
Each method of seeking a spouse has its own pros and cons, according to Magid.
“If a person is not mindful of the negatives as well as the positives in each platform, they may make a mistake,” says Magid. He suggests getting to know a person’s background, communicating one’s expectations of marriage, and getting to know the potential spouse in different types of environments.
And, God-willing, you may live happily ever after.
Leen Jaber is a freelance reporter from Chicago.
Another tough area is professional versus non-prof. Only lawyers/doctors need apply factor. Even IT/engineers, etc are un-favored.
May be we add that too. (in fact, one lady who wanted to introduce my wife to a family, cut off declaring that you are "lower class" because your kids are neither doc or lawyer :) -- never mind working as jr exec for a Fortune 500 :)
Indeed they should Imran Khan's book. He retired at 39 and started looking for a wife -- with no one in sight in Pakistan to marry that late, he fell for a Brit half his age 44:22.
We need a bit more 'counseling' on the age issue/postponement fir "Mr/Ms Right".
why not add a word of caution here about the dangers too. I have heard of a cases of fraud.