Asra Nomani’s Big Fat Muslim Wedding

Whenever I encounter Asra Nomani’s works or see her in an interview, I usually wonder,“What is her point?” I don’t say this derisively. Is she trying to speak about gender inequality among the ummah? Is she trying to deal with gender norms in her own South Asian community?

Asra Nomani's wedding photo. Image via Marie Claire.

Asra Nomani's wedding photo. Image via Marie Claire.

These questions formed in my mind as I read Nomani’s latest piece, published in Marie Claire, titled “My Big Fat Muslim Wedding”. In the piece, Nomani goes off on so many different tangents that, by the end of the piece, I was still confused as to what her main point was. She starts by giving the reader a portrait of herself as a terrified bride in Islamabad, then quickly jumps to her journey as a little girl from India to West Virginia. From there, she tells us how she felt like an outsider in American culture because her South Asian and Muslim roots, how she lost her virginity to a white, non-Muslim college classmate, her unfulfilling marriage to a Pakistani-American, and finally how she became currently engaged to a U.S. Army officer, white and non-Muslim, who specializes in Islam and South and “knew the religion better than many born into the faith”. Of course, through all of this, the one running theme is that Islam–and to a lesser extent, her culture–makes life and love especially hard for Nomani.

If you’re wondering why I keep mentioning the religious and ethnic backgrounds of Nomani’s various romantic partners, it is because she makes sure to mention them. In fact, it appeared as if mentioning their religions and ethnicities somehow corresponded to how great or bad her partners were. For example, her Muslim South Asian husband was cold. But all of the “wonderful” men in her life were not South Asian, not Muslim, and not married to her (sometimes, dating a man and being married to him are two different things).

I find Nomani’s descriptions of her lovers to be problematic in light of the following quote:

Then I realized—I had loved with prejudice, basing my affections not on inner compatibility, but on external markers like race, religion, ethnicity.

As I read her piece, it seemed that Nomani did love with prejudice, but not in the way she mentions. It appears that Nomani is prejudiced in whom she loves and that her prejudice is against men that she views as being traditional and not in tune with her American sensibilities.

What I found more troubling though was how Nomani’s personal issues were being transplanted onto Muslim women in general.

Over the years, as I grew to become an activist in the Muslim world, I understood that one of the most fundamental ways Islamic legal traditions control women is through love, with a ban on marrying men who aren’t Muslim. Today, thankfully, some women and clerics are challenging the practice. To me, that’s a good thing for the Muslim world, because I believe a society’s ability to accept marriages that cross racial and religious lines is a direct expression of its tolerance.

I empathize with Nomani growing up as a Muslim in a non-Muslim culture and finding ways to reconcile the two. I also sympathize with her having an unfulfilling marriage, as I would not wish that on anyone. But I am honestly offended that she feels the need speak for me as a Muslim woman, to speak of what “controls” me or other Muslim women based on her personal experiences. I do not want to discuss whether or not Muslim women should be allowed to marry non-Muslim men; that is not my place in this essay, nor is it proper for this site.

However, I never felt that I was controlled or oppressed because of my belief that I should marry a Muslim man. There are numerous other Muslim women who also did not feel oppressed by what they believe to be a commandment of their faith. There are numerous reasons why Muslim women as well as Muslim men would want to marry Muslims. Examples include that they may feel it’s easier to be married to someone who shares the same ideas on the concept of God, who can share in various rituals, such as prayer or the Ramadan fast. They may even want to be married to someone who they feel can relate to their struggles as a Muslim. These reasons exist not only for Muslims who want to marry other Muslims, but for Christians who want to marry other Christians, Jews who want to marry other Jews, and so on.

Muslim women being able to marry non-Muslim is not an issue of Muslims’ tolerance for others. For a lot of Muslims, it is simply an issue of wanting to obey their faith (again, I am not trying to get into a theological debate, but pointing out that there are a lot of Muslims who believe that Islamic texts compel Muslim women to only marry Muslim men). It doesn’t mean that they don’t want to associate with non-Muslim or want to segregate themselves.

More importantly, the issues that Nomani did have with her past partners may not have had anything to do with religion or race. Perhaps the issues in her marriage were due to having a partner that didn’t express his emotions well (I also want to point that we only get Nomani’s side of the story). This problem does not only exist among Muslim or South Asian men, nor are all Muslim and South Asian men like this. So was the problem really that Nomani couldn’t marry someone who wasn’t the same religion or ethnicity, or was it that she had the misfortune of marrying someone who just turned out to be a really bad husband for her? Again, her personal issues in her marriage get turned into a crusade for what she perceives as an issue for Muslim women.

I am not saying that the personal does not inform the causes we take up. Indeed, it was the discrimination I received at various masajid because of my gender than in part made me become an Islamic feminist. That being said, we all have to be careful to understand when and how our personal experiences make us take on social causes and inform our view of them, and when our personal experiences can make us stereotype groups of people and impose our views on people who do not share them.

  • Sahar

    “finally how she became currently engaged to a U.S. Army officer, white and non-Muslim, who specializes in Islam and South and “knew the religion better than many born into the faith”. ”

    Seriously….KILL ME.

  • lulu

    Oh careful Sahar, while I agree with your view, the moderators over here LOVE Nomani, so much so that they will delete and/or edit your comments to make them seem favorable to Nomani. No freedom of speech at MMW.

    It’s all bollocks: self pity and self-victimization for the sake of sensationalism and money.

    Still, would be interesting to see what others have to say about this article.

  • Faith

    I have to admit when I first read that line in her piece my eyes rolled back so hard they were in danger of staying stuck in the back of my head.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    I threw up everything I’d ever eaten when I read, “and the snowflakes fell like confetti.” I know this is a women’s magazine, but really?

    @ lulu: There’s a difference between making comments “seem favorable to Nomani” and not attacking her personally. We are not going over this again.

  • http://eccentricyoruba.blogspot.com/ eccentricyoruba

    personally while reading Nomani’s article, i felt it was her own story. it was her recounting her own personal experiences and i did not think she was trying to be a voice for all Muslim women. she is trying to speak out for Muslim women who have felt pressure to marry Muslim men.

    obviously not all Muslim women feel oppressed by the belief that they should marry a Muslim man, but there are women who feel oppressed by this belief and it is obvious Nomani is one of them. i have come to regard Nomani’s works as more personal above anything else. i do realise that she may be a representative and a voice to some Muslim women.

    personally i have family members whose prospective partners have been rejected due to their being non-Muslim. usually these women married Muslim men later on and everyone thought it was a good thing but i find myself wondering if they are really happy. but then again i haven’t asked them and i can be a romantic sometimes.

  • Umm Medina

    I think the key to her disastrous marriage may lie in these two sentences in describing their brief dating phase:

    “On Valentine’s Day in 1992, we met for dinner. [...] A week later, we got engaged. After a month, I moved into his high-rise apartment in Chevy Chase, MD.”

    After the wedding she noticed that “some issues I’d ignored throughout our brief romance started to haunt me.”

    Sounds as if they barely knew each other, apart from owning cats and being long distance runners and being Muslim (which could also count as inner compatibility markers one would think). Perhaps they both could have been spared the misery of their marriage if they had better suited to one other and had taken the time to verify their compatibility.

    What I don’t understand is why she didn’t marry the “Lutheran from Iowa” who wanted to convert to Islam for her and was perfect in every way. I am not sure it would have been a good idea for him to do so, but what held her back?

    Religious belief is one of many factors to consider in a spouse, but it is certainly not a sure predictor of marital bliss. Perhaps she could have been happy with her husband if he had been a nicer guy, for example. Or if he had been more sensitive to her needs. The point she is missing is that the problems she experienced occur in many relationships, whether racial, ethnic or religious identities are mixed, or not.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Umm Medina: BINGO. It really bothered me that she was so quick to base his faults on his ethnicity or religion, when in reality, they hadn’t been together long enough to get to know each other (in my opinion).

  • Sobia

    Great post Faith!

    @ Lulu:
    You obviously rarely read MMW. Where in the world did you come up with that conclusion??!! Maybe we’re reading different blogs here.

  • http://www.liquescent.net/blog M. Landers

    My sole problem with Nomani is when she takes it upon herself to comment on Islamic rules and requirements. Mostly because I have yet to read a single piece of hers in which she did not both do so and get it wrong. So long as she keeps it personal, I have no major bone to pick. But when she tries to position herself as an able commentator on Islam itself, something — something big, something small, but always something — goes just wrong enough to discredit her wholly in the eyes of actual living, breathing Muslims. This time: ‘”Talaq, talaq, talaq,” meaning “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.” According to traditional interpretation, a Muslim man has to simply utter this word three times to divorce his wife.’ Triple talaq = requirement for a divorce? How can she expect to be taken seriously even in her desire to be rebellious when she can not demonstrate an apt understanding of that which she rebels against?

  • http://luckyfatima.wordpress.com luckyfatima

    I think she’s not so bad and one day she might be like a Rosa Parks or something. She seems more committed to Muslims and Islam than other people who gained notoriety at the same time as her, and she does have a point about our struggles as women dealing with some issues in our communities, though we may have some other contentions with her.

  • laila

    @ M. Landers

    “…to discredit her wholly in the eyes of actual living, breathing Muslims.” Are you trying to state she’s not an actual Muslim?

  • http://twitter.com/komalwaqar Komal

    Great post. I’d just like to point out one thing, one of the main issues I have with Asra Nomani is how she frequently confuses culture with religion. In the first paragraph, she mentions a tradition in which she dresses up as a bride at the age of 4 and calls it a path all Muslim women go down on but as a Muslimah or a South Asian, I never had to undergo such a ritual.

    @M Landers
    “How can she expect to be taken seriously even in her desire to be rebellious when she can not demonstrate an apt understanding of that which she rebels against?”
    BINGO.

  • Faith

    I can’t speak for M. Landers but I can say that I see where he is coming from in a certain sense. I do consider Nomani to be a Muslim but when I read some of her work, I sometimes think that some of the problems she has could be remedied if she studied the rights that women have in Islam. The example of her divorce is a prime example. If she did a little research-and I really mean just a little-she would know that saying talaq three times most certainly does equal a divorce Islamically speaking. I mean the Qur’an itself mentions the actions that must be taken in order for a divorce to be final. What happened to the three month waiting period? Did the couple actually try to reconcile first? She never mentions consulting an imam about what her husband did and I would like to think that any imam worth his title would clearly point out that saying talaq three times does not actually mean a couple is divorced.

    I do think this is a serious issue that Nomani needs to considers. Whether we like it or not, she will not be taken seriously by Muslims (who are suppose to be her target audience) unless she can prove she knows what she’s talking about on at least basic issues.

  • RCHOUDH

    I too believe that Nomani was too quick to blame her incompatibility with her Muslim husband based on his religion and ethnicity alone, rather than on other more universally human qualities (like about how he didn’t satisfy her in bed, any man can be blamed for doing that). And I also feel she’s severely ignorant about basic Islamic principles, like when she rejected the Lutheran guy even though he was willing to convert. There’s nothing in Islam that states you can’t marry someone once they convert so I think she was confusing an unIslamic cultural practice (where certain Muslims like South Asians oftentimes exhibit prejudice towards non Desi spouses even if they are Muslim) with Islam. Just because her family may have been unhappy with her marrying a convert doesn’t mean it is Haraam in Islam; in fact it’s Haraam for people to prevent her from marrying him just based on his race/ethnicity even though he became Muslim.
    Finally I think she is really revealing her ignorance when she states that her new husband, a non Muslim, knew the “religion better than anyone born into the faith”. I mean really? That’s like me a South Asian American Muslim, going around saying I’m more knowledgeable about Japanese culture than any Japanese American because I happen to be an avid anime watcher and happen to have taken a few courses on Japanese language and culture LOL!

  • Sobia

    Actually the triple utterance of talaq as the main requirement of divorce is the common understanding in many parts of the Muslim world. Or at least in South Asia it is. Many a Muslim woman has been the victim of this belief.

  • Mariam

    There are so many Muslim women who are aspiring to become journalists in the west. I personally believe Nomani is just a waste of space but hey I guess the industry likes her.

  • Peter

    I think you’re being hyper-critical of this piece, which – it seems apparent to me – was written to communicate Asra’s personal experience with love and marriage as a Muslim, desi woman. Is it that hard to see? You ask what her point was, but she never set out to have a “point” in the first place; the piece was simply a story to share and spark discussion with.

    We all love stories, and especially women, and especially when they involve love and marriage. That’s probably why Marie Claire published the article. I can just imagine the look on my friend’s face if she were to tell me some long anecdote and me respond blankly with “What is your point?” LOL

    But I digress..

    You said: “It appears that Nomani is prejudiced in whom she loves and that her prejudice is against men that she views as being traditional and not in tune with her American sensibilities.”

    Where did you get that from? So because she seemed to go for white American men (around whom she grew up), and had a poor experience with a Pakistani man, she is somehow at fault for telling us?

    You said: “Perhaps the issues in her marriage were due to having a partner that didn’t express his emotions well (I also want to point that we only get Nomani’s side of the story).”

    Yes, that is exactly how her story unfolded: “My husband, charming with friends by day, would simply shut down at night. We would have rather passionless, perfunctory sex, and then he’d roll over, turn his back to me, and fall asleep.”

    So what was your point?

    Your post could have been so much better had you actually focused on Ms. Nomani’s words instead of getting caught up in a bunch of paranoid accusations about her intentions.

    I don’t mean to be condescending in any way… I just feel that you unfairly criticized the author, apparently because her life played out in a way that you think makes Muslims look bad.

    But I generally love this site :)

  • Peter

    Hey, it could very well be true – not as a rule or anything, but why not give her the benefit of the doubt? There are PLENTY of ignorant brothers and sisters out there.

    Sometimes an outsider’s perspective reveals things in more detail or in another light. The great scholar Muhammad Asad (b. Leopold Weiss) is a classic example of that.

  • Person

    That’s interesting, especially that she makes it seem like a Muslim thing. When I was young, I was a part of a ceremony in which very yong kids, myself included, had “wedding” ceremonies. It was in a church and I can not for the life of me say why it was done. Maybe just a time for adults to get together and go “ooooohhh, look at them. Isn’t that adorable?!”. The girls wore fluffy white or pink dresses, and the guys wore suits. When I say yound, I mean supper young too.

  • RCHOUDH

    @ Peter

    So maybe Nomani’s piece had no point to it after all…fine. I just wonder what the point of Marie Claire publishing this piece was. I’m usually skeptical of US mainstream media publishing stories like this with harmless intentions. My skepticism comes from the fact that MSM almost always likes to highlight stories, ideas, issues, etc of SPECIFIC types of Muslims (the ones who are seen as being secular and Westernized). It’s bad enough they don’t focus on stories of Muslims (and other minority groups) in general; what makes it worse is when they do highlight such stories it’s the ones like Nomani’s, where they would like to imply that Westernized secular Muslims=good and religious Muslims=bad. Why doesn’t Marie Claire also highlight stories of other Muslims falling in love with other Muslims? Until I see stories like that highlighted I’ll continue to believe that a certain agenda is being followed here by MSM.

  • stumblingmystic

    “As I read her piece, it seemed that Nomani did love with prejudice, but not in the way she mentions. It appears that Nomani is prejudiced in whom she loves and that her prejudice is against men that she views as being traditional and not in tune with her American sensibilities.”

    This doesn’t seem like a *prejudice*, just a reasonable personal preference to me. Some people just aren’t traditional or are highly critical of tradition.

  • Peter

    RCHOUDH, I think you’re right. It would have been better to examine marie claire’s editorial decisions (maybe even adding a survey of the recent islam-related stories it’s published) than to take some journalist to task for nothing other than having a bad experience.

    Just an aside, I was talking with a muslimah that lives in Pakistan and would be considered very “traditional” (e.g., she wears abaya, covers her face, and works in religious education), and she had a negative view of Pakistani men also, but perhaps for a different reason: she said that many of them “do everything haraam when they are single, but then want a pious wife”.

  • Faheem

    @Faith You said “I sometimes think that some of the problems she has could be remedied if she studied the rights that women have in Islam.” This resonates with what I thought of her argument on BBC couple of months ago about muslim women marrying non-muslims. She needs scholarly help. Using IMO, before she begins any of her ramblings is something that she should seriously consider instead of talking for other muslims. really

  • Safdar

    @Peter,
    But then if this is what has been revealed by that guy to Miss/Mrs. Nomani then surely there is no doubt and hence no benefit to be taken from any doubt.

  • Ezra

    Why does Ms. Nomani or the like need scholarly help? The Quran and Islam was revealed to all of mankind not just certain people or men. Furthermore in a different thread on MMW, the question of, who is really a scholar, is raised. The answers can be many. There is not single entity/body/authority national or international that governs over an affirmed list of qualified scholars and shaykhs. Even imams today are being confused with scholars. Anybody can in fact claim to be a religious scholar. Who should one turn to? Are scholars infallible like, say, God? In a european country a man went on national tv stating women without scarf did not deserve respect and were to blame when raped. He was a mufti. Attached to an muslim organisation with several imams and religious teachers. It was only then discovered he was in fact not a Mufti. However he still very much works for that organisation – educating young muslims.

    At the end of the day each person is entitled to study and interpret their faith. One can disagree or agree. But that only scholars should have a say in religous matters is following somebody blindly and a great of part of what is wrong today. Socalled scholars enjoy an authority no matter where they may be and this is not without cost for the believers. I was reading a piece by Asma Barlas and she in fact suggests that everybody should be entitled to study and interpret faith. This view is not novel. Interpretation is relative and individual. Expecting uniformity and consensus is utopia. Even authorities disagree on sometimes basic but crucial matters. Suggesting one has the one true universal understanding, is arrogant. There are over 1 billion muslims divided into various sects and subsects. Even within a sect you have differences of opinions. I have so far not come across any statement from Ms Nomani where she claims to be a speaker of all Muslims. Worth keeping in mind. How about live and let live.


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