Category Archives: Getting to know each other

The 10 Rules of Muslim Love: Part 1

I’ve been writing about Muslim relationships for sometime now. In doing so, I’ve never claimed any kind of special expertise. I’m not a ‘relationships guru’, nor am I at all detached from any of the issues I write about. I talk to a lot of people, and I listen to a lot of people. I’m constantly re-evaluating what I hold to be established truths and am constantly surprised by the outliers of the general human experience. But undoubtedly, over the course of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of conversations I’ve had with people about these issues, several themes do emerge and I don’t feel that I’m being all that presumptuous in sharing them. As always, I stress the diversity and complexity of individual experience, but now that I’ve added that disclaimer, here goes my first five rules for securing love in this lonely, hash-tagging, notification-buzzing world of ours:

1.) Strike early

This is something I’ve observed again and again: people getting trapped in endless rounds of flirtatious banter and sharing of YouTube clips, without ever defining what the deal is. These very frequently fizzle out and go nowhere. Therefore, your best chance for something to actually happen is early on, before anyone gets too comfortable/bored/sick of trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

2.) Keep your distance

This sounds somewhat counter-intuitive, but here’s another observation I’ve made time and time again: friends of the opposite sex very rarely get together. This is why you see circles of guys and girls, all eligible and of a similar mindset, but all scratching their heads as to where they are going to meet someone. Again, if it happens it’ll usually happen early on, but if you stay slightly outside of the circle you won’t run the risk of people you may be interested in getting just a bit too comfortable and overlooking you in the marriage stakes.

3.) Don’t push your luck (but do try to encourage!)

Most of us have been guilty of this at some point or other: trying to ‘convince’ someone to be interested in us by pushing, whether by continually trying to get their attention or extending conversations way past their expiry dates. Don’t do it. The best thing to do is to respond in a reciprocal and receptive manner. If they ask questions, ask one too. If they write a three word response, resist the urge to respond with an essay, but don’t necessarily jump to the conclusion that they hate you and never want to talk to you again.

4.) Don’t project!

Another thing many of us are guilty of is projecting our perception of events onto the other person. Consequently, if we like someone, a polite greeting from them becomes laden with hidden meaning. If they don’t reply right away, they’ve ‘lost interest’. An offhand comment will be dissected within an inch of its life, a stray glance given far more significance than it warrants. It’s so easy to fall into this, but at least attempt to stop reading your own script constantly and give theirs a go.

5.) Get used to a little romantic overlap

Let’s face it: we, the Western Muslim diaspora, form a great big spider web. There are all kinds of connections between people who’ve never met and a lot of the same names get bandied about in particular circles. If you want to meet someone, you have to be prepared to get your hands slightly dirty. The person you like may have been seeing someone you know. You may have been seeing someone they know. It’s just one of those icky things you have to get used to.

Do you have any rules you devise for yourself in the pursuit of love?

 

Is desegregation the answer to Muslim marriage woes?

Segregation is one of those topics people tend to get up in arms about, whether for or against. Some people prefer partitions. Some people won’t attend events with partitions. Those who oppose segregation tend to be either married couples who want to go to events together, or singles who lament their missed opportunity to mingle with the opposite sex. (Of course, there are conscientious objectors too, but let’s just leave them out of the discussion for now.) This begs the question: is segregation killing your chances of getting married?

At first glance, the answer could be yes. If there are no opportunities for people to see each other, let alone talk, it’s virtually impossible to meet anyone at Muslim events. Even when there’s no partition, social conventions often dictate minimal contact between the sexes. No one is going to escort you out of the building if you do talk to someone of the opposite sex, but it’s not easy. If you don’t know the person, it’s not the done thing to approach them and just say ‘so, isn’t this panel discussion on gender rights in Islam fascinating?’ Even if you have a slight acquaintance with the person, you usually need some pretext to strike up a conversation. This is particularly the case for females, who are often discouraged from initiating any form of expressing interest out of fear of appearing ‘desperate’.

Consequently, many people get into what I like to call a ‘locked eye romance’: exchanging glances and smiles over the refreshments table (everyone suddenly becomes a tea drinker at these things), maybe even a friend request, but not having the space or confidence to do anything further. This is typically the case in MSAs, where people may see each other every other week at BBQs or lectures but have little opportunity to engage in conversation. But this scenario plays out even after people have left university, leaving 20somethings to play the let’s-look-at-each-other-across-the-room game long after it was a fun teenage distraction. This can leave people dispirited and frustrated, and unless there’s a mutual friend who can help out, it frequently fizzles out and goes nowhere.

IMG_20150528_082034

The lack of opportunity to talk to people of the opposite sex has one rather hilarious side effect: incentivising volunteering. Muslims love a good volunteer session, because not only do they get to feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but they also get an added bonus: a legitimate excuse to mix with people of the opposite sex. Whether it’s helping out on a uni Shura, feeding the homeless or planting some cute little seedlings, activities will necessitate some level of interaction, and from there, it’s much easier to strike up a conversation organically. Volunteering is seen as a less confronting way of meeting people than an explicitly matrimonial event, since everything happens ‘incidentally’. Of course, it could be seen as slightly problematic that people are volunteering partly to meet a cutie with a social conscience, but others see it as the only real ‘in’ when everything else is segregated.

But is desegregation the saviour of the shoddy Muslim matrimonial scene? Well, not really. It may eliminate some problems, such as a lack of opportunity, but it can introduce all kinds of other pesky dilemmas. If people are very casual about gender interaction, it could very likely result in a very relaxed, let’s-talk-for-years-before-we-decide attitude to marriage. This could work for some people, but for others, it’s just plain annoying and not at all conducive to finding a spouse. It’s all too common for people to get stuck in the Muslim friendzone, a place where hangouts and flirtations abound but from which marriages very rarely eventuate.

The Muslim friendzone is not an entirely comfortable place to be, even for people who aren’t particular fussed about gender mixing. It’s difficult for Muslim men and women to become BFFs in the first place because so many topics are just entirely off-limits. If they do become close, one person will often decide that they want more and end up either getting rejected in spectacular fashion or pining away in secret, reading text messages dozens of times to extract hidden meanings.  Inevitably, people tend to distance themselves from their friends of the opposite sex once they get married, so some might argue that there’s not much point in investing in a relationship which is bound to die off.

I don’t have any solutions as to how to crack the code of meeting someone. Clearly, it’s not as simple as having a big fat freemixing fest. Some people may argue that it’s not the Muslim community’s responsibility to find you a husband/wife, that if you come to Islamic classes or events your intention shouldn’t be to meet people. However, some may argue that marriage is a communal responsibility and that if we as a community don’t do more to facilitate marriages, people will resort to less reputable, riskier methods. I definitely see the issue of marriage as something we all should invest in and share as a communal responsibility, but I’m just not sure how this should be addressed. The more I see, the more I think it’s simply a matter of luck/naseeb/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, of being in the right place and the right mentality at the right time. Whether you want to wait for that to happen or try to cook up a bit of your own naseeb over a bake sale is entirely your call.

How do you think Muslims could more easily meet and form connections? Does there need to be a more concerted event as a community to facilitate marriages?

Love before vs after marriage

Am I the only person who notices a recurring theme emerge in any number of people’s lives? This week’s one is definitely the place of love in the scheme of marriage: when it should be present, how much, what form it should take. I find it really interesting to observe how this debate is played out amongst young Muslims in the Western diaspora, many of whose parents may not necessarily have had ‘love marriages’. There is little precedent as to how to negotiate the complex mix of romantic sensibilities, obligation and religious propriety, the online banter, the text messages and Facebook comments. The gap between love and marriage is often the size of a chasm, and the paths to reconcile the two steep and difficult to manoeuvre.

But what precisely is a ‘love marriage’ in any case? It’s difficult to say. Often, love before marriage, if it’s ever acknowledged to exist in popular religious discourse, is characterised as frivolous, the unwelcome by-product of too many Hollywood rom coms. Very few people actually talk about the extent to which romantic love should guide our choice in partner. Very few people talk about what it means to be in love with someone before we’re actually married to them, perhaps because the simplest paradigm is that love just doesn’t exist outside of marriage, and if it does, it’s illicit or sinful. But there are so many shades of grey in this discussion. (Way more than 50, that’s for sure.) Sure, love is undeniably richer and deeper within the confines of a marriage, but how many people can claim that their decision to marry someone was entirely clinical and detached from any form of romantic feeling?

The extent to which love guides people’s decision to marry someone varies considerably amongst Muslims. There are extremes on either side of the spectrum, but a large portion of people are simply undecided and hover somewhere in the middle. For ease of reading, I’ll try to condense them into the following categories:

1.) Love comes after marriage

The people who espouse this mentality like to keep things simple. They aim to treat the search for a spouse as a ‘scientific’ process, one with set criteria and a concrete means by which to attain the person in possession of them. They try to only look when they feel they’re ready to get married, which saves them from cumbersome and distracting romantic entanglements. If they do fall in love with someone outside of marriage, in their mind it doesn’t necessarily follow that they should get married to that person, unless that person also happens to match their criteria.

When they do find someone who matches their criteria, they can often commit fairly quickly and easily. There is no giant chasm to cross, no real barriers except purely practical ones to sealing the deal: if they’re ready, they’ll just go for it. They are confident that where rationality and propriety leads, love will follow.

2.) There must be the potential for love, but not necessarily love itself

This is probably the most common mentality I’ve encountered. For many young Muslims, some sense of cultural or religious propriety prevents them from falling in love unreservedly with someone before they’re married to them. Perhaps they just don’t allow themselves to get close or intimate enough for that. But they must feel that behind the tentative explorations lies at least the potential for deep and satisfying romantic love, the kind they’re certain exists even if they haven’t personally experienced it.

If they don’t have at least some sort of romantic inclination towards the person, it will often be difficult to go plunging ahead into marriage. Whether they do or don’t make it to the Shaykh will often depend on how much they want to get married. If someone really wants to get married, they can often proceed on the smallest of inclinations, but if they’re not in a rush, it’ll often take much more to get them across the line.

3.) Love is a must or it’s a no-go

For some, love is a prerequisite. They simply wouldn’t be able to make such a huge step as marriage without it. Their love may have begun in an entirely ‘rational’ place, such as shared values and interests, but it will quickly spiral into a huge, beautiful, complex, metastasising web of feelings. Of course, loving someone is no guarantee that it will eventuate in marriage. Love doesn’t conquer all, it conquers some. We’ve all seen those couples who were deeply in love and thus triumphed over all the odds, but just as many crumble on the hard, jagged rocks of cultural/financial/timing/other obstacles.

Sometimes love aligns entirely with what’s easy, and these cases are most likely to eventuate in marriage. For example, if someone falls in love with a family friend of the same cultural background, similar levels of religious observance, similar education levels, financial goals etc., then they’re highly likely to just get married. But people often fall in love with less neat possibilities, and for these people the trek to the Shaykh can be long and arduous and filled with prickly thorns. This is why some feel love should be relegated to the back of the line of considerations: it can be a messy, messy means by which to choose a partner. To say ‘I want to marry you because I love you’ may be both the stupidest and bravest thing of all.

People may inhabit different categories at different points in life. Sometimes people try their hand at romantic love, get their heart broken and consequently migrate over to the ‘love comes after marriage’ camp. Sometimes people try to force themselves to get married to the ‘sensible’ choice and find that they just can’t do it. Sometimes people marry the sensible choice and find that they fall passionately in love with them, and sometimes they just never experience passionate love at all and are content with that. There are no rulebooks in this game, no manuals by which we can operate. Each of us makes, and re-makes, and re-makes, our own path, losing love and finding it again as we stumble our way towards a life of folding laundry and making the bed with that special someone.

Where do you fit into this equation? Do you allow yourself to be guided by love when it comes to choosing a spouse?

Respect yourself before you wreck yourself

There are several kinds of people you should just avoid. These include anyone who doesn’t enjoy eating avocados, people who talk really loudly during movies, and of course, people who don’t want to get married but just talk to people of the opposite sex for the heck of it. (Note: by ‘talk’, I don’t mean the dude who said salaams to you out as you passed him in the hallway. He was probably just being polite.)

But should everyone just get together and throw rotten avocados at these people? Not really, although it might be a hoot. In the majority of cases, the signs were there from the beginning, if only you weren’t so silly as to fixate on signs of your own creation. People send mixed signals, sure, but that in itself is indicative that something isn’t right. If you ignore these signs, you ignore them at your own peril.

Think of making a relationship ‘official’ as similar to paying taxes. No one really likes paying taxes, but you do it because you feel that ultimately, there’s some greater good to be served. The same goes for going to meet someone’s parents, making awkward chit-chat with their relatives and forking out time and money on functions that neither you nor your spouse-to-be will actually enjoy. It’s simply the price you have to pay to get to the greater good, which in this case is getting to be with a person you think is pretty cool.

If someone wants to talk to you for extended periods of time without stating any kind of formal intention/commitment, they’re in effect dodging their taxes. They get all the fun of having someone to talk to when they’re bored or in need of emotional support, but without any of the hassle or stress of dealing with its repercussions. They get the best of both worlds: all the companionship of being in a relationship, but all the space and independence of being single. This is fine if it’s what both people want, but in many cases, the arrangement suits only one person and the other person is simply left to hope that something serious will eventuate.

But who allows this skewed state of affairs to exist? You do, of course. By talking to someone who refuses to commit, you in effect become the eternal optimist. You hope that day by day, conversation by conversation, you’re coming closer to your end goal. You labour under the illusion that you need to keep talking to the person you’re interested in and things will just magically fall into place. All you need to do is make yourself available and the rest will take care of itself.

164173_10150100258284873_6599694_n

This line of thinking can be utterly destructive, because it neglects to take into account a simple fact: you can’t drag someone to the altar. If someone just doesn’t want to/can’t get married for reasons of their own, they’re not going to be swayed by the awesome conversations you might have with them, or the fact that you both really like talking about Russia’s geopolitical influence. You can have the most amazing ‘connection’ with someone, but if they won’t do anything about it, that very connection will bring you unimaginable heartbreak and grief.

This is why the smartest, scariest way to handle these things is the upfront approach. What this means is that a person asks pretty early on into a regular, continuous stream of conversation, something along the lines of ‘what’s going on here?’ It could be that nothing is going on. It could be that the person freaks out completely and runs in the other direction, even if they had subconsciously been harbouring the same idea. But if they do freak out, think about it this way: isn’t it better to know early on that this person just isn’t interested in or ready for marriage?

Any person who’s worth their mustard will at least respect you for not wanting to keep talking indefinitely without some kind of stated purpose. Besides, if they are genuinely, seriously interested, you bringing up their intentions only speeds up the process, and if they’re not interested enough to do anything about it, you know early on and can cut your losses fairly easily. You don’t have to do it in the first conversation, but if you’ve been talking for months on end and you haven’t even discussed marriage at all, then you have to face the fact that it’s probably never going to go anywhere.

It doesn’t matter what their reasons are for not wanting to/being able to get married, because it’s just not up to you to try to talk them into it. This is yet another argument in favour of making the move early, because if you let things drag out, you’ll start getting emotionally attached, and things will get real messy, real fast. You’ll try to hold on, they’ll try to let go, or at the very most, they’ll allow you to keep talking to them when they feel like it. All that will happen if this state of affairs continues is that you’ll fall down flat on your face, and they’ll have already run so far that they won’t be anywhere in the vicinity to help pick you up.

So respect yourself. Don’t let someone in when they’re keeping you outside the gates. If you want to get married, be open and honest about your intentions and you will attract openness and honesty in return. You’ll probably scare off a few jerks, but no one wants to marry a jerk anyway.

How do you know when someone is serious about getting married? Have you ever been in one of these pseudo-relationships?

Reference checks

Pardon me for the unromantic analogy, but in many ways the process of meeting a spouse is comparable to hiring a new employee. You put out feelers when you’re looking, whether through word of mouth or outright ‘advertisement’. You cull people along the way who just don’t match the selection criteria. When you have a candidate in mind, you may just do some reference-checking to ensure that they’re not wanted for suspect offshore holdings in the Cayman Islands.

Of course, if it’s done the ‘traditional’ way then the reference-checking part is easy. You meet their family from the get-go, a third party will give you the lowdown on the person in question and there’ll usually be some kind of tenuous link between your family and theirs, even if it’s just that your third cousin’s husband’s son knows their great-aunt’s nephew. (By ‘knows’, I mean were at the same wedding with 500 other people ten years ago.) But when you’ve met someone ‘organically’ or are trying to meet people, how do you go about making sure that they actually:

  1. Want to get married
  2. Are single
  3. Aren’t wanted for suspect offshore holdings in the Cayman Islands.

The ‘single’ part is usually the easiest one to find out. While people don’t tend to broadcast their relationships before they put a ring on it, it’s not that difficult to do a bit of digging to find that information. Someone usually knows something, even if it’s .0001% of the truth. At this stage, you can then bow out gracefully and turn your attention to the next candidate/cry into a pillow/wait around to see if they become single.

But suppose they are single. How then are you to determine whether they actually want to get married? It’s foolish to assume that merely being single equates to possessing an active desire to get married. This is the mistake many people make when they either consider X, or consider suggesting X to Y: all they know is that X is single, and they don’t bother to dig any deeper.

It sounds obvious, but I’ll say it again: just because someone isn’t in a relationship doesn’t mean they’re looking to be in one. They could just enjoy being single for the time being. They could be recovering from a broken heart. They could be trying to make a bit of money first…or shunt it all to the Cayman Islands. Or like many people, they could just be waiting to ‘feel it’. Therefore, before you go launching heart-first into something, it’s worth asking either the person in question or the person who has suggested them: does X solemnly, sincerely and truly have the means and desire to get married? (Apologies for the legal-speak, but you get the drift.)

If the answer is yes, then this is where the character checks can come in. Of course, it’s hard to know: how much weight do you give to people’s testimonials? If you like the person, chances are you’re not going to heed a ‘bad’ character check anyway. Besides, just because someone has a ‘past’ doesn’t mean they’re going to make a poor spouse. This is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, flaw in the character-checking process: having a few relationships can render you a ‘player’, a silly Facebook post becomes an indication of your intelligence or lack thereof. The court of public opinion is often unkind and unforgiving.

The other problem with asking around about someone is that it’s really hard to be discreet about it. If you’re getting to know someone or considering getting to know them, you probably don’t want people to know about it. But it may be that the information you want or need can only come from someone you don’t know very well, so you may then have to get your friend to ask their friend to ask their friend, and of course, the information will either not come back to you at all or come back to you in some garbled form. (Obviously this could all be avoided if people were more open and honest and if that openness wasn’t treated as ‘desperation’, but that’s a post for another day.)

Of course, many people will tell you to just ‘trust your gut’. But again, this comes with all sorts of complications. Feelings can blind you to the obvious. If you want to be with someone, you may ignore serious warning signs. Sometimes it just feels right, and it is right. But sometimes it feels right when it’s oh-so-wrong, and all the Istikhara in the world isn’t going to cut it if your mind is already so fixated on the one goal.

As always, there are no hard and fast rules with the process. Much of it is determined by context. If you have lots of mutual friends with the person, you probably don’t need to do any kind of background checks. If you meet them and get to know them in a non-romantic context first, you probably know enough about them to just go with your gut. If they’re some person you’ve never met who adds you on Facebook, you probably want to hire a private investigator before you go there.

Do you ask around about someone you’re interested in? Do you ‘trust your gut’ when it comes to a potential partner?

 

Why people ignore the obvious (but shouldn’t)

A while back, I wrote an article about the ‘new girl/guy effect’ i.e the phenomenon whereby a person who isn’t known to a certain circle of people enters it and suddenly becomes the talk of the town. In the few months since I wrote that post, I’ve been pondering on the opposite of that: to put it bluntly, ‘the old girl/guy effect’. In nicer, more nuanced terminology, this is the phenomenon whereby people feel that they’re a bit too well-acquainted to ever be anything more than just ‘friends’. Many people have a specific rule that they will not consider someone who’s somewhat part of their social circle, as if the pools of friends and potential partners simply cannot overlap. They might ‘use’ their friends of the opposite sex to get to their friends, but the friends themselves will never be potential spouse material.

If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written, you’d know that I usually try to keep my personal opinions out of the picture. But hey, it is my blog, so once every so often I think I’m entitled to leave them in, and in this case I’ll freely admit that I find the above mentality both puzzling and slightly distasteful. As a lawyer, I’m used to thinking in terms of arguments and counter-arguments, so let’s have a go at the common justifications for this mentality and why I disagree with them:

Argument 1: It’ll be too awkward if things don’t work out, so it’s easier just to not even go there.

Counter-argument: Things are always awkward when they don’t work out with anyone. Plus, there are many bonuses if it actually does work out.

Of all the arguments against considering friends, this one has the most logical validity. I get it; there’s a lot more at stake when we know someone well and interact with them socially than when we don’t know them from a bar of soap. We can’t just walk away if things don’t work out because it’s highly likely that we’ll have to see them again and again and again…and maybe even again.

But getting to know anyone at all requires at least some point of intersection. At least with friends we have an easy way ‘in’, if not an easy way out. We know a lot of basic facts about them and can vouch for the fact that they aren’t clinically insane. Plus, if things do work out, it’s all the more beautiful: there’s already a closely-knit group of people to provide support, advice and lots of duas for both parties. If it doesn’t work out, the pre-existing friendship may provide grounds for mutual respect long after the romantic ardour cools.

Argument 2: I already know them, so if there was relationship potential I’d have known it long ago.

Counter-argument: How well do you know your ‘friends’ of the opposite sex in any case? Not all that well, perhaps.

We all know that there’s a wide spectrum of practices in relation to male-female interactions amongst Muslims, ranging from people who only interact where necessary to people who are happy to hang out in group settings or even one-on-one for a coffee or an outing. But even amongst the friendliest of the friendlies, how friendly are we talking?

For many of us, there are deeply ingrained sensibilities regarding what we can and can’t talk about with people of the opposite sex. Even amongst people we are reasonably ‘friendly’ with, it’s not very likely that we’ll be touching on (lol) very personal topics such as our family dynamics, our struggles with our nafs and especially not our romantic successes and failures. In effect, this means that we don’t necessarily know our so-called ‘friends’ very well at all. Our interactions are probably in group situations for the most part and not one-on-one, which again limits how well we get to know them. We may know a lot about their hobbies and whether they approved or disapproved of the ‘Happy’ Muslims video, but this barely scratches the surface of who they are, or for that matter, who we are, because they will only know the same of us.

This being the case, it hardly makes sense to relegate someone to the friendzone simply because they’re, well, our ‘friends’. We don’t treat our workmates the same way we treat our siblings, so why do we assume that we know what someone will be like in a relationship just because we are superficially acquainted with them on a social level? I don’t assume I know someone well because I see them at events or have seen some of their posts on Facebook, and I certainly hope they don’t think they know me based on these things either.

Argument 3: There’s no chemistry/spark. That’s why we’re just friends.

Counter-argument: Have you ever even tried to see them in another light? Or are you only looking for ‘love at first sight’? (Rhyme not intended, but meh, it’s there, it can stay there.)

I see the same thing happen again and again: someone will have any number of people of the opposite sex that they interact with regularly and get along with really well, but they’re either too busy pining after someone they barely know or looking for some magical ‘click’ to even notice. They may even lament the lack of ‘available’ people, but they know any number of singles of the opposite sex that they just won’t consider.

The problem is that familiarity breeds contempt. In a romantic context, this means that it’s very difficult to maintain a sense of mystery, a thrill, if we’re interacting with someone on a regular basis. This sense of mystery, that slight distance, is an integral part of what many people deem to be attraction. But if, for example, X is working closely with Y on a project, or they’re part of the same wider social group, they’re likely to see each other first thing in the morning. They’ll see each other grumpy. They’ll see all those Whatsapp messages with the stupid memes and hear all the jokes that don’t quite hit the mark. They’ll see them chowing down their lunch, and we all know that nothing kills romance faster than seeing someone with their mouth full. We just don’t seem to want someone who’s seen us sans mystique, which makes no sense whatsoever; the proximity of married life will very quickly and brutally knock the mystique out of the coolest of customers.

The funny thing is that the very qualities we’re seeking in someone are often the same qualities the people in our direct vicinity possess. Why else would we be part of the same sphere as them? But because they’re right in front of us, we just can’t see them. They remind us too much of our ordinary, everyday lives, and what is love but a yearning for the extraordinary? We want to be transported, inspired. Good old-fashioned conversations just don’t cut it; we want sparks and lightning bolts and all manner of natural phenomena. We don’t take note of the fact that our easy, free-flowing conversations might translate well into a romantic context, and we certainly don’t marvel at their intelligence/good looks/good character because we’ve stopped even noticing these things, if ever we did.

Of course, I’m hardly suggesting that people consider those they find repulsive or unlikeable. But if someone is our friend, how likely is it that we find them repulsive or unlikeable in any case?

Argument 4: I’m just not thinking about marriage right now.

Counter-argument: Okay, but if/when you are, you’ve probably already dismissed your ‘friends’ from the equation because they saw you precisely when you weren’t ready to think about it.

It’s the stuff of many terrible movies: someone ignores their best friend in favour of some out-of-their-league hottie, then realises their friend was the right one all along after falling flat on their face. But many Muslims seem to eschew this kind of Hollywood-esque journey. Once we place someone in one category, we seem to find it very hard to re-categorise. This tends to mean that once someone has been friendzoned, they don’t often escape from its confines. If someone wasn’t ready for marriage and decides they now are, they often feel slightly ashamed of their former self. They feel it’s easier to be with someone who didn’t see them in larvae stage; they only want to be seen as they now are, fully formed.

I don’t buy this at all. If someone has seen us progress along our journey, they ought to respect the path we’ve taken and appreciate how hard we’ve worked on ourselves to get there. We shouldn’t feel ashamed that someone has seen us at our formative stages, nor should that person feel that they have the right to look down upon us because they have. (Besides, when can anyone claim to be fully formed? A line in Shantaram describes it well: ‘The fully mature man has about two seconds left to live’.)

Anyway, that’s that. The reality on the ground means that that if we’re interested in someone and want things to work out, we probably shouldn’t try to use friendship as an ‘in’ unless that friendship is simply a transient pretext to get to the next stage. ‘Stay away, or make it happen right away’ seems to be the order of the day. (Not intended either, but I suppose it’s kinda catchy.)

 

The Muslim Relationship Status Dilemma

I remember seeing an advertisement for a party in first year uni and being slightly scandalised at the time. The rules of the party were that single people were to come in green, maybes in orange and ‘taken’ people in, you guessed it, red. As crass an idea as this is, Muslims could really do with some kind of system for knowing when people are actually single  and looking to get married, and when they’re just not. Instead, people are often forced to ask around, looking for mutual connections to tell them whether the person they’re interested in is already otherwise engaged. (Lame, but I couldn’t resist.)

The problem is that people generally don’t make it known that they’re getting to know someone, at least not initially. This is understandable and perfectly reasonable, because it often goes no further than the getting-to-know-you phase. You don’t want to be telling every Hassan and Hussain when you meet someone for the first time. It’s just not feasible, nor does it serve any real purpose for any of the parties involved.

Let’s say person X is getting to know Y. They could seal the deal within a couple of months, seal the deal in this case meaning progress to an official, publicised engagement. If this happens, X and Y are reasonably safe. It’s unlikely that people will ‘catch’ them in the act of getting to know each other, and even if they do, it doesn’t really matter. Things will progress quickly enough for tongues not to wag or for X and Y to have define their relationship in social terms.

But if there are complications and things don’t progress as quickly, X and Y are in a bit of a bind. Technically, they’re ‘in a relationship’, as the Facebook status goes. But Muslims just don’t utilise the relationship status option on Facebook. In fact, unmarried couples tend to try to keep their relationship secret, or at the very least, an open secret. Their friends and acquaintances might know, but the information doesn’t always trickle out evenly.

This is where things can get really sticky. Some people might know about X and Y’s relationship, some people might not. Z doesn’t happen to know, and develops feelings for one half of the couple in question. Is it Z’s fault? Or the person’s for even talking to Z in the first place? Or can the blame be attributed to this weird state of affairs amongst Muslims, where hearsay has to be used as evidence (a big no-no, as my fellow lawyers can appreciate) and no one wants to actually have the hard conversations because deep down, they’re just a big ball of confusion?

This cuts to the very heart of the problem: people may be keeping their options open. They may be talking to one person without having defined the relationship, and as such they feel like they have license to be talking to other people simultaneously. Even if they’re actually in a relationship with one person, they may be feeling uncertain. This uncertainty combined with the fact that very few people know about the relationship may lead to icky situations, like two people thinking they’re getting to know the same person. (An extreme example, but certainly not unheard of.)

The line between friendships and romantic relationships isn’t always easy to ascertain either. This is a universal issue, but is compounded by the fact that different Muslims have different boundaries when it comes to the opposite sex. This leads to all kinds of weird pseudo-relationships popping up, like guys and girls who are constantly talking but haven’t defined their relationship. Often both people like each other but are afraid to admit it, but sometimes only one person has any kind of romantic interest and the other person is simply enjoying having someone to talk to without the hassle of actually being in a relationship. (Or maybe they just genuinely like talking about photography/philosophy/video games.)

And then there are those who are secretly pining over someone who they know will probably never reciprocate their feelings. They get stuck in a waiting game, hoping the tide will turn but acknowledging that it most likely will not. These people are technically ‘single’, but are about as available as a change room at the Boxing Day Sales. The sad thing is that the object of their affection could actually be in one of those secret relationships mentioned above, which means that their efforts are doomed from the outset and may in fact bring them great embarrassment should word get out. The other common scenario is that the person they like just isn’t looking to get married, and so liking them at the present moment is just a waste of energy.

All of the above scenarios are a result of the lack of transparency around the whole issue of marriage. No one wants to admit that they want to get married for fear of looking ‘desperate’, but nearly everyone does. No one wants to admit that they’ve been in a relationship, but nearly everyone has been. No one wants to be the one to put their heart on the line and have the are-we-just-friends conversation, because they know it’ll be just awful if the answer is yes. (And if you’re afraid to ask, it’s often because you know the answer is ‘yes, we are just friends’ and you don’t want to face up to it.)

I don’t claim to have solutions to any of these issues except to very humbly suggest that personal responsibility is key. Sensitivity to the feelings of others is key. Talking to someone may mean nothing to you, but it could mean the world to them. (On the other hand, assuming every conversation with someone of the opposite sex is romantic in nature is just a recipe for disaster.) A little tact and discretion never goes astray, but excessive secrecy and vagueness can lead to unnecessary complications for all parties concerned. Human dignity should be preserved in all cases, even when you don’t care an iota for the person in question. If you know categorically that you’re not looking to get married, don’t let your guard down with the opposite sex, and if you are looking to get married, make your intentions clear at the earliest opportunity.

Do you consider yourself to be ‘single’? What’s the best way to avoid dilemmas about a relationship status?