It is hard to choose one paragraph that sums up Shabana Mir ‘s article, since she talks about various and important subjects.
In traditional faith communities, single women are usually looked upon with fear and desire. They are objects of desire because they hold out the promise of a traditional religious home complete with traditional wife and progeny to perpetuate the lineage and community. The unfulfilled promise they seem to hold out is ripe for the plucking. But they are also feared, and as objects of fear, they inspire often intense monitoring behaviors. In traditional communities, single women are watched and judged far more intensely than are single men. Single women’s main marketable commodity – virginity – is guarded and desired – and feared because it is capable of being spent – and with this spending, the honor of the collective may also be metaphorically dissipated. Men’s honor does not have far-reaching implications for the community; men are the community and the arbiters of its honor. Women’s honor is guarded and watched as well as cherished and honored.
When single women become numerous in a faith community, leaders and gatekeepers worry. Or should worry. First, because single women, unlike men, may not seek sexual fulfillment (legitimately) outside of wedlock. Second, because they, in fact, can.
And the issue of the “surplus” of single women in the Western community:
Traditional Muslims hold that Muslim women may not marry outside the faith and that Muslim men may marry Muslims, Christians or Jews, but there the choices end. So is there a smaller pool of Muslim men available for Muslim women because some of them are marrying non-Muslims? There is little by way of lifestyle-related statistics for American Muslims, so it is hard to tell whether there are just more Muslim women than men, whether Muslim men’s marriages outside the faith impacts numbers significantly, or because some men do marry abroad, traveling abroad to their parents’ birthplaces to enter arranged marriages. The last-mentioned is neither here nor there because some Muslim women also marry abroad. However, since cultural patterns of gender norms affect women intimately, Muslim women are often heard loudly protesting against the idea of marrying a man from the motherland. For many Muslim men, on the other hand, marrying a woman from the motherland means marrying a momma-replica who looks pretty and is “sweet.” (The reality may or may not be so).
Koonji insists that the dearth of eligible men is not the only reason for marriage outside the faith:
Part of the problem is what I discussed earlier in this article, modes of courtship or the lack thereof. Traditional Muslim organizations and contexts have often insisted on forms of gender segregation that sometimes make it extremely difficult to meet and identify spouses. Under the motto “God will provide,” conservative Muslims have frowned upon single men and women talking to each other. Much “talking,” I found in my research on college campuses, therefore takes place on the internet and the phone, because it is less visible and, in fact, not really happening.
“Courting” is rejected by the more traditional circles, though many have come to realize that they have to give way. But this grudging “look-away” acceptance will have to develop into something more concrete and theorized if Muslim men and women are to find mates within the community.
Svend once spoke of an Islamic Society of North America convention matrimonial event that took place about a decade ago. Single men and women were chatting with each other, under the eye of organizers. Suddenly an elderly gentleman entered, observed, and reprimanded them, “Brothers, this is not permissible. You should not be doing this.” Svend says, “I wanted to tell him, ‘Uncle, you should be grateful they’re here, and not at the bar across the street from the convention center.’” Because the bar is indeed there, and if Uncle doesn’t go there, many of the kids do.
Shabana Mir is an assistant Professor at Oklahoma State University, and runs the
Via Wajahat Ali