I am thirty-seven, single and childless. The latter two of these three descriptives are taboo within the Muslim community. Whether you live in America, Pakistan or Egypt, if you are not attached to a husband and with a brood of children in tow, you are an outsider. Extended family and friends assume you are too picky, too career-oriented, too liberal or too plain. Simply put, you are at fault. I belong to this hidden category, the one we do not mention.
In my experience, neither “difficult” Muslim women nor a shortage of available Muslim men are to blame. A variety of circumstances, many unexpected and beyond one’s control, are the reason why we—single, childless women–exist. Some of us are widows or divorcees, while others are converts not yet part of a Muslim community where they can meet a potential husband. Others still are the only breadwinners in their family and feel they cannot ride off into the sunset leaving behind those who depend on them.
And then there are those of us waiting for a match that both appeals to us and meets our family’s requirements, and often our elders bring a long list of demands to the table—some rational and others not so much. A light complexion, a medical degree and a certain ethnicity or cultural background are just some of the typical requirements.
Whatever the reason for a woman remaining unmarried and childless, here we are.
We exist, but only on the periphery because both religious leaders and the larger community do not know how to deal with us. When our needs and our roles go unrecognized, it is only natural for depression to follow. We have been led to believe that the ultimate purpose of a woman is to build a home and family. Many of us, for a host of reasons, are unable to fulfil this role and while we hold out hope that we will one day experience married life and motherhood, we also acknowledge that the older we grow, the greater the chance that we will remain single. We have grieved the loss of an identity tethered to becoming a wife and mother, rebuilt our sense of self-worth anew and moved forward. Many of us have undergone this painful metamorphosis alone, without the support ones.
It seems that although I have embraced the possibility that a marriage and children may not be in the cards for me, my family and friends remain convinced that either I should be married or desperately trying to get married. They delight in citing the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) words that “marriage is half the religion.” So how, they ask, can I be content with an incomplete life?
But I do not see my life as a fraction of that of a married mother. My fate is not some sort of divine punishment. After years of anxiety and confusion, I have embraced that this is the path that God, in His wisdom, has chosen for me. By refusing to acknowledge and accept single women in our community, Muslims are not only dismissing this demographic’ s lives and experiences as valid, but are also squashing important discussions about this group. For example, is it reasonable to expect single Muslim women to spend their adult lives in their parents’ house? And how can the community support elderly single Muslim women who do not have family to watch out for them?
I believe the first step to bringing single childless Muslim women from the margins of community into its centre is to share stories of great early and contemporary Muslim women who lived full and beautiful lives. We need to tell our daughters that Aisha, the Prophet’s wife who led an army into battle, taught students who would go on to become among the most formidable Muslim scholars of their time and contributed more hadith than any other female, also happened to be childless. We need to celebrate Farah Pandith, a single Muslim woman who President Obama selected as the first Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the U.S. State Department. Highlighting these example is the start we need to change the Muslim community’s dismissive and pitying attitudes towards single and unmarried women into welcoming and accepting attitudes.
Fatima Adamou, is a French Muslim living in London . She is currently a student at the Muslim College London and a contributing writer for a French Muslim News website, “Saphirnews.”
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Photo Credit: giuseppemilo