A Muslim Woman on Dating, Relationships, and Marriage
The Muslim problem with dating — if we can call it that — is almost always one of culture than religion. Having tried the ‘marriage experiment’ once, I know that religion doesn’t play a role in the day-to-day, but culture definitely does. The same problem exists when dating while Muslim.
It’s not about whether the guy opens the door for you or whether he picks up the tab at dinner. It’s about whether he even cares that you might feel hungry — or is he on a fast track to gratify his own needs? Is he serving you anything — a note in the day, a gesture, a shared laugh? Is he considering you in any way without you having to ask or fight for it?
That’s where the culture comes in. As a Middle Eastern/South Asian woman, the culture is pretty big on generosity. No matter how much we say that the “religion of Islam is on a killing spree,” most everyone agrees that there’s a graciousness in the culture.
Military service men and women who’ve done tours in Afghanistan are floored by the hospitality. You’ll hear stories of the warmth of the Afghan people. When you cross the threshold of their home, you’re an honored guest. Your needs and feelings are not only considered, they’re anticipated. With a seat at the head of the table, you get choice meat at dinner and the first serving of each dish. You’ll get the host’s own bed to sleep in, with fresh linens, while they happily sleep on the floor. And you’ll experience something that’s so common in the rest of the world but rare in the States — you’ll experience the giving and sharing of time. Hours will pass over a cup of tea, with a spread of sweet almonds, dried fruits and biscuits while you linger from conversation to conversation. They give the best of what they have to offer. And they will thank you for the honor of visit.
Honor is important in all areas of life, especially dating — especially when you’re letting people into the most intimate parts of your world.
That’s what you can expect when you date a Muslim girl who carries her culture with her. When you cross the threshold into her heart, you get the best of what she has to offer. You are honored.
This is where dating is about more than just courtship. It’s about cherishing someone more intimately than the everyday. In my case, when that courtship hasn’t happened in the past, it’s on me. As a Muslim girl, I’ve been raised to not ask or expect. I’ve been raised to keep my disappointments to myself. Yet after trial and error, and years of being indirectly told my voice didn’t matter, there’s a sort of rage that builds up — a roar.
Sometimes anger is necessary and it needs to be expressed. Muslim or not, too many women are short-changed in relationships and in our bones we know it; we can feel it. And we say nothing. We accept it and make excuses for it, coming up with new terms to justify the newest wave of abhorrent and emotionally abusive behavior: the fuckboy.
Rather than recognizing that using women is a douche-lord thing to do, we’ve created a new classification for the man-child who cannot hold a relationship, probably because he has no interest in it to begin with, or had a change of mind but doesn’t have enough honor to be a man about it. And when we meet someone who is a fuckboy, rather than calling it out we stick him with a meme, cry-laugh about it over copious amounts of alcohol, and move on (sort of).
The fuckboy is the absolute worst type of man in relationship history. He’s lower than a warlord with concubines because at least concubines got food and shelter. Even prostitutes get money. And the dude at the club that rolls up and makes it clear he just wants a one-nighter? At least he’s given you honesty.
The fuckboy gives you bullshit and packages it as hope. Expect him to run for office someday. Still, you sort of expect fuckery from 20-something-year-olds. You don’t expect it from grown men. But it happens. Apparently, fuckboys don’t have an age-cap.
The truth is, not everyone deserves to be in your home; not everyone needs to be let in. Some people haven’t yet learned how to cross the threshold. Some people never will. And it’s not your job to teach them how to be a human being.
What I see, especially as I’m ‘dating’ again is men who through their actions say, “Give me what I want. Be what I want.” This is not a moment to bash on men. I’m sure men could say the same about women. I think this is a larger indicator of where we’re at as a society.
The Soul-lessness of Online Dating Apps
So at a friend’s suggestion, I tried the swiping dating app called Bumble. It’s like Tinder but with a better reputation. He described people on Tinder as what’s left after the party is over and the lights are on. Bumble on the other hand is what’s up when everyone’s had their first couple of drinks. I tried it for about 5 days before breaking up with the app. It wasn’t for me and here’s why.
A picture might catch my eye but it won’t catch my attention. What catches my attention is a man’s intelligence, his imagination, his wit, his kindness and his passion. What gets me to even open the door to a possibility is his story. What makes him him? That’s what I go for. And what you start falling for is something as simple as his laugh, the sound of his voice, the way he trustingly reaches out for your hand, the sparkle in his eye when he’s amused,…
A picture and a few lines of copy can’t tell you that. And on some fundamental level, what makes that connection between two people so sacred is completely lost in a sea of pictures, whether it’s from swiping right or clicking “follow” and “add friend.” And with that, courtship is reduced to an endless dance of “liking” each other’s photos or tossing out a text. Modern courtship is measured by how long he takes to text back and whether you need Alan Turing and his enigma-code breaker to deconstruct the deeper meaning in his Morse code texts. Pro-tip: there’s no deeper meaning.
These are the useless string of thoughts in a woman’s head as she’s trying to make sense of man-child behavior. You think, maybe if the stars align just right and the wind blows East, he’ll message back. Maybe if I swipe ten more people, I’ll find the right one. Keep holding your breath, darling. Eventually you have no choice but to exhale and let it go. This is not a guy who sees you. He doesn’t know how to see. People have become dispensable, options to swipe left or right on, to heartlessly ghost when no longer needed or to abandon when no longer entertained. It’s a subhuman existence. Trust me when I say you don’t want a subhuman man — or woman. We’re better than this.
Ultimately, this is not about dating while Muslim. It’s about dating while human. And just like the realness is lost a little more everyday with technology and quick access, so is the magic lost in discovering each other. Everything moves so fast. Everything is so easily accessed. Touch of a finger and you can get just about whatever you want, including a mate or a good time. Whatever you want, technology will give it to you like a madam at a cheap brothel. When people are conditioned to get whatever they want — instant access and attention all day everyday — they start losing sight.
This is not real.
Why Modern Dating Fails Some of Us
The most valuable relationship I’ve cultivated is with my own intuition. Cradling it like a broken lover after years of ignoring it, rebuilding a trust, it’s slowly come forward from a whisper in the crevices of my mind to a powerful voice. Right now it’s roaring, “This is not f*cking real.”
This is not what life is suppose to be about. But I’m going to be honest and say I’m conflicted.
On the one hand, when you know you’re a force of nature in your life purpose, how does anything less than that keep your interest? When you’ve worked so hard to break the bonds of cultural conditioning — a culture that broke your intuition and silenced your voice — to finally become who you are now, how do you accept a man who isn’t on your level, who doesn’t have the same burning passion? I’m not about to date the male equivalent of a basic b*tch. I’m also not too excited about someone with a track history of dating basic b*tches.
On the other hand, becoming a Muslim Reformer means I’ve gone through a sort of initiation where you learn to see people through the cracks, to understand them — and you cannot hate someone you understand, no matter how much they frustrate or disappoint you. This makes it really hard to know your own heart’s boundaries: when do you be soft and when do you need to be hard? How do you protect yourself without losing your ability to love unconditionally? When you begin understanding people and how they’ve become who they are — both beautiful and beastly — it’s hard not to love them.
I’m still figuring that one out: the difference between being able to love someone unconditionally and knowing that it needs to be from a distance because that person hasn’t learned how to cross the threshold yet. They might not have learned how to let anyone in, and ultimately my job as a Reformer means I need to be laser-focused. I can’t be someone’s therapist. My life purpose means I need to stay focused.
“Make it simple or make it go away,” I tell myself.
Dating as a Muslim Reformer is complicated. My work is intense, and it’s more than work — it’s what I live for. It’s what I think about all the time, so it’s hard to check out and ‘be normal.’ Confession: having fun like everybody else is not easy. Craft beers on Sundays? Purgatory. Crowded venues? Sorry, I don’t like crowds. Brunches that sail from noon to never-ending? No thanks. But to be honest, this isn’t a reformer thing; this is a Shireen thing.
What reformers and activists deal with is aggressive, volatile and emotionally exhausting. Just like the work, we often tend to be equally intense and we do best with people who can keep up or alleviate the intensity by being a foil or offering balance and sanctuary — both is ideal.
And with closely following a dismal news cycle that never lets you forget how shitty the world is, this means I don’t care about what Fatima said to Susan. Like really, who cares? I don’t want drama and I don’t want pointless arguments over petty things. What I want if I’m giving you my time is to relax and enjoy a few laughs over mimosas and samosas. And if we can make it past that, then maybe some late night convos about our 11 dimensional world while camping out in Yosemite. And maybe this makes for a boring partner unless someone has the same sort of life and gets it — say, another public figure, another activist, another thinker.
My heart says, “Make it easy to be with you and I will give you the best of myself.”
If I’m going to invest in someone, it’s going to be someone who makes it okay for me to not have to be so mechanical all the time. And gift-giving is a bonus. No Muslim girl wants someone who is frequently empty-handed. This doesn’t mean I want ugly Louis Vuitton bags or jewelry that I’m probably never going to wear. It means if I ask you for a rock off the ground from Glastonbury while you’re on business, get me the rock. Or give me the gift of your presence, of your wild imagination or extraordinary ideas.
And like many other Muslims, I’m also not much of a dater. I don’t want to date for years on end. I don’t want to casually date multiple people at the same time. I’m only going to give my attention to one man at a time. It’s that simple. I want what Muslim comedian Aman Ali called the “Up-Up-Down-Down” mode where you can take a shortcut from all the back and forth dating. Make that leap if you’re feeling that connection. I’m undecided about a lot of things, but I’m not undecided about where my heart is. If my heart has crossed the threshold, I’m in.
But unlike never-married-Muslims, I’m not in a rush. Studies show widows are a lot happier and more relaxed. In my case, having the expectation of culture die a long time ago, I’m finding I’m pretty happy on my own too. Me and 50+ widows have that in common: we feel free.
Is Marriage Still the End Goal?
Recently, I thoroughly relished a night-in wearing a worn out “freedom” t-shirt with the neck and sleeves cut out, laughing coarsely at the dry humour in “Yes, Minister,” a popular early 80s Brit-com. It was just so great to be in my own space and do whatever stupid thing I wanted to do for a bit.
The ex said, “You know you could have done all of that when we were married.”
“No, I couldn’t. Your negative depressing energy ruined it. It would throw me off.”
Being in a shared space became about walking on eggshells around him versus just being free to be you and me. And in that, I lost myself for a while. That’s something common to married women in all generations. Our ability to breath in a space can become stifled by the overbearing presence of someone who takes up too much space.
This is a marriage problem, and not just a married-while-Muslim problem.
But for most Muslim women who are dating, the goal is marriage. If marriage is a possibility for me, both the ceremony and the marriage need to be hassle free. I’m ready to share my life with someone meaningfully this time, but not at the high price of sacrificing my own identity at the altar of marriage. If I ever get married again, the guy has to be present. It sounds simple right? Wrong.
When you’ve had the trial and error, you’re more on guard the next time around. You’re more attuned to your own instincts and you’re aware of the red flags as you’re passing them. Old me would have raced by those red flags and interpreted the blurry spot of red as flowers on the side of the road. Idiotically optimistic. Present me says, “There’s a cliff up ahead, genius. Hit the brakes.”
That’s one challenge.
The second challenge is with being a single mom to a small child, my free time is limited. If I’m expected to comb my hair and put on a bra and ‘real’ clothes, then he needs to be worth the effort.
Third challenge: I’m frequently invested in different projects as if there’s a laboratory in my mind with active ideas bubbling and brewing. This means if a guy expects me to step away from that, he needs to be more interesting than my projects. All three in play means that on any given day I’m not going to just pop out for drinks — I don’t even like drinking.
Fourth challenge is unique to me. As tough as I am with taking on a religion like no-big-deal, I’m also super sensitive. While this has made me a skilled Muslim Reformer, it makes me a challenging partner. I expect the guy I’m with to be as giving of himself as I am. I’m going to read him because that’s what I do, and I’m going to challenge and push him the way I challenge and push myself.
I’m finding men don’t like this.
I’m also finding that I don’t care that men don’t like this.