The battle of the sexes – love gained and lost, marriages failed and personalities mistaken – was raging long before the demonization of Muslim men became fashionable. Choosing a spouse with religion in mind is not always a mistake, especially if your heritage and your faith are important parts of who you are. The trick is recognizing a good thing when you see it and never mistake the bad for something more.
Asra Nomani’s recent essay in Marie Claire, My Big Fat Muslim Wedding, lays out a scenario that has become familiar to everyone in the post-9/11 world: despairing Muslim woman is forced to choose between her (literally) white knight and a traditional marriage to a boorish, vaguely ominous Muslim man. Losing love to Islam has become as universal a theme as finding love in Paris. It’s the subject of high art, low art and everything in between: Samina Ali’s Madras on Rainy Days springs to mind, as does the much-hyped failed marriage of Princess Meriam Al-Khalifa and Lance Corporal Jason Johnson.
The implication of Nomani’s story, like those I’ve just listed, is that there are no decent Muslim men on planet Earth – or, if by some miracle they do exist, they are so difficult to find that it’s not worth the bother. This is the crux of the argument that Shari’a law should be changed to allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, and perhaps the reason even liberal Muslim groups can be defensive and traditionalist when it comes to this point. It is an implicit condemnation of Muslim men everywhere: in the eyes of women, they do not measure up in any way that counts.
Nomani’s complaints about her Muslim ex-husband are indeed cringeworthy: he is cold, withdrawn, childish, and sexually worse than useless. But this litany of failings is not limited to Muslim men – not by a long shot. The story of a passionate woman in a stale marriage is as old as Helen of Troy. The theme is so perennial that without the specter of Islam to dress it up, it’s almost boring. This is a case of cultural amnesia: as soon as a Muslim man enters the picture, women everywhere forget about Thelma and Louise, The Good Girl and The Divorcee, and pretend that sullen oafish husbands are an Islamic phenomenon. If this was really true, poor Shakespeare – along with hundreds of thousands of modern divorce lawyers – would have been out of a career.
Out-marriage is an issue religious groups have been wrestling with for some time. Of course men and women fall in love. Of course it’s not always convenient to their respective cultural and spiritual norms. Out-marriage is of such concern in the Jewish community that its leaders have gone to extraordinary lengths to encourage romantic relationships between young Jews. If they are successful, it is because they are not up against the same barrier: Jewish men are not perceived (by Jewish women or anyone else) as inherently threatening and perverse. In western culture, Muslim men start the marriage process with a handicap – because of the way they are portrayed and the example that is made of them, even Muslim women have begun, consciously or unconsciously, to view them with suspicion.
This puts those of us in healthy Muslim marriages to good Muslim men in a difficult position. On one hand, there is an onus on us to provide a counterexample, and inject a little hope into the grim picture of Islamic marriage. On the other hand, people in happy marriages are usually (and for good reason) unwilling to write about the intimate details of their sexual and domestic lives in magazines. So I will close with the conclusion I’ve come to after years of listening to girlfriends Muslim and non complain about men: the reason Asra Nomani discovered a dirth of eligible Muslim men is the same reason Carrie Bradshaw discovered a dirth of eligible Manhattanite men. The good ones go first, and they go fast.
The battle of the sexes – love gained and lost, marriages failed and personalities mistaken – was raging long before the demonization of Muslim men became fashionable. Choosing a spouse with religion in mind is not always a mistake, especially if your heritage and your faith are important parts of who you are. The trick is, as always, to recognize a good thing when you see it – and never mistake the bad for something more.
(Photo: D’Arcy Vallance)
G. Willow Wilson is author of the Eisner Award-nominated comic book series AIR. Her memoir The Butterfly Mosque is forthcoming from Grove Press. This article was previously published at City of Brass.