One of the toughest aspects of modern life for Muslimah’s right now is marriage – or lack thereof. I know so many sisters who are looking to marry and are struggling for so many reasons.
We seem to be a generation caught between the old way of doing things where our parents found someone vaguely suitable and we went along with it and a new way where we want to find halal love but are not sure how to go about it.
Many people my age married someone from their parent’s home country, often a distant relative. They went along with it because they wanted to be good girls and obedient to their parents, they were too young to think too deeply about whether this was the right thing to do and they had no idea what the alternative was. For some this worked out and they found themselves happily married. For others it turned into a nightmare where they were used for the benefit of extended family (visas, money sent back home) and lumbered with partners who were wholly unsuitable. I suspect for many it was a case of settling and learning to live with the choices that had been made for them and never expecting anything more.
I married someone I met in Pakistan and went through the process of bringing them to join me in this country. I feel like I am one of the lucky ones in my generation. My parents gave me the choice (albeit limited to a handful of young men I was introduced to, to pick from). My husband turned out to be a kind, gentle, pious man who helped bring me closer to my faith and has made me happy alhamdulillah.
I know sisters who aren’t particularly enamoured with their husbands from back home, but are getting one with their lives: work, housework and children. They seem fairly content, but it makes me a little sad to think that the spark is not there in their marriages and they are just getting by because that is the only choice they have in the path laid out for them.
Then there are the horror stories. Girls who married with good intentions but found that once their husbands had indefinite leave to remain in the country their attitude changed. I have a good friend whose husband’s personality switched overnight and she found herself being beaten regularly. In the end she had to leave him and go back to her parents home with her two children. I have another friend who stayed with her husband for ten years before walking away because she just could not stand the sight of a man she had not wanted to marry in the first place. I have met women my age whose marriages with husbands from abroad have broken down due to domestic violence, gambling, drinking, the sheer grasping greed of relatives back home or just outright personality differences.
The problem is not always a difficult husband. Often the partner from back home arrives to find their spouse in this country looks down on them, wants to change them and wants them to fit in with the norms of their new home country. Sometimes the culture difference is too much.
I adore my husband and because we are both from a Pakistani background I would have expected that culturally we would be a good match. Surprisingly to me, because he was born in Pakistan and I was born and grew up in England our cultural differences were significant. He served as a mirror to show me how strongly I had been socialised by the norms, media and culture of this country. Despite sharing a language, we found that one concept, occasion or relationship could mean two very different things to us. We knew each others language but we had to learn what we both really meant in a slow and painstaking process which was tolerable because we cared so deeply for each other. But if the love is not there, how unbearable and difficult must that process be.
I think it is many of these things that put those only a little younger than me off the idea of “going back home” to marry. I know my younger sisters and their friends were certainly not open to the idea. Part of the problem was the language barrier and the process of bringing someone to this country. Another issue was that most people who marry abroad have to work as it can take some time for their spouse to settle here, find their feet, learn the language and find a job. Often when their spouse does find work it is not well paid and nowhere near as prestigious as the jobs they did back home which made them good candidates to marry spouses in the West in the first place. This leads to further frustration and unhappiness. My husband worked for a newspaper in Pakistan designing page layouts using computer-aided design. He hung out with journalists and photographers and often accompanied them on assignments on his motorbike which he loved to travel around Pakistan on. He was well respected in his family and in his neighbourhood.
On coming here he tried a few things before he found work in a warehouse. Despite being run by Muslims he was not allowed to pray and constantly had to fight for this, he was expected to come to office parties where the alcohol was available freely, he was expected to stay silent regarding the theft and cheating by senior managers. He had a miserable time and was constantly fighting with management. It was a relief when he started his own business as a removal contractor which allowed him to earn halal, pray on time in the masjid and balance his family life.
He met people working in the warehouse who had been bank managers in Pakistan, he even met one person who worked for the IMF in Pakistan and had left to try and gain some experience in the UK and ended up in this chain of warehouses.
It is all of these things and more that has put young people off marrying in this traditional way. They are searching for someone whose lifestyle and values match their own and who will share the life that they have mapped out for themselves. Easier said than done!
One interesting trend I have picked up on is that of young Muslims delaying marriage because they feel that they are not ready. They will start finding that people are interested in them in their early twenties but turn down proposals or delay them as long as possible because they feel they are too young. They want to complete their education or they want to enjoy life first. As they start to look for a partner in their late twenties, they find that they cannot find what they are looking for and regret turning down some of the proposals they had received earlier. I know more than one sister who has found herself in this position.
Then there are the young people with a checklist – the minimum requirements they have for a person they would want to marry. This can include the level of education, career or earnings, height, weight, colour, complexion (obviously the requirement for fair skin is predominant!), ethnicity, caste, various personality characteristics and also his family situation – whether his parents are around, whether he has too many sisters (that might interfere or take sides with the mother-in-law) whether he intends to move away from his family.
This checklist makes me so very sad. I understand the need for some minimum standards and I understand looking for someone that you could at least be attracted to as I honestly feel this is a basic right of every Muslim. But I think the long specific checklists stop you from seeing people as they really are. They block you from meeting and considering people who might be kind, sincere, of excellent character and would make such a loving spouse. But how would you ever know because they didn’t earn so much at that point, or their car was old or they had lots of sisters or they were perfect except they are a little on the short side. Circumstances change, okay so they aren’t likely to suddenly get taller, but one day Allah might increase their income or give them an amazing car, or land them with an amazing job. Insh’Allah that’s when they’ll appreciate the woman who chose them when their circumstances weren’t at their best, yet she was able to recognise the good in him.
There are so many sisters who don’t have a checklist, who are open to meeting a good brother, yet are struggling to find anyone. If you are a good, pious, shy sister who has always observed her limits with men, where do you suddenly find a good one? Clearly the parents should be looking for partners for their children. This is when things start to come unstuck. For a long time many parents were not willing to look beyond their extended families or their village “back home”. They realised that after waiting five, eight, ten years their children were just not willing to go back. They never imagined a situation where they would have to actually look around, be nice to people, humbly ask for an introduction as the parents of a daughter and to their horror – even make the first move towards speaking to a prospective groom’s family.
I know some parents whose pride just would not allow them to “stoop” to this. Despite their connections in the community and the masjid, they could not bring themselves to do these things. Then there are the parents who deserve credit for trying to rise to the challenge. They have absolutely no idea where to start but start asking their friends and start looking at their networks. Often they will go to “aunties” that arrange introductions and see if anyone suitable turns up. This is a slow and haphazard way of doing things and it seems to yield results only on rare occasions, mainly when the girl is still in her early twenties. It also often leads to numerous introductions with highly unsuitable people that can leave the family feeling humiliated, embarrassed and disheartened.
This had led to young people trying to find someone on their own. I know a lot of people who have met their spouses at school or university. The worry is that they will do something haram or immodest and often they will be keen to formalise the relationship through marriage to support this. I have found that most times these young people are absolutely terrified of telling their parents. They have no idea what the reaction will be or the consequences. Sometimes the parents will support them, on other occasions all hell breaks loose with the parents refusing to accept someone they have not chosen. A war of attrition follows with one side or the other eventually breaking down and capitulating to the will of the other. The concern with these marriages is that the parents have no involvement and there is no-one to caste a mature eye over the prospective spouse and offer sensible advice as to their suitability. I know girls who have married the man they met at university and then outgrown them as they matured and became mothers. They are stuck with men who can be childish and irresponsible or who have not shared their wife’s journey in coming closer to her faith which can also be a bone of contention.
For those who spent university studying and refusing to look at boys, once they have finished their studies, the process starts from scratch. Often they realise that the “professional aunties” proposals are mainly for guys that just can’t find anyone for some reason. These are brothers whose parents are trying to fix their problem using the supposed magic cure-all of marriage. The problem being drug addiction (I know a sister who this happened to who has suffered her entire married life), constant partying and clubbing, having a non-Muslim girlfriend they are trying to get rid of, homosexuality (I know a lovely sister who almost got landed with this too and another that clocked on the day of her nikah and then had to get a divorce in a panic) or some mysterious undisclosed illness that you don’t find out about till much later. This is not to discredit the aunties, they are trying in a confusing and challenging environment and they are trying to help others for free. Sometimes they even find a successful match (although I am yet to see this happen personally).
Once sisters see that this option is not going to work they turn to internet matrimonial sites. Some of these are, or previously have been useful. I know a handful of people who have found spouses this way. I have noticed that when a new site is set up, it starts well with sincere people joining up in the hope of finding someone and some success stories emerging. Then as time goes by the timer-wasters and cheaters find it and start trying to use it to target vulnerable women (or maybe even men, I don’t know) to string along and try and get cash out of. I am amazed at how many women I have come across that this has happened to who are in debt because of guys who are long gone. Before long, the whole of the world’s visa-hunters have joined the site in the hope that they will be able to form enough of a connection with someone to reel them in. I note there are a few halal/Islamic matrimonial sites that are trying to vet members in an attempt to stop this happening and I sincerely hope that they are successful in their attempts.
If the internet does not yield results and the parents are still in denial about their duties, then sisters are having to look further afield. There seems to be a profusion of matrimonial events (a bit like speed-dating but with your mum or big sisters tagging along and no touching of any kind). Sisters are telling me that for every brother there are about ten sisters and it can be quite embarrassing. More recently these seemed to have evolved so that ratios of men to women are managed and certain audiences are targeted – professionals, over 30’s, divorcees etc. I haven’t heard many success stories for these either, but it may be that there are some, at least people are trying to offer something to help others.
That leaves lots of sisters in a pretty tough situation – feeling hopeless, suffering from depression, feeling as if they are not good enough. I know sisters who are miserable every day because they feel life is passing them by. I know sisters who have gone against their parent’s wishes to marry someone they have chosen and have lost their relationship with their parents forever, I know sisters who have removed their headscarf in a bid to find someone, or even find their selves. Easy to judge these sisters, but I refuse to because they need our love and support and not our self-righteous finger-pointing.
I know many brothers are suffering too, but their shelf-life seems to be longer, sisters seem to be relegated to the dusty back room of being “too old for a good prospect” so much sooner. I don’t have as much of an ear to the stories of my brothers as I do to sisters, so I am not best placed to comment on what they are going through. I meet so many sisters who I know would make amazing wives and sisters. They would run their homes with grace and bring up wonderful children, but their chance to do so does not seem to be appearing and that makes me so sad for them.
This is the challenge of our in-between generation. We have to drag our parents forward with us, we have been and must continue to be patient with them and try to help them to understand what we hope for from our married life (no easy task I know). We need to find new effective and halal avenues for finding spouses which are not humiliating for everyone involved – seems like a tall order right now.
I think firstly we need to start changing our mindsets about spouses, not as someone who will meet the conditions on our checklists and then once we are married serve as the answer to all of our inadequacies and fix and complete us somehow. Instead we need to look past checklists to genuinely look at the person we are meeting in a balanced and fair way. We need to be willing to connect with the person for a short while to look into their hearts and see if this is a good person who will treat us well. No easy task, but we need to learn to use our intuition, to listen to our gut instinct which Allah (SWT) has given women as a powerful sixth sense which we too often ignore and suppress to our detriment.
Secondly sisters need to get out there and grow and make themselves amazing. Too often we treat marriage as the thing that is going to make our life amazing, fix the gaping hole in us, or take away our anxieties and pain – seriously sister, IT WILL NOT. If we are troubled, our marriage will be troubled. If we are sad and hurt, we will bring this to the marriage and our spouse will be expected to fix this – how can he fix what is inside of you? You will just end up with two sad, disappointed people who are left deeply hurt.
So I believe sisters need to fix themselves – get the therapy, self-love or healing they need. Reconcile with their inner child, find their true voices and live authentically and with honesty with their selves. Then you need to get out into the world and grow – develop social and community networks, serve others and live according to the purpose Allah (SWT) created for you. It seems to me that when you are desperately searching for a spouse, that there is something about you that puts everyone off. This means that the harder you try, the harder it gets. Conversely when you are not looking, but seriously living – people start turning up like moths to a flame and you have to start batting guys off all over the place – after all who doesn’t want an interesting wife who cares for others and brings her whole self to a marriage - flawed but genuine and open?
For sisters to heal themselves, make themselves whole and healthy in this way and then start living their most amazing lives is a very, very tough thing in a world where for many there are serious restrictions on sisters from their families. I know I was keen to marry simply because I was not allowed to go anywhere or do anything by my very protective parents and I know my life would not begin until I was married. But I still think that we can take small steps within our restricted lives and circles each day to grow and come closer to being the amazing people we are meant to be.
Thirdly, those of us who are married and have good networks need to support those who are looking to get married – do we know of people who are looking who might be suitable for each other? Can we help to connect people or pass on helpful information about people to others?
Most importantly we need to turn to Allah. So many sisters pray and pray and beg Allah (SWT) for help in this situation. Sometimes it must feel as if these duas (supplications) are not being answered. I know there are sisters who I have been praying for in every salah for a long time who are still single. But we must never, ever give up hope of Allah’s help.
Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, "The supplication of every one of you will be granted if he does not get impatient and say (for example): `I supplicated my Rabb but my prayer has not been granted'.'' ~ Al-Bukhari and Muslim.
I have found over time that some of my dua’s have taken a long time to be accepted. I have realised that there is a good reason for this. It has helped me to grow and it has helped me to truly appreciate something that I am given (I’m thinking about how many years it took to tame my temper as an example, rather than suddenly becoming a calm person overnight).
I make dua that Allah (SWT) helps all of my brothers and sisters find kind, affectionate and righteous spouses who make them happy in every way. I also make dua that Allah makes those brothers and sisters complete, whole, happy and righteous, so that they are fit for the spouses they dream of. May Allah (SWT) make perfect pairs from amongst them and make them the basis of a happy family who benefits everyone and righteous children who bring nothing but good into this world. I also make dua that Allah (SWT) makes it easy for our confused, bewildered and deeply anxious parents – that he helps them to understand what their children need, to work together with their children and to retain their dignity in the process insh’Allah.
This post is way too long and still does not cover a fraction of what is going on regarding this issue. If you are still reading I'd love to hear your thoughts. Or if you found something that worked for you, please share so that others can benefit insh'Allah.