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Dew Point

This blog is dedicated to sharing my every-day discoveries of how the light and beauty of Islamic spirituality can be part of a modern, well-rounded way of life.

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Marriage

Of Saints and Matchmakers

As I was growing up, Islam’s benevolent female saints existed in my imagination as otherworldly matchmakers.

Common features of my family’s infrequent summer holidays with relatives in Egypt were visits to mosques enclosing the shrines of Sayyida Zainab and Sayyida Nafisa, two descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who have come to be regarded as Cairo’s patron saints, may God grant them peace and blessings. My mother, often with her sisters who lived in smaller cities along the Suez Canal, would arrange mini pilgrimages to these grand Cairene mosques for a single purpose: to pray for suitable partners for their unmarried children.

SAYYIDAZAINABCAIRO
Female worshippers gather around Sayyida Zainab’s mausoleum in Cairo

Amidst weeps and whispers, they would gather around the mausoleums of these saints offering earnest prayers to rescue their single daughters and sons from the matrimonial side lines. From beyond the divide between this world and the next, these venerable women of faith would intimately identify with the anguish of being the mother of an unwed child and act as intermediaries with God in removing the obstacles blocking the perfect partner from springing forth – at least that was the hope of my female kin.

While my own memories of these visits are vague and likely layered by personal accounts relayed by my mother over the years, the urgency placed on marriage left me feeling perplexed. The more I found myself becoming the focal point of the prayers, the more frustrating and painful these pilgrimages became.

By my mid- and then late 20s, the cultural pressures to wed young and my inability to make it happen inadvertently alienated me from faith, and obscured my view of the spiritual significance and prowess of these female saints. My only encounters with them were a manifestation of socio-culture pressures that dictate a woman’s value lies solely in her success as a wife and mother, a line of thinking that left me jaded and confined rather than empowered by their presence. Continue reading “Of Saints and Matchmakers”

Matrimonial penalty box

There is a scene in the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary where the single Bridget is attending a couples dinner party at the home of her only married girlfriend and is warned that she’d better hurry up and “get sprugged up” because the ubiquitous ‘clock is ticking’. Bridget is then asked the question that women like her – over 30 and unmarried bachelorettes across the world – dread to answer.

“Why is it there are so many unmarried women in their thirties these days, Bridget?” asks the smug husband of an acquaintance from across the table, with his pregnant wife at his side. Silence falls on the dining room as everyone sets down their utensils and all eyes converge on Bridget, almost expecting her to answer on behalf of every single woman in her thirties, everywhere.

Bridget belts a brief chuckle at the absurdity of the question, and says with a smile, “Oh, I don’t know. Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales.”

Sometimes I wish I could respond as she did at that moment when emotions of anxiety and embarrassment come together in piercingly sharp force in the centre of even many a resolute woman’s chest. Yet it is not always easy to take questions of postponed marriage in jest and good cheer. The stigma attached to being a single woman above 30 prevails in various cultures, which is why many of us can relate to Bridget, even if the cultural circumstances may differ tremendously.

Arab communities are particularly unforgiving of women who have not tied the knot by 30, and preferably many years younger. I was dismayed by the marriage question six years ago at 25 and I still wince when it is asked today at 31.

The obsession with marriage has made women view forming a family as the only culturally and religiously acceptable way to live their lives. Under this logic, no matter what she may have accomplished, a young Arab woman is doomed to be pitied and feel incomplete without a husband and kids. Some women are pressured to marry early and, as the years pass, to regard any man who has a job, is single and under 45–regardless of whether he happens to have a complementary personality– as a suitable match.

The preoccupation with marriage has caused many women to focus their happiness and fulfilment on securing another person’s affection, rather than realising peace within themselves beforehand. There is no use in crushing women’s self esteem as they get further into their 20s and enter their 30s simply because they have failed to cross paths with suitable men.

In an extreme example, the poster below, found in a Saudi elementary school, recently did its rounds on Twitter. It outlines a series of threats facing Muslim women, with an ominous image of a woman who appears to be gushing blood after being stabbed. Among warnings against listening to music and travelling abroad, proper Muslim girls are advised against “refusing or delaying marriage”. Rather than engendering a love of God in young girls they are taught to fear the wrath they would face if the pursuit of marriage is not their top priority.

By almost every measure outlined in the poster, I would be doomed – even though I hold family and marriage in very high regard. Family is the cornerstone of society. At a number of points in the Quran God advises us to be good to our parents, treat each other with respect and even informs us that He has created for us mates with whom we should deal with love and mercy. I hope to start a family and, if God wills, have children of my own.

But I struggle to find compelling religious justification for marrying young. Often, I would hear people say that children and wealth are ‘zinat hayat al-donya’ (adornments of this worldly life). This Arabic phrase excerpted from the Holy Quran has been regularly cited in my life as a justification for starting a family as early as possible; building a family unit is the primary purpose of a virtuous life.

As I grow deeper in my faith, the particular cultural emphasis on marriage and children puzzles me. When I read the Quran for the first time last year, I realised that the second part of that phrase was excluded from the popular discourse I had often been exposed to. “Wealth and children are (but) adornment of the worldly life. But the permanent righteous deeds are better in your Lord’s Sight (to attain) rewards, and better in respect of hope.” (Quran, 18:46)

God appears to be advising us to avoid becoming fixated on the pleasures we find in the money we earn and children we have. These things offer us a comfort in life but what endure for God are our righteous deeds, not our pursuit of family or wealth. God further calls on us repeatedly to be tolerant, to accept all of His blessings with gratitude and challenges with patience. So by extension, there is no contradiction in being single and being virtuous.

People’s faith in God-granted destiny (naseeb) often wavers when it comes to marriage. Our communities are prone to placing the onus of blame on the shoulders of the single women themselves rather than trying to address the real challenges facing our societies with meaningful solutions. From the perspective of myself and other single Muslim women, there are a limited number of options available for us to meet like-minded Muslim men. Introductions happen quite infrequently as family or friends take a more and more inactive role in our personal lives.

I am lucky to have very supportive family members, including my mother, who would not pressure me to wed. Nevertheless, there are moments of weakness where I am advised on how ‘a mediocre marriage is better than no marriage at all’. I have had my fair share of experiences with ill-fated love and awkward rendez-vous with men who had little compatibility with me other than that they happened to be single.

Single Arab women are often assumed to be too difficult, too picky, too ambitious or too head-strong to qualify as marriageable material. Quite to the contrary, most of the unmarried, over-30 women I know are considerate, intelligent, attractive, tolerant, family-oriented and chaste. Very little differentiates them from married women and most of us are not going around rejecting every guy who comes by. The point is that ‘the one’ – be he Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong, or Mr. Adequate– hasn’t yet come a knocking for whatever reason.

Last year, I was having lunch with an acquaintance, a young Arab woman some five years younger than myself, who told me she did not want to become that girl who is alone at 30 (she assumed I was about 27). She appeared almost terrified at the prospect. I consider myself to be successful, compassionate and more attractive now than I was at 25, and yet so many women fear the cultural marginalisation they would face if they turned out like me.

More and more, I regard such perceptions about the suitable age for marriage as a sign of cultural distortion and oversight of faith. Finding men who are willing to consider choosing a 32-year-old over a 23-year-old has, sadly, frequently turned into a search for the exception to the rule in Arab Islamic circles.

Yet when Prophet Muhammad ﷺ recounted his monogamous marriage to his first wife Khadija, 15 years his senior, he did so with unparalleled reverence. Their 25-year marriage was full of harmony, and he is known to have described Khadija as his intimate friend and his wise counsellor and companion. Responding to one of his later wife’s claims that God had blessed him with better, more youthful brides than Khadija after her death, the Prophet ﷺ has been cited as saying: “Indeed Allah did not grant me better than her; she accepted me when people rejected me, she believed in me when people doubted me; she shared her wealth with me when people deprived me; and Allah granted me children only through her”.

There are simple lessons in this: we must have faith in the spirit of God’s message, and be tolerant, patient and progressive in our expectations when dealing with issues of marriage. If a woman is destined to marry at 40 and have four children, as Khadija did, it will happen. If God wills her to marry at 23 and be barren, that too will come to pass. Just because most women fall somewhere between the two extremes does not diminish the importance of accepting that God tests each of us in different ways. Marriage is not a magic ticket to salvation.

The next time someone asks me why I am not married yet I hope I can come up with as witty a response as Bridget’s, something that will, with any luck, cause the person to pause for a moment and call into question their question.

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Look forward to your comments!

Unveiling the bride

It was reaching the moment the crowd of 2,000 attendees had been anticipating for more than two hours: the bride was about to be unveiled. I use the term ‘unveiled’ because she was literally uncovered from beneath what I can only describe as a gigantic circular curtain, in the shape of what looked like a four-layer cake decorated with ruffles and lace.

 
The background music was forceful; my sister said it reminded her of the theme music used during battle scenes in the movie Lord of the Rings. For some reason the intense tunes seemed an entirely appropriate way to capture the occasion, which was truly momentous at least for the families involved. One layer at a time the curtain rose from the floor of the podium situated in the centre of the giant exhibition hall where the wedding was held. An exquisitely dressed young Emirati bride of about 20 emerged from beneath the rising curtain, sitting on a small cream-coloured couch made for two, the sweeping train of her glittering wedding gown carefully placed on the floor around her.
 
My sister and I had arrived 45 minutes earlier at 10:30 p.m., about two hours late but just in time for the tail-end of a dinner comprising traditional Emirati and Asian cuisine consisting of briyani with mutton, chicken masala, a variety of grilled meats and a dish known as Harees, which has a thick porridge-like consistency combining wheat, meat and salt.
 
As the attendees finished dinner, munched on desserts and sipped Arabic coffee, the anticipation was evident. Everyone was eager to have their first glimpse of the bride at this women-only affair (that is, apart from the male Gulf Arab musician, whose name I did not catch, giving a live performance during dinner).
 
Traditional Emirati weddings are held in two ceremonies, the first for the groom, which I have heard typically involve a grand dinner party held within a week of the women’s gala. The men’s ceremony is supposedly much more basic, with festivities saved for the bride’s night. On this particular occasion, the groom’s bash took place the evening before.
 
In all Emirati weddings I have attended, toward the end of the women’s ceremony the groom comes into the hall, often with his father or another male member of the family, and walks across the stage toward his bride. They sit together briefly for photographs with close family and then the two depart to commence their lives together, often going home to a villa festooned with lights.
 
Over the past few years, I have attended a number of weddings for Emirati couples, including a group wedding where about 70 employees of a local bank tied the knot at a single ceremony paid for by the bank. Depending on the financial capabilities of the families, Emirati weddings vary in their size and ability to dazzle. There is one common thread that runs through all of them, however, and that is that I am always under-dressed. I stopped trying to dress appropriately for UAE weddings because no matter how hard I try, my wardrobe and hairstyle are simply too minimalist to fit in.
 
Many of the women look so glitzy and sensational they would put actresses on the Oscar Red Carpet to shame with their fabulous, colourful gowns  and the remarkable hairstyles they are able to accomplish with their unbelievably thick, long and lustrous black hair. (Masha’Allah) Others look too gaudy and flamboyant for my tastes, although again I imagine that to be very much like a night at the Oscar’s. At weddings, local women tend to let some of their guard down. I often find myself stunned at the size of the emeralds, diamonds, rubies and sapphires dangling from their ears, on their necks and around their wrists. One can see small groups of young ladies dancing together on the stage, supposedly exhibiting their goods for potential mothers-in-law in a way they would not be able to on a daily basis.
 
This wedding last Friday, which was arranged by the families, was particularly extraordinary. I will refrain for naming the families involved for privacy reasons, although I can say that the bride and the groom were from two different emirates of the seven that comprise the UAE federation. We were prohibited from bringing in our mobile telephones to the extravaganza, and as the bride strutted her way across the stage, not a single camera flash could be seen from the crowd, other than that of the professional camerawoman hired to capture the affair.
 
So, back to the bride, because she’s the reason we were all there. Directly before the cake-shaped-curtain contraption was lifted from the floor, there was a performance that I must describe because it was so bizarre. Remember C-3P0, the shiny golden robot from Star Wars? The two performers who took to the stage looked like C-3P0, except wearing skirts shaped like metallic cones. The performers swayed to music similar to what I described earlier, appearing to glide across the stage, waving fans made of golden feathers in their hands.
 
Once their unusual 10-minute performance was complete, the bride emerged from beneath the curtain, adorned in a gown that glittered so immensely it was as though diamonds and crystals were stitched into every crevice of the dress, from the chest to below the knees. As the young bride made her way slowly down the catwalk, and all eyes in the room were glued to her, six assistants followed her to adjust the train, a daunting task requiring huge coordination to fix the heaps of fabric that trailed behind the bride for three metres or longer.  I cannot imagine how heavy the dress must have been. Yet, the petite bride smiled the entire time, her face and eyes beaming at her family, relatives and friends as she relished in the 20-minute spotlight that marked the beginning of the next chapter of her life.
 
At that point, I had joined a crowd gathered at the tip of the catwalk to get a closer glimpse of the dress, the hairdo, jewellery and makeup. I realised then that while the traditions may vary widely, a truly universal thread runs through virtually every wedding of every culture, in every part of the world: the wedding ceremony is the bride’s moment in time to steal the limelight and rejoice at one of her life’s milestone achievements. This bride, at least on the surface, certainly did radiate.

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