Several Altmuslimah articles have examined the struggles of developing healthy marital relationships in Muslim communities, provoking passionate responses from readers. An ongoing conversation has emerged among writers and readers who are eager to discuss ways to improve our collective social well-being. The Dating Dialogues project is an expansion of this conversation that aims to explore topics such as gender relations, courtship, marriage, divorce, and sexuality in an honest, engaging, and constructive manner that will help both individuals and communities.
While Muslim-Americans struggle with these matters as much as any other group of people, we have a long way to go in fully acknowledging their extent and thus providing adequate support and resources to help people deal with them. We sense the growing need to address issues such as difficulty in finding compatible spouses, struggles with maintaining domestic harmony, and dealing with the stigma of divorce. However without a broad, inclusive, and publicly accessible effort to do so, individuals will continue to suffer silently rather than connect with a larger discourse that can provide the support and inspiration they need to improve their personal lives.
In March 2010, on behalf of Altmuslimah, I attended an open conference call held by Intersections Matchmaking, a service that helps South Asians meet potential partners and access relationship advice. Founder and discussion leader, Jasbina Ahluwalia, encouraged participants to open up about their relationship issues. They spoke about problems such as difficulty meeting like-minded people, anxiety during first dates, and concerns about compatibility. Jasbina responded with helpful suggestions and encouraged the rest of us to share more. What resulted was a rich conversation in which perfect strangers quickly connected on a personal level, in an earnest effort to help one another work through uncertainty. Even if issues were not immediately resolved, the satisfaction of relating to people who understood and could offer diverse perspectives to consider was invaluable.
Though I had been reluctant to share my own issues at the time, feeling that they were too specific to my experiences as a Muslim-American, I thought with a sense of urgency, “If only Muslims could have similar discussions!” I went through Altmuslimah’s archives back to the series written by Zeba Iqbal, Hussein Rashid, Adam Sitte, and most recently Anas Coburn, on marriage and gender relations and found that Zeba had already proposed a similar idea, which she called the Dating Dialogues.
Zeba writes that the term dating carries severe stigma among Muslims based on the assumption that it is inextricably linked to premarital sex. However, she argues, at its core dating is about communication, and only by acknowledging the important role it plays in developing healthy marriages can we assert a positive definition of the term that balances our Islamic ideals and cultural realities. Currently, our community’s obsession over maintaining reputation forces Muslims to tiptoe through the unfamiliar process of finding a spouse, oftentimes confused, alone, and without guidance that can help them make emotionally mature decisions. Adam writes in his follow-up article to Zeba’s piece that this culture stunts the social development of young Muslims and does not allow models of good relationships to emerge and guide them. The Dating Dialogues project will provide the opportunity for us to be resources for one another and generate models that illustrate balanced ways of approaching difficult, deeply personal issues.
The Dialogues will occur across many different formats, each with an important place in the larger conversation:
- Forum: Altmuslimah will establish an open forum where readers can begin discussion threads and individually post their stories, questions, and advice for others. Sharing stories is a powerful way for readers to connect with one another, and these connections will form a strong foundation for the Dialogues overall. The forum is a place where members can feel safe opening up in an anonymous setting, and where we can begin replacing a culture of judgment with one of compassion.
- Features: Select stories about people’s successes and struggles with dating, engagement, marriage, and divorce will be posted more formally as Altmuslimah features. In response, readers can share related personal stories, and facilitators will guide the conversation to focus on teasing out the stories’ underlying themes and how we can deal with them constructively.
- Panel: We have gathered a large and diverse panel of commentators, among them Muslim chaplains, writers, activists, counselors, and thinkers who are passionate about nurturing the emotional development of our communities. Every two weeks, 3-4 of them will respond to a relevant question, each drawing from his or her unique experiences and perspectives. Questions will address issues in need of discussion such as generational conflicts surrounding marriage, communication issues, interracial marriage, ways to approach dating, and more.
- Expertise: In addition, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and trained counselors who understand the nuances of Western Muslim experiences will bring invaluable expertise to the conversation through columns, articles, and eventually live web events.
All these modes of discussion will weave together to “tell a larger narrative of Muslim-American cultural adaptation,” as Zeba describes. The cathartic experience of sharing personal stories in the forum and features will make room for embracing constructive problem-solving in the panel and expert formats.
Encouraging empathy between genders is particularly vital, and therefore the Dating Dialogues will balance men’s and women’s perspectives throughout. Unfortunately it has become commonplace to hear men and women make broad, negative assumptions about each other, which stunts meaningful dialogue. How can marriages of love and mercy emerge from such destructive prospects? In Surah at-Tawbah, Allah (swt) reminds us, “The believing men and women are protecting friends of one another.” (9:71) In the spirit of this friendship, men and women must engage in direct and honest dialogue, and work through differences and conflicts with the goal of reaching a greater appreciation and understanding of one another. Moreover, developing the capacity to listen and understand other points of view on such personal and emotional issues is an exercise in improving our own character and ability to handle the challenge of emotional intimacy in marriage.
There are no easy answers to the issues we will tackle, and none of them are black and white. Therefore, diversity in perspectives and backgrounds is indispensable and will deepen the discussion by reflecting and responding to the pluralism of the Muslim-American community. As readers you play an essential role in this conversation, along with the writers, editors, and commentators, in expressing that diversity. In many ways the Dating Dialogues will organically develop by responding to the insights you bring to it, and therefore our goal is for you to gain as much as you give to this project.
Sarah Rashid is an Associate Editor at Altmuslimah. She will be leading the Dating Dialogues project.