Few months ago my friend started looking for marriage prospects. As a convert, doing it the“right” way was very important to her. She went to our mosque’s sheikh with the hope that he would take the time to look for a good match for her. Presumably, my friend, who is in her early 20s, was looking not only for a guy her age, but also for a professional practicing Muslim man who would love her and understand that, as a Muslim woman, she was much more than just a “plain wife.”
The sheikh in my mosque introduced her to a number of prospects that were all across the board in terms of ethnic background, education, profession, ages and family situations (i.e. polygamists). The sheikh got my friend and each one of the guys together for them to meet in a “halal” environment. He hoped to be able to find the “right person” for my friend. He had, to some degree, good intentions in helping out what he considered to be a lonely unprotected Muslim convert sister that needed a man to be complete.
My friend, a soon-to-be professional was not thrilled with the guys that the sheikh had picked up for her. There were guys looking to marry her for the sake to get citizenship, men who were 20 or 30 years older than her, men who were unemployed and lacked any kind of education, guys who were divorced and needed a baby sitter, and those who were just there because their parents had decided that they needed to marry.
After few meetings, the sheikh asked my friend to lower her expectations if she wanted to get married. My friend bravely responded that, as a woman, getting married was an important decision and something that required more consideration than the sheikh’s preconceived notions of what a woman should want or deserve. After a while, the sheikh finally understood that my friend was in no rush to marry the first random Muslim guy that appeared. Yet, I wonder if his own idea of what a convert Muslim woman needs changed?
In communities where we are expected to do things “the right way” many Muslim converts have only the choice to go through a sheikh or to perspective mothers in law to find husbands (assuming that they want to get married). However, there is a common and very problematic perception that, as women, we should settle for less.
It is kind of being told that marriage is good and wonderful if a Muslim man “makes us the favor” to settle with us. While in some communities, this is a challenge also faced by Muslim men, it is usually the women, and often times the converts, who get stuck with those single Muslim men that have not being able to get married on their own. It is in that way that 20 year old converts are introduced to 50 year old me looking for third or fourth wives.
Although it is completely up to each Muslim woman whether or not they settle for the older guys or for polygamist families, we should acknowledge that women are often times called to settle for less than they are looking or hoping for.
When it comes to converts, the issue is somehow more complex because there are cultural tensions that arise, and expectations that some of us are compelled to accept but that cannot live with. Converts are often offered to be second, third or fourth wives; they are also, asked to marry divorced men that would not marry divorced women… completely the opposite! Somehow, some Muslim men think that they have the right to a “virgin” (whatever that means) for the rest of their lives every time they get married.
Why is it then that we are expected to settle for less? Why do some men and sheikhs think that without a man we would be lost?
Most of us converts, at least in my community, have perfectly functional and happy lives regardless of what our marital status is. If we are looking to get married is because we are looking for a person that will uphold our principles and beliefs; someone who will respect us and make us grow; someone who will acknowledge that we are full beings rather than “crocked” pieces of someone’s ribs.
Yet, somehow we continue to reproduce the idea that a woman should marry the man that knocks in her door. We continue to tell women, and converts, that once one becomes a Muslim, wifely responsibilities take over our whole lives. Since that point on we are expected to look for husbands (the halal way), get married and be wives and wives and wives…
Are we, then, settling for less than we deserve just by getting married?