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Teen dating: What demented dunce invented it? Aunty Mohja wants to know. What possesses U.S. consumerist culture to promote it as the norm? Let’s send a boy and a girl, their horniness joyfully newfound but woefully untamed, into the dark of a theater or the back of a car, unsupervised. Let’s urge them to contort their emerging personalities around what makes them pleasing to the other they wish to attract.
Let’s expect them to go through relationship after relationship in their teens, getting jaded before they’re out of high school. What species of parent permits such perversion? A dayyuth, in Arabic, is a person who gives someone sexual access to a member of the family: a variety of pimp. Aunty Mohja is just innocently pointing out this word.
Teen dating supplanted family-based courtship in the U.S. fifties. Sure there was dating before, but only for adults. Whole industries spawned to support teen dating, and now the entire culture seems to assume it is a universal human right.
Cotillion pressure begins early in Aunty Mohja’s Southern hometown. Mothers gussy up eleven-year-old daughters in strapless gowns to be pawed awkwardly by boys at a school dance where lights are low and paper decorations evoke adult notions of “romance.” Fathers grin and push seventeen-year-old sons out the door with car keys and hotel reservations for this bizarre ritual called “prom.” Oho, Aunty Mohja went to American high school and knows all about prom night.
This, but delicate sensibilities are shocked, shocked, at traditions of teen marriage among some sectors of Muslims. Aunty Mohja is not saying early marriage is best. But compare the two customs, both acknowledging teen sexuality. For Muslim parents to provide a nubile woman with a reliable life partner, with whom she can build a home as well as satisfy her sexual desires—someone who bears witnessed responsibility if she conceives a child, in a union nurtured by surrounding family—this is oppressive, while parents providing ill-prepared teens with the means for furtive groping amid all sorts of conflicting messages about what they are to do in this badly set-up ritual, that’s benign?
Some folks uphold the implications of teen dating brazenly, like Aunty Mohja’s neighbor: “Sure, we knew exactly when our son lost his virginity. On our sofa. At sixteen. We didn’t mind.” At this cavalier depravity, Aunty Mohja shudders.
Yet there is an undercurrent of discontent even among reg’lar Americans, not just nutjob inassimilables like Aunty Mohja. Aunty Mohja detects it when her co-worker sighs, “It’s hard on a mom to watch her fifteen-year-old boy behave like a cad when girls fawn over him.” She hears it when a friend notes that his fourteen-year-old doesn’t pursue extracurricular activities because most of her after-school time revolves around her boyfriend. Many Americans documented in books by Wendy Shalit and others, do not agree with the mainstream culture’s celebration of casual teen sex. Some Americans whisper to Aunty Mohja that they were traumatized by teen dating, and don’t even like the practice but acquiesce because it is the dominant mode. Muslims can liberate Americans from this entrapment by modeling healthy lives free of teen dating.
“How will boys and girls ever find life partners?” Bogus! A) Life partnering is not what teen dating is about. B) Teens don’t need to be put in contrived romantic rendezvous to develop relationship competence. C) The teen dating scene cultivates the shallow opposite of life-partnering skills, privileging pretty girls (fat girls, back of the bus) and swaggering boys (shy boys need not apply).
Family-based or community-based courtship, on the other hand, excludes no one automatically because of looks, valuing character instead, and screening candidates not for kissing talent but for shared values. Graduates of the Western teen scene, having failed to find lasting relationships despite diligent dating, pay impersonal internet match services to do the kind of screening Muslim families and communities lovingly provide to their youth for free.
“Arranged marriage!” someone will scream. Everything that isn’t untrammeled teen dating is not therefore arranged marriage. Also: What’s wrong with arranged marriage?
“No individual choice! Arranged marriage is basically arranged rape! Another part of Muslim women’s oppression!” Please. Every social practice has its fraction of cases that abuse its intent and need reform. Masses of marriages are arranged every day having nothing to do with this caricature. Does it occur to fanatic foes of arranged marriage that most arranging parents actually care about their children’s happiness and therefore strive for matches that suit them, seeking their daughter’s and son’s input and choice?
“It’s only natural for adolescents to be interested in sex.” Some teens may be naturally curious about death, but that doesn’t mean they should be given the key to the gun cabinet and a fresh box of shells each weekend and sent out to practice.
Don’t go thinking Aunty Mohja is a Puritan or a Victorian, those bogeys dogging U.S. sex culture. Aunty Mohja is a product of Islamic tradition, in which sex is a must for everyone, to be had early and often, but with proper care. Aunty Mohja says sex education should give boys and girls, at appropriate ages, full disclosure: facts and science at school and, at home, knowledge of the morals and emotions that go with sex. Give them diagrams, books, handheld mirrors for private bodily self-exams, says your Auny Mohja.
She ventures that wisdom traditions the world ‘round do not advise treating the body and its orifices casually. Orifices, which the Quran calls furuj, naming even male organs after the form of the vagina, are worth tender respect. The beginning of their sexual use requires gatekeeping and ceremony in nearly every wisdom tradition. Aunty Mohja urges that youngsters postpone partaking in the feast of the body with another person until such sharing can be entered in good faith. Those who cannot contain themselves have recourse to masturbation, a choice totally within fiqhi approaches to horniness, although the favored Muslim prescription for aiding abstainers is frequent fasting.
Aunty Mohja hears her liberal friends guffaw. Absolutely, abstinence. Youth who fail the challenge of chastity must be offered not punishment but compassion, complete restraint from gossip, and bracing encouragement to get back on the wagon—and their respect for limits must be restored. Fear of early fatherhood and motherhood, STDs, and infection by HIV/AIDS are great—and realistic—tools for encouraging abstinence. Until the foolish become wise, and gain developmental maturity, or at least an honorable sexual outlet, they should be urged to abstain. Urged by every ethically sound ounce of parental authority and community pressure available. “Ethically sound” does not include honor killing! which is not shariah-based, nor is it exclusive to Muslims. Honor killing violates Islamic values of individual responsibility to God, not tribe, and must be uprooted.
Sharing your orifices is an act worthy of awe and glory, not like swiveling a cotton swab in your ear. Aunty Mohja wants everyone to have good sex. And she refuses to recognize as good sex the cotton-swab casual kind that is only good physically, scratching an itch. Good means good, on every level, orgasmic to cosmic, flesh coming together with spirit, all are one one one, and there’s a reason why you’re screaming “Oh God oh God.” Good sex, God blesses. Good sex partakes in all that is La ilaha illa allah. It arrives at the climax of the Oneness of What Is Real.
That is what is worth striving for, not contemporary Western casualness about sex. Not this gullible groping, snotty one-upping business of teen dating. Maybe Muslim traditions and cultures don’t have all the answers in our changing world—that doesn’t make teen dating the answer. Aunty Mohja hopes her tetchy tirade will fortify spineless Muslims who think they have to high-five teen dating to be the nice liberal sort of Muslim.
Aunty Mohja is an oddball relative who visits Professor Mohja Kahf from time to time, and gives her stuff to publish. Aunty Mohja is preachy, bossy, snotty, catty, and uppity, and already knows it. And she generalizes freely about Americans. And Muslims. Aunty Mohja tries to work in some hot fudge generalizing every morning with coffee. Do not ask her boring academic relative, the professor with the same first name, to account for her.
(Graphic credit: Ninjabi Sue)
Mohja Kahf is a celebrated poet, novelist and a faculty member in the University of Arkansas’s King Fahd Center for Middle East & Islamic Studies. This article was previously published at Wajahat Ali’s blog Goatmilk. It was published on AltMuslimah on October 2, 2009.