The process of trying to find a partner can be horribly, utterly brutal. Fumble, stumble, trip, run into a dead end-this is the thorny path of so many singles. But are all marriage struggles created equal? Broken hearts are certainly not the sole domain of women, but there are any number of reasons why the marriage process can be particularly difficult for women. This is a condition not at at all specific to Muslims, but as always, the intersection of faith and universality makes for some sad, weird and lol-worthy results. Let’s take a closer look at why it is that women are so often at the losing end of the marriage process:
1. Time pressures
Tick tock, tick tock. Or so women are constantly being reminded. There is such a small window of time during which women are actually viewed as eligible marriage material, spanning in some circles from the late teens until somewhere around the mid-twenties. Women are forced to think about marriage at a far younger age than men are, and if they run carefree and amok (lol) through their 20s, they may pay the consequences later and remain single long after they choose to. For example, as depressing as it is, it’s not uncommon for women 25 and up to assume that their chances of getting married are slim to nil, while a man of a similar age bracket may only just be starting to think about marriage.
These skewed conditions can create a power imbalance in which women may feel compelled to ‘settle’, while men are given license to pick and choose at their liberty. Women are often told that their chances are running out, and even if they aren’t explicitly told, they can see for themselves that their opportunities may be few and far between. If we have a system in which a woman’s eligibility goes down as she gets older and better-educated and a man’s eligibility only goes up with these factors, there will undoubtedly be some nasty consequences. (Of course, men face the difficulty of the perceived need to be financially stable before getting married, which is a bit of a downer.)
Part of the reason women are forced to think about marriage fairly early on is couched in biological terms. Women are constantly being warned about how their fertility is a precious commodity by everyone from gynaecologists on TV to their mothers and aunties. Women who want the opportunity to have children know that it takes time to meet someone and get married to them, and some may even feel pressured into marrying someone at least partly to have that opportunity.
2. Lack of suitable candidates
Let’s compare the pool of potential partners of a 30 year old man vs a 30 year old woman. It’s not socially acceptable for a woman to marry a younger man, and so she will generally limit herself or be limited to men her own age and above. If she has a good job and is well-educated, she may expect, not unreasonably so, that her husband be of a similar level. This narrows the pool even further. In contrast, a 30 year old man has a far wider pool of acceptable candidates to choose from, as he can marry a woman any number of years younger than him and not attract any censure. He can also freely marry someone of a lower level of education and earning capacity, and can explicitly filter women on these bases.
There are any number of reasons why men would choose to marry a younger and less established woman as opposed to a woman his own age, and I’m not interested in going into all of them right now. Suffice to say, we all know it happens, and it obviously creates an imbalance between the amount of men available to a particular pool of women. Frequently, there seems to be more women visible in Muslim community circles, which further adds to a perceived number imbalance. (Statistics show that women outnumber men in many parts of the world, which can’t help either, and makes for weird encounters at matrimonial events and on websites where women outnumber men.)
3. Lack of agency
For women who do want to get married, there are few direct avenues available. Pursuing someone and expressing interest in them is seen as an exclusively male domain, and women who do try to initiate something may run the risk of being labelled as ‘desperate’ or ‘coming on too strong’. This is particularly the case where the man and woman are the same age. For the reasons mentioned above, the man in the equation will often feel less compulsion to get married, which means that the woman may invest far more emotion and energy into trying to make it work than he does. Even if he likes her, he may not feel compelled to do anything about it, simply because he isn’t under the same time pressures she is and knows he can meet someone down the track with relative ease.
Women who are interested in someone are forced to pull a Khadija and involve a third party. This can rob them of autonomy over the process and can be embarrassing and awkward, particularly when the third party isn’t someone they know all that well. But what are the other options, besides sitting back and waiting for the guy to notice them? (Admittedly, I know it’s not very fun for men to feel they have to put their dignity and heart on the line when pursuing someone, but more women would do it if it wasn’t so frowned upon.)
4. Parental restrictions
While men are certainly not immune from parental pressures and restrictions, these often fall more heavily on the daughters of the family than the sons. Part of this is due to the perception of men as head of the household, which means that if a man marries a woman or a different culture or even a different religion, he is still seen to rule the roost. But if a woman wants to marry a man of a different culture or sect, her parents will often block her pathway entirely, leaving her with the choice of either giving up on the person or breaking her parents’ hearts.
5. Greater impetus, more to lose
If and when women feel restricted in the home, they may seek out marriage as a means of achieving greater autonomy. But in order for her to get married, she must observe the rules of propriety and never, ever, ever (did I say ever?) sin or make a slip-up. If she does, the court of public opinion can be utterly unforgiving. Whether it’s choice in clothing or physical intimacy before marriage, things just seem to stick to women more so than men and be policed with more intensity. Many women have spoken of their frustration about men who indulge in all sorts of fun activities (cough) and then waltz back in and marry a sweet little cutie pie without too much difficulty. Women who have been in previous relationships or who have been divorced find that their options may find they are limited to marrying someone from overseas, which may or may not be an option they’re comfortable with. Some end up being forced to look outside the community and try to ‘convert’ a non-Muslim man, seeing their chance of meeting a Muslim who accepts them as almost non-existent.
None of what I’ve written is particularly controversial or new, but it’s important to recognise the very real and harsh impact these issues have on people, the hidden stories of frustration and despair, the resignation to a life without a partner or a life with a partner they ‘settled’ for. Those who end up getting married attribute it to naseeb, as do those who stay single, but no one should have to accept injustice and a life of enforced solitude as their naseeb. To love and be loved is the greatest mercy we have in this life, and it is our responsibility to ensure that each and every person has the opportunity to share in this love.