I shouldn’t take this any further. Apart from not being true, it’s a diatribe that obfuscates something deeper (just as the parallel, but unnervingly more standard retreat, “Where are all the good Muslim men?” does). The degree of intelligent, sincere, socially conscious, and admirable Muslim women I meet is staggering, many of whom in a previous life I wouldn’t have hesitated asking out to dinner to get to know better. Yet, I find myself simply put off by Muslim women.
I need to be honest; it isn’t just Muslim women, but the whole relationship process in Muslim communities that utterly perplexes me. I can’t help but feel as though I am wandering aimlessly confused through two concurrent tempestuous storms – that of the normal bafflement that marks emotional relationships between people, and that of the Muslim relationship paradigm, the absurdities of both obscuring my ability to progress to something meaningful.
This is exacerbated by the context from which I come. As someone who converted to Islam, the difference in male-female dynamics can be astounding. More than the physical barriers that I learned to adopt, it is the emotional ones that have proven the most difficult. Charles Blow wrote an article for the New York Times last year on the demise of dating in American relationships, where he described the dissolution of traditional dating and the shift to ‘hooking up,’ where you “just hang out with friends and hope something happens.” Approaching relationships from this background, and then inverting it to fit the Muslim experience that, even when it involves dating seems to be primarily focused on practical matchmaking, is difficult. It takes what was a personal, intimate, organic process and changes it into something that feels hollow and decidedly detached. I miss how things used to be.
I miss being able to meet someone interesting and show that I am interested. It could simply be that I have a tendency to utterly strike out, but more often than not I get the sense from many Muslim women that it is an insult to be attracted to them, that it is some way an assault on their purity of character. I miss the openness to romance and acknowledgment of one’s own sensuality. Façade, reality, or a false impression on my part, it didn’t use to be like this.
I miss finding out what I want from companionship. Nearly 60% of women say they have been attracted to someone, only to lose interest after a first kiss. While that indicator is generally beyond the pale of discussion in a Muslim context, it calls into question what other non-physical, yet intimate moments (like traveling together) can immediately tell us if we are with the wrong person, but are inaccessible to Muslims until after marriage. I balk at initiating anything because of this anxiety I didn’t use to have that I won’t be able to tell if I am making a huge mistake.
I miss “emotions getting involved” being the whole point. The knowledge that defines a well-established relationship can’t be conjured out of thin air; it requires experience. And sometimes the pain that “emotions being involved” causes is a necessary part of that. Moreover, a lifelong partnership is based on an impervious emotional connection—yet, even ‘halal dating’ scenarios seem to grapple incessantly with the frightening prospect of getting emotionally attached to someone you may not end up marrying.
What I miss most is public relationships. In an article earlier this year, Zeba Iqbal fronted the proposal that we need a “dating dialogues” among Muslim youth. This couldn’t be closer to the truth. That some reformed notions of the pre-marriage process among American Muslims is needed is accepted vernacular and heavily discussed. Moreover, that many Muslims engage in some form of dating is a reality. Yet, especially for someone like myself who came in as an outsider, these relationships are all but invisible. And this is a problem.
In a community where reputation is paramount, the pre-engagement phase of Muslim relationships is completely concealed from the public eye. Because they are kept on such careful public lockdown, romantic relationships in Islam appear either to be ruinous, messy disasters that split communities in two, or these magical fairy tale courtships. There are few tangible examples of constructive, realistic relationships from which one’s peers can learn. Is it possible to create an improved, more normalized standard if we refuse to display what is already going on?
I recognize that there are a number of both petty and serious considerations that have constructed this reality, one of the most prevalent being the danger of premarital sex and pregnancy. From my point of view, it is a rather silly logical leap to say emotional proximity will lead us from no physical relations to sexual relations. If we are going to commit ourselves to principles, we need to demand, expect, and have faith in a higher tenacity of consciousness from all of us. Why is it we have confidence that we can fight temptation in our abstinence from food and drink when we fast, or alcohol when we attend college or have dinner with coworkers, yet dwell on this slippery slope that any greater degree of emotional proximity will overthrow the entire community’s commitment to physical boundaries? We need to believe that we can step up to the plate and build constructive models while maintaining core principles of our faith.
In many ways, I feel as though Muslim communities, and my experiences with Muslim women in particular, have stunted an emotional maturation the friends I grew up with were privileged to experience. I am back to a high school, or even middle school understanding of how to navigate this process. Apart from the dearth of good German bratwurst, adopting the American Muslim dating paradigm has been the most convoluted, confusing, and challenging part of converting to Islam. Most poignantly, I don’t think it has made me a better person.
In the end, my assumption is I will become better at the game, grudgingly play it, and end up all right. Some of what I miss is exclusive to an archetype I am just never getting back. Still, I feel as though my confusion with this excessively essential element of the young adult Muslim’s life is reflective of our community’s evolving sentiments and common frustrations. Can we have a public conversation about dating without it being a bad word we must tiptoe precariously around? Do we expect to construct healthy relationship models from the secret, under-the-covers norms we have set? And in so doing, are we damaging the sensual and emotional maturation of our young adults to the point that all we can do is throw our hands in the air and say, ‘there’s just no good Muslim women (or men) out there?’
Adam Sitte is a writer based in Washington, D.C. working on civilian empowerment in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
(Photo Credit: Sean Molin)