A recent article on altMuslimah.com entitled “Searching for Khadijah: A boy’s perspective” by Sajid Hassan garnered quite a bit of attention as evidenced by the long string of passionate comments it received, far more than most other articles on altMuslimah. The article described the pressure that professional Muslim American women face from their families and their social circles to get married in their early twenties, because it becomes much more difficult to find a partner once they hit their thirties.
The article suggested that Muslim men are more interested in marrying younger women than women in their thirties, and described the author’s own experience with his quest to defy these social norms in the American Muslim community by searching for a bride that was older than him.
It is difficult to obtain objective statistical data on the marriage pool of American Muslims, but based on my own anecdotal experiences, I can confirm that the American Muslim community indeed encourages men to marry younger women, leaving single Muslim women in their thirties who are interested in getting married to choose from a limited selection of potential candidates. Some friends of ours recently chaperoned a “match-making” evening for single Muslims in the Chicago suburbs, and it appeared that the female to male ratio was 3:1 for single Muslims in their thirties seeking a spouse. While these are subjective impressions, it may still be a useful exercise to try to analyze this skewed distribution. A so called “ticking reproductive clock” is one of the conventional arguments most often cited to explain why Muslim American men prefer to settle down with women who are in their early twenties. The term refers to the fact that women experience a gradual drop in their fertility as they age, while the incidence of birth defects increases with the age of the child-bearing mother. However, in modern day society couples have a substantially smaller number of children than they did 50 or 100 years ago. Therefore, women who marry in their thirties are often able to have the desired number of children during their child-bearing years without having to feel the pressure of the “reproductive clock”.
I would like to propose a different reason for why Muslim men may be more interested in marrying younger women. While women used to get married at a much younger age in prior centuries, women today often delay their nuptials for the purpose of obtaining graduate education and embarking on a professional career. In the United States, many of the single, professional Muslim women in their thirties have graduate degrees under their belts and are earning an above-average income. The majority of Muslim American men are either immigrants or children of immigrants from the Arab World or South Asia. Often, such immigrant culture is characterized by a strong patriarchal structure. Even second-generation Muslim Americans, who are born and raised in this country, may retain key elements of patriarchal behavior—one being the need to control the finances in the marriage, and thereby sit in the driver’s seat of the relationship. However, if the wives earn as much as or even more than their spouses, it is quite natural for them to also want to have an equal role in making financial decisions. This in turn, makes it very difficult for the men to justify their dominant role in the relationship.
In addition to economic empowerment, graduate education can also transform the mind-set of students. Most good graduate programs in the sciences or humanities require their students to analyze texts, challenge existing theories, and argue their hypotheses and findings in front of an audience, all the while honing their critical thinking skills. It is only natural for graduate students to carry this training into their personal lives, applying it to their faith, friendships and relationships. To take it one step further, higher education furnishes a person with the intellectual confidence and critical thinking skills to clearly distinguish between cultural norms and Islamic philosophy. In his book “Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women,” Khaled Abou El-Fadl posited that some Muslim scholars may selectively read religious texts in a manner that justifies the imposition of patriarchal thought. Unlike a young woman in her early twenties, a Muslim American female in her thirties, armed with a graduate degree/s, possesses the ability to question this conflation of culture and religion, and threaten her husband’s patriarchal authority in the marriage.
While there may be many reasons behind Muslim men’s disinterest in considering Muslim women in their thirties as viable marriage candidates, the threat this particular segment of women poses to patriarchal structures remains a key reason. There is a need for introspection amongst Muslim communities which encourage women to marry at a younger age while dissuading men from settling down with older women. Such reflection will likely allow the members of Muslim communities to recognize that these traditional age norms regarding marriage are not really grounded in religious prescriptions or biological reasons, but, instead, are remnants of patriarchal cultures that have limited application today. American Muslim men may have to come to terms with the fact that male-dominated relationships are steadily becoming obsolete, and that they may have to adapt to marital relationships that are based on true partnerships.
Jalees Rehman, MD is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago, where he heads a research laboratory that investigates the growth of blood vessels and the biology of stem and progenitor cells. He is also a cardiologist at the University of Chicago Medical Center. In addition to his scientific work, Jalees is a German Muslim with an interest in the philosophy of science and religion. Furthermore, he is studying the role of postmodern and existentialist thought in interfaith dialogue. Some of his articles on science, culture and religion can be found on his Huffington Post blog or his public Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/jaleespage). He can be followed on Twitter at @jalees_rehman. Photo via Asim Bharwani via Flickr/Creative Commons.