Here’s my piece that went up the Townhall Dialogue Series website. The Townhall Dialogue was founded by a few of my friends in the Muslim community on the East coast, and I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing firsthand the phenomenal space that they’ve created. They’ve covered topics such as relationships and mental health, and this time around they’re talking about taboo and secrets in the Muslim community. The Washington, D.C. Townhall is taking place on November 15th— if you’re in town, you should check it out.
It’s ironic how much Muslims make countering LGBT rights such a headlining position— and spicy MSA Wallah Bros hangout conversation starter— above the myriad of other concerns that pertain to us. Understandably, I do see why a group of single, theoretically celibate 18-23 year old males would sit around a hookah pipe on a Saturday night and talk about marriage of any sort. True story-based humor aside, marriage is a big deal. It is supposed to be “half of our faith”! But we don’t seem to realize that the marriage situation in our community is to us what global climate change is to the world (like basically minus the death and so on). As in, in not having the right conversations about marriage, we’re setting ourselves up for disaster. Why do we get so militant about issues like gay marriage when we aren’t even doing that well incentivizing, facilitating, preserving and adapting, supporting, and preparing young American Muslims for ‘straight’ marriage?
There is an enormous, ISNA bazaar hall-sized gap between the demand for a loving marriage and the supply of practical answers, innovative solutions, and open-mindedness for the process and journey to an emotionally responsible relationship. From a very young age, our American culture promotes and contributes to the mixed messages we receive about love. From television and the internet to college campuses, the idea of a long-term, fulfilling partnership has become less and less prioritized for adolescents and young professionals. Campus hookup culture, twerking, pumpkin spice–these are the trends among all American millennials (I know what you’re thinking with me dropping the word ‘millennial’. This author is so pretentious. Oh yeah? Watch me cite a study in the next sentence, haters). According to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), which surveyed the North American Muslim community regarding marital issues and causes for divorce, our community’s divorce-rate pattern is pretty much on par with the national trends. The American Muslim divorce rate is upwards of 35% (the national divorce rate is about 50%), a sharp spike over the past couple of decades, with one of the largest culprits being differing opinions on gender roles and the challenge of incorporating gender equality and work-life balance at home— a burden that has traditionally been slammed on the shoulders of women across the country, regardless of religious background. Our imams, however, are content with blaming most marital issues on porn and Lucifer TheThirdWheelWhenYouAndLiterallyNotBaeJustACoworkerOrFriendAreAloneTogetherButLikeNotActuallyAloneWeWereAtACrowdedStarbucks Satan. And LinkedIn.
And already we’re starting to see what that gap— our “deer-in-the-headlights” approach to marriage— is producing. There’s that overused (but true) example of young professional Muslim women who “Leaned In” to their studies and careers, who kick ass in real life but struggle or choose not to fit into the community’s mold for marriage and femininity. There are also the insecure manchildren that can’t keep up with these women and won’t even try due to the privilege of having many more options, with the ability to walk away from a relationship far more easily, and with pressures and the incentive to get married young (before even establishing oneself as an emotional mature/available adult) due to the cultural emphasis on having children and the religious ban on premarital sex. Given these incentives, why would Wallah Moe (not to be confused with Mo Breezy… best fades and haircuts for $15, I guarantee it) or Mashallah Subhanallah Zubair wait for you to finish grad school and get that job at the World Bank?
As one of my mentors would often say to me, in classical Arabic prose, “Adham, where are dealing wizard shet-ton of issues.” To paraphrase, as English doesn’t do the Arabic language any justice, “Adham, we are dealing with a sh*t ton of issues.” As a community we’ve done a superb job in saddling young Muslims with unnecessary mental baggage. For example, there is lack of willingness to marry across racial, ethnic, or sectarian lines. Another one: there are far more women than there are men in some pockets of the community. Here’s a big one: in many of those pockets we have created a culture of gender segregation and awkwardness which spurs unnatural, unnecessary dynamics that promote the leading of a de facto double life. This double life is a spectrum, with one end not saying ‘salaam’ to a hijabi on campus yet being entirely and respectfully social (read: normal) with a female who isn’t Muslim. The other end is being Admiral General MSA Shura Council Bro by day and being the Wolf of [insert main campus bar street] Street/OkCupid by night. Like Batman, just using Islam as his mask. Also, a million times more lame. He’s not the hero that this city wants. He’s also the hero that no one ****ing needs.
This is about love, satisfying our souls’ desires, and embracing God’s blessing; it’s also a story of coming of age and developing into an emotional available adult. Why are we making a naturally complex (and sometimes confusing) human learning process that much more difficult for ourselves? Do we not understand that by continuing to carry this baggage (treating love like it’s taboo), we are setting ourselves up for more heartbreaks, one-way tickets to thirsty singlehood islands, or bulging portfolios of toxic relationships? We deserve better. Many young Muslims deal with the claustrophobic pressure and gossip culture of their families and peers, especially if they live close to their families or home community where everyone basically knows each other. It becomes nearly impossible to “date” someone, to get to know the other person’s likes and dislikes, character virtues and flaws, quirks and kinks, pressure points, sense of humor, sensibilities and perhaps even level of sensuality. You want that person’s full story, right? Do you really want to ask a friend who knows a cousin of a friend of the potential girl’s roommate about her “history”? Or do we want to give that person a chance to be a real person and open up and see who they really are?
It takes a while to find the strength to be vulnerable and honest with someone you might spend the rest of your life with. That’s not an easy process. It takes real courage (just ask Mary from Downton Abbey), and that’s a real human process and moment(s) of growth that we aren’t given the chance to experience. Oftentimes we grow up in a community that doesn’t allow for such vulnerability, where we treat anything that makes us uncomfortable like “dirty laundry” and so on. How will we be prepared to be functional, emotionally-aware adults and true lovers, if the incentive is always to hide and lie? How will you know that you’re actually compatible with someone? At what point can you decide to put it all on the table and share the stories that defined who you are today— even if those stories are uncomfortable ones that would jeopardize your communally defined marriage chances (i.e. past relationships, sexual history), or accept someone else’s full story and fall in love with the version of that person you’re getting to know today?
It goes without saying— people need to get the chance to meet and get to know one another, one on one, long before the tea is poured and the engagement party is thrown. I don’t know the statistics for the amount of people who had pregnancies after a simple cup of coffee or dinner or group date, so for now I’m going to go completely on a hunch: very few pregnancies. If we wish for each person to find the soulmate that God has promised for them, people should be put in the best position to do so. If we want that amazing partner, we should be given the chance to become and be the most amazing version of ourselves. Or, we can continue to act like “good character” means the subjective presence of a certain membrane (I took AP Biology so I know what I’m talking about), or that modesty equals a headscarf and copious “mashallahs/inshallahs” in our sentences and not adding the opposite sex on Facebook or acting holier than thou, or that a good partner equals the presence of a medical degree, or that a good future is something you can “settle” for at the expense of happiness and spiritual fulfillment. Parents will almost always have our best interests at heart, but at the end of the day, this is your heart. We need to have courage when it comes to fulfilling half of our faith and intertwining our lives and souls with another person.
Progress does not mean we need to discredit more traditional cultural practices, the things that worked beautifully and fruitfully for people like my parents. Even though this is a very different time, it still works and is preferred to some, and I respect that. But for many, it’s not enough to sit on a girl’s couch with your moms in the other room and try to make small talk like “so, how about that local sports team, do you think Derrick Rose has got it in him this year” or “Okay. This will tell me a lot about you. Favorite food that you will cook for me. Actually no. Favorite FouseyTube video. Actually no. Jennifer Lawrence. Cop or drop? 1,2,3 go!” Furthermore, a lot of people don’t want to buy into problematic rituals such as treating our weddings, fundraising events, political rallies, and ‘activist’ conferences like the meat markets that they’ve become. Even the new ideas aren’t cutting it for many— do you really want to stare at a dating profile and read stuff like “I’m an INFJ and a Gryffindor tee hee I’m basic”?
I think this problem above all else poses a challenge to the fundamental nature of our community. And a community problem requires a community answer. How we sacrifice and make decisions to establish a culture of inclusivity and promote the Prophetic tradition— which upheld equality between genders and emphasized accountability and responsibility of commitment— will define what our children will face (especially if this trend runs parallel to other factors that create an assimilated American community of “cultural Muslims”/Muslims-by-name-only). Right now, however, it starts with more people taking ownership of their happiness and being more mindful of what really matters— and by that I most definitely mean caring less about what everyone else thinks, falling in love with one’s self and nurturing from within the type of person you would be bold enough to ask out for coffee (and not “coffee” à la George from Seinfeld).