Since apparently all of us over the ripe age of 20 walk around with visible and obnoxiously loud ticking analog biological clocks, it’s no surprise that the issue of marriage is constantly smacked into our faces as though it is the sole defining moment and relationship of our lives. Marriage for Muslim women, whatever shade of practice, belief and color they come in, is a big deal. It may not be a big deal for a particular Muslim woman, perhaps, but those around her still tend to make it into a pretty big deal. Either she’s too single or too married. Or not married enough. Or single in the wrong way. Or married the wrong way. Or thinking about getting married the wrong way. Or having non-marital relationships. Or just not interested in ever getting married. Maybe she’s too picky. Too educated. Too hijabed. Too naked. Too fat. Too flat. Too ambitious. Too cultural.
While the constant barrage of marital inquisitions leaves much to be desired, there is a serious conversation to be had here. Many concerns, even if audaciously framed, are legitimate in a time where it seems young Muslim women in the West are having an increasingly hard time finding a marriage partner, and even staying with him (the context of these discussions being firmly heteronormative). The reasons for this social problem are plentiful and resemble issues in other minority groups, such as the Black communities in these societies. Professional and financially stable Black women find it difficult to meet Black men on their level (and willing to date them). Professional and financially stable Muslim women do too – amongst other reasons. Yet while we’re just having the same conversations diagnosing “the problem,” we seem to be doing very little and talking very little about actual solutions. In other words – okay, so we know that due to issues of education, age, culture, race, back-home-nostalgia and hyperconsumer marital expectations (and then some), Muslim women are staying single longer, but what the heck are we doing about it?
Rudabah Abbass explores this issue, with a bit of a different angle, as it exists in the UK Muslim community, in her most recent AJE article ‘Halal’ Interfaith Unions Rise Among UK Women. Specifically, Abbass looks at the increasing trend of British Muslim women opting (and struggling) to marry non-Muslim men. Their reasoning isn’t necessarily a dearth of eligible Muslim marde-zaat availability or rejection but rather rooted in, Abbass notes, being “raised in a country that promotes tolerance and acceptance of others [and thus] they do not see themselves any ‘different’ to their non-Muslim compatriots.” Such couples face not only the threat of losing familial support from a woman’s family or being essentially kicked out of the Muslim community, but also face the threat of physical violence. The reason for this being, of course, that the majority and mainstream opinion in Islamic jurisprudence does not allow for a Muslim woman to marry outside the faith (whereas males can marry People of the Book – albeit debate remains). To marry outside the faith for a Muslim woman can be seen in some communities as equivalent to leaving the faith. Unfortunately, as noted in the Abbass article, pushing Muslim women in interfaith marriages outside the community forces them also outside the faith.
What was, however, most interesting in the Abbass article was the particular inclusion of Taj Hargey, an imam at and director of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford. Hargey is presented as a “progressive” imam who believes that there is nothing that actually prevents Muslim women from marrying men outside the faith and thus performs marital rites for interfaith couple.
That’s all fine and dandy but here are two problems missing from the rather charming and gentle image created of the Progressive Imam That Was that point to a notable concerns in the framing of this discussion:
First, Hargey, while perhaps with some legitimate concerns and critiques, is more a Tarek Fatah of the UK, as opposed to any sort of religious authority or respected scholar. He is a celebrated part of an industry that pushes marginalizing ideas on Muslimness and Islam based on demonizing mainstream practices, most famously the veil in its many forms. His work with right-wing British groups and his rather assimilationist ideas on the beliefs and practices (or heck just lives) of most Muslims make Hargey a questionable source at best. Interfaith marriage requires serious thought and discussion but it seems that it’s often, unfortunately, partnered with polarizing, sensationalist figures who seem to push marginalizing and, at times, Islamophobic tropes. This hurts the couples in question more than it helps them.
Secondly and relatively tangentially there is an excessive focus here on “official” marriage rituals and “official” religious authority. Since when do Muslims require an “imam” (i.e. a person who leads a prayer and may take on some community leadership role, not necessarily a person who issues legal rulings) to get married? Um, we don’t, guys. In fact all you need are four witnesses (which may include a wali, but there is some difference of opinion on this) and a contract. That’s it. As often suggested in stories about unorthodox marriages (like here as well), it seems more that a marriage by an “imam” is seen to somehow bring “legitimacy” to an otherwise taboo relationship; it is seen as a mechanism to help alleviate the controversial nature of it in the broader community.
The problems of marriage for Muslim women, in particular, sees no end in sight. What it requires is not just the same echoing of woes over and over again, but solutions and discussions that avoid creating some sort of a “state” or “church” out of Islam that seek to “officiate” rituals and religious scholars and leaders as priestly authorities. Most importantly, however, we need discussions and solutions that are not pushing members of this community beyond the margins.