The other day, I was interviewed by a journalist about the topic of Muslim ‘dating’. At one point in the interview, she asked me if there is a ‘marriage crisis’ amongst Muslims. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. In previous posts, I’ve discussed reasons why it may be that people are finding it difficult to meet a partner (see the ‘Why Can’t I Get Married’ post, for example). But this discussion always assumes that people actually do want to get married, an assumption I’m coming to question the more people I see and talk to about this topic.
It’s easy to see why this assumption exists. Being in a relationship is seen as a default state for many, whether due to social conditioning or some innate primal instinct for companionship. For Muslims in particular, there seems to be a whole host of reasons why people would be keen to get married: religious dictates, prohibition of physical intimacy before marriage, familial pressures. But is it safe to assume that every unmarried Muslim is actually looking to get married?
The short answer is no. The long answer is, well, let’s-take-a closer-look-because-things-aren’t-exactly-what-they-seem. One thing to note in this discussion is that there often seems to be a discrepancy between the genders when it comes to this issue. The perception exists, whether true or not, that Muslim women are keener to get hitched than Muslim men. If this is true, there are some fairly obvious explanations as to why this may be the case.
Firstly, when we speak of people not wanting to get married, this is often a case of not wanting to get married right now, and there are many more reasons for Muslim women to be aware of the right now factor than Muslim men. For one thing, there’s the ever-present, oft-reminded ticking of biological clocks. A 35 year old single woman may be staring down the barrel of never having children, while a single 35 year old male is still looking forward to this possibility.
Another reason why it may appear that Muslim men are less keen to get hitched right here, right now is that they associate marriage with a high degree of responsibility. This may be both an expectation they impose on themselves or one imposed by women and their families. This being the case, it’s easy to see why some Muslim men may feel that they just don’t have it together. They’re not working full-time. They may still be studying. These aren’t prohibitive factors to getting married in a practical sense, but for some they form an insurmountable mental obstacle.
But wait, there’s more! There also happens to be the perception that women may attain more autonomy in marriage than they currently have as singles in their parents’ home, while men may associate marriage with a loss of autonomy. These men may be working full-time and have their finances sorted, but they’re keener to spend their dough on trips with friends and just ‘enjoying life’ than mundane, married people things like paying rent. In contrast, some Muslim women, even when working full-time, are simply not able to do the things their brothers can. They may not be allowed to travel on their own. They may have parents imposing curfew on them. For them, getting married may seem like an automatic ticket to adulthood and independence.
Of course, there are many reasons why people might not want to get married, male or female. Sometimes the thought of a lifelong commitment is just plain scary. As Muslims, it’s not like we can live with the person before getting married to them, so there are always going to be certain blind spots. Sometimes a history of heartbreak and failed relationships can render people unwilling to try again. Sometimes, people are just content with the lives that they have and feel no compulsion to complicate it with the introduction of another person.
Something I often think about is whether there will be a whole bunch of people who will just never get married, and not necessarily out of choice. Again, this seems to be more heavily skewed to the female side. This is perhaps part of the ‘marriage crisis’: people who want to get married, but simply can’t. Often, this seems to be a question of timing. At different parts of our lives, our desire to get married may be greater than others, and if we meet someone when we’re just not that keen, we won’t give it our best shot. But then we may find that in a year or two, when we’re actually seeking a partner, none seem to present themselves. This is why the funny little phenomenon of marrying someone almost as insurance for later comes into play i.e. people getting married partly out of fear that they won’t be able to find someone later.
Despite this rather grim little discussion, I still conclude that most people are at least open to the possibility of meeting someone, and if they like that someone enough, will do their best to commit to marriage. Everyone, from the broken-hearted to the happiest of singles can be coaxed gently into love and marriage. Our capacity to love and be loved is surprisingly strong, even against the odds, and there are many, many, many odds, so many that it seems wondrous that anyone even makes it to the altar. (Or masjid, to be more accurate.) But therein lies the very reason why we keep trying: the wondrous, frustrating, dynamic, amazing institution that is marriage.