Choices

Eds. Note: This is a response to last week’s guest post, How I met my son’s mother. Have a perspective to share on love and relationships? Read our guidelines, here.

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I was born to be a doctor, or so I was told. Many years later, doctor I will be, though not of the medical profession. This particular journey has taken longer than the one expected of me, leading to the need for me to make some choices.

Being a medical doctor, you see, is just the right amount of time for a girl to spend on her education. You work hard, learn, achieve and then it is over and you can get started on your “real life”. Pursuing a PhD, however, is a longer and more nebulous path that required, for me, space to focus, which meant not getting married according to a societal deadline. The road to get here has been tough. I have made choices while navigating a system that works against me.

One day, I realized that rather than navigating the system, I should be tearing it down.

“Good” Muslim girls are smart. They pursue their education. They collect degrees, certificates of accomplishment and awards like dust collects on that treadmill in your “office”. Their parents sing their praises from the rooftops for all to hear. Eventually though, they come down from the rooftop  and present us with a choice: career or marriage.

“Wait, what about a third option?” you ask. One in which you follow your passion and then get married? An option where there isn’t a forced choice?

“But beta, putting off marriage to pursue your professional calling is a risk.”

You see, as Mezba pointed out in How I Met My Son’s Mother, women within the arranged marriage system can expect to be presented with men 4-8 years older than themselves. The older the woman, the larger the age gap becomes.

Well-intentioned mothers and aunties urge their amazing daughters to get married before the age of 25 in order to avoid a dwindling pool of potential mates. They say: “Want a 25-year-old husband? Start looking when you’re 21.”

But what parents and Muslim communities rarely discuss is how the system is broken. Rather than focusing on learning how to play the game, why aren’t we talking about how the system is stupid, oppressive and un-Islamic?

I’ve had long, heated debates with South Asian elders regarding this system, which distills a woman’s worth down to her age. Every single time, using logic, empathy and Islamic principles, every single person admits it is wrong. A woman is more than her age, they agree. Yet the very next sentence out of their mouths is, “Well, that’s just the way it is. That’s why you should get married young.” This resignation is part of the problem.

We created the system. We are the system. If it’s broken, then let’s fix it.

How do we fix it? We begin by fixing ourselves. We let go of the myths of how younger wives are better because they’re more malleable/fertile/beautiful/{insert arbitrary qualifier here}. We honor the wisdom that comes with age. We let go of our fear that being with an intelligent, accomplished woman will expose our weaknesses. We use her fierceness to light our own life on fire and accomplish the things we are afraid of pursuing.

Most of all, we don’t force this choice on her.  How many Nobel Prize-winning, cancer-curing, legislation-passing and novel-writing women are we missing out on because of this false choice? That a woman has to choose between companionship and an opportunity to change the world is ridiculous. That she must live her life based on a social and {debatable} biological clock, thus diminishing her potential, is ridiculous.

As an Ummah, we are only as strong as our members. Strong women who make the choice to delay marriage to pursue their calling make us collectively stronger. Their courage is outstanding. The least we can do is support them, learn from them and find courage within ourselves. For parents, this means being courageous and encouraging your daughters to pursue their dreams, though you may be afraid. For men, this means appreciating that your partner may not ‘need’ you the way you have been taught a woman should need you. For all of us, this means raising the next generation to see beyond our own fears and connect with others as humans rather than objects we evaluate based on arbitrary criteria.

For the women who are subject to this system, I want you all to know that it is not your fault. Nor are you responsible for changing the system single-handedly. When systems are broken, it is not the marginalized group’s responsibility to change it. That onus lies with those in power. What we women can do, however, is make choices that speak to our soul and faith. You are not alone in this struggle. There is solidarity to be found throughout the Ummah. For every auntie or potential suitor who is threatened by your fierceness or subjects you to an evaluation as if you are a piece of meat, know that there are aunties, men and fellow sisters who celebrate your power, intelligence and courage. You are more than a number or a set of (often-contradictory) desirable characteristics.

Courage. That’s where change begins. The courage to say that this is wrong. The courage to challenge the status quo rather than stand silent.  The courage to admit our insecurities. Courage is a choice. We should be focusing on that choice rather than marriage vs. profession.

I personally had to make that choice, and I chose to focus on building a career that I am passionate about, knowing the work I do has a direct impact on my Muslim sisters and brothers. I made my choice having faith that my journey, while challenging, is worth it because I know my own worth, and it transcends anything that an auntie can put on a biodata. And though I’ve shed others’ expectations of me, I haven’t given up on the potential of having a partnership someday.

My heart hurts when I think of the women who made the choice differently – whether through external coercion or an internalized system that tells them they have no choice – and the energy and talent we as an Ummah have lost because of it.

The choices we each make, day to day, to either challenge or perpetuate this system count.

Anjabeen Ashraf is a multi-faceted human being who identifies as Muslim living in Raleigh, NC with roots in Houston, TX. Anjabeen is currently a doctoral student with research interests in vicarious trauma, identity development and career development of American Muslims. Amongst her many passions, she counts feminism, pizza and scary movies as the most salient {today}. She can be tweeted @fahsana.


31 Comments on “Choices”

  1. a786 says:

    i love this post. thank you.

  2. […] Ashraf on choosing to live a more authentic life in spite of pressure to marry […]

  3. Alan Howard says:

    Another great article on this topic. Nobody should have to choose between career/passion and marriage. People are not monolithic, they can do and be multiple things.

    But there is another troubling subject here that is touched on lightly here – that is the particularly Desi issue of parents expecting all their kids to grow up and be doctors. How many Einsteins or Plaths have we missed due to the insistence of parents that their kids pursue the “money doctor” (MD) degree rather than the “phoney doctor” (Ph.D) degree. I have met many Desi doctors as friends who admit they were more interested in architecture or history but became doctors because they couldn’t disappoint their parents. I also see successful doctors in their late 30s and 40s who are only now feeling secure and comfortable enough to get back into subjects they love.

    • Anjabeen says:

      Ah yes the MD rose colored glasses! I’ve long rallied against that because not only is it harmful to those individuals but its harmful to the Ummah! We are severely under-represented in politics, media, social work, and on. Our absence in those fields makes it more difficult to move beyond the current negative rhetoric surrounding Muslims and Islam.

  4. Aysha Ali says:

    Agree…another great article inviting much needed discussion. This brings the magic work into focus “Choices”. Initially some choices are tough to make and appear to be disrespecting those we love the most such as our parents. In the end, what must be focused on is do we make a choice which helps our parents, families keep appearances within the respective community or do we make choices which in the end will make us happier thus our families as well. I have made those choices in life and they were tough. My mom got an earful from everyone in the community but she had the courage to let me be for the most part although there were nudges here and there and I had to constantly defend my action prove I was a good person and daughter despite not following the path. I have now seen my share of couple in arrange marriage living a deceptive life complete with affairs and despise for their respective partners just to please their families. What is more important – please family and community and live a life full of deception or to make a tough choice and know that you were true to yourself and those you love. This disucssion needs to be brougt int focus and is much needed and am glad to see this forum is allowing the opportunity to do so.

    • Anjabeen says:

      Salaam Aysha,

      Thank you for your kind words! I agree, we need to discuss this more often so that other folks know they are not alone.

  5. Yasmeen says:

    Why does it have to be career then marriage? Why can’t you get married and grow together as a couple in each of your careers? Getting married early doesn’t have to be so everything looks good on paper for the aunties. Our Prophet (saws) encouraged us to get married young.

    Many of the people who speak out against it being career vs marriage don’t realize they’re unintentionally dismissing the notion of having both. Why does being married have to end your career? Before kids, I don’t see anything stopping you from being married and having a career. If you wish to wait to get married then that’s fine, but you don’t have to wait in order to have a career. You can have both.

    • Anjabeen says:

      Salaam Yasmeen,

      You make a good point and that is a viable option. The key is choice. When we focus on something like age (or fear of) as being the motivator behind that choice, that is the problem I spoke to here. The age fear mongering is widespread for women in Muslim communities and needs to change.

      I would also argue that many folks would be hesitant to have a wife or daughter-in-law who is going to be career driven post marriage. While it can be done, I think there is an automatic negative reaction to ‘career driven’ as it refers to women. This is not specific to Muslim communities either but is a larger societal bias. Career women are often caricatured as cold, unavailable, bossy, etc etc. So the ability to have both is dependent on finding a partner and family who are supportive of that.

      The end goal remains the same for both of us: having a choice to do it the way we want to.

  6. Salman Khan says:

    This is yet another virtual funeral pyre to the deeply esteemed value of femininity. Feminists engage in fiercely heated debates with elders and peers. They are argumentative, pushy, and that’s a put off for any man. The system isn’t broken. Men value feminine docile women who have brains. Feminists think that such women are doormats. Never. They are highly valued by men and treasured and they accomplish the greatest job there is – raising intelligent progeny. While feminists talk about “helping brothers and sisters” docile feminine women help the persons worthy of their greatest attention – their husbands and children. Thus they are most instrumental in contributing to future Nobel prize winners. Such women have a much large cumulative impact on society than these feminists who are “helping brothers and sisters”.

    “We let go of the myths of how younger wives are better because they’re more malleable/fertile/beautiful/{insert arbitrary qualifier here}”
    It’s only a myth to you. To men we know younger women are more malleable. They don’t debate fiercely like older jaded women. And yes younger women are more beautiful. This is why a woman hates to age and this is why women spend billions of dollars on face lifts and anti-aging products. Younger women are more beautiful compared to older women just as a rose in full bloom is more beautiful than a wilted rose on its demise. It is of critical importance that this website engenders critical thinking and not just the type of group think that seems to be evident here. Nobody grows intellectually from group think. You need a fresh perspective of the ‘why’ behind the traditions.

    “We let go of our fear that being with an intelligent, accomplished woman will expose our weaknesses. We use her fierceness to light our own life on fire and accomplish the things we are afraid of pursuing.”

    Once again this is the type of empty rhetoric that cat loving older females tweet to each other consoling each other. Here’s the reality – men don’t fear intelligent accomplished women. Men simply do not want to be bothered with their “fierce debating” nature which is kind of crude coming from women. It is unbecoming and uncouth for a woman to mouth off. A woman’s fierceness is her downfall. It may get her name written on some navy ships but it certainly will make her bed empty on cold nights. Men don’t want Condoleeza Rice’s for a partner. They want someone who complements them. A feminine woman’s strengths and a man’s weaknesses and a strong man’s strengths are a feminine woman’s weaknesses. Hence when the two unite as a couple it makes for a formidable functioning unit it society held in high respect. When a man marries an equally strong-minded woman it’s a disaster because it’s like a war for alpha domination in the house. Men have always ruled the world. Get used to it and live under it and by it. This was the situation thousands of years ago and it still is the situation. You may consider that chauvinistic but that’s a snapshot of reality that you really need to think deeply about.

    • Anjabeen says:

      Oh Salman. Interestingly, the tone of your response is cruder and pushier than that of my article.

      What you present as fact is not. These things are socially constructed, that is the only fact. The critical thinking you mention is lacking in this response. Women don’t buy beauty products because they have some innate drive to remain young. It is because an entire society and media has been built around making women feel like they are lacking if they don’t look a certain way. If beauty was monolithic and dependent on only youth then certainly different cultures would not have different standards of beauty.

      To fall back on biology and evolution is lazy and shows me that you are unwilling to examine what really under girds your views. Now I’m not a mind reader, however, I would think that all that you mentioned is really to stroke your ego, make your life easier and predicated on something you know little of: the FACT that qualities that are PURPORTED to be mutually exclusive (i.e. loving and fierce, intelligent and open to listening, string and feminine etc) are NOT and can exist in the same person. Its a shame that you haven’t know anyone like that or more likely the reality is that you have but your juvenile ego was so affronted and threatened that you couldn’t look past that to see it.

      The fact that your entire argument is based on stereotypes and generalities is hilarious. For we all know (we do don’t we?) that stereotypes and generalizations are never true.

      Reality is subjective. Yet, as a feminist, I honor that you have the right to hold these beliefs.

      Peace.

    • Chinyere says:

      Why so mean? “Cat loving older ladies?” I feel like this comment points to your insecurity more than anything else. Why do you have such contempt for women?

      Why do you have such contempt for men, for that matter, that you think so narrowly of them? Some men must have a taste for “crude” women, then Allah (swt) have mercy on them, I guess, right? I come from a line of fierce women and a line of men who love them fiercely. These women argue and are not always right, and the men with them are strong enough to not consider it an affront to their masculinity.

      You are, of course, welcome to your point of view, but did you read what you just wrote? It has the tone of spitting in one’s face. Why? Because a fierce woman doesn’t deserve you acting like a gentleman?

    • Loud&Proud says:

      ‘Men have always ruled the world. Get used to it and live under it and by it.’
      Wow. People like you make me want to SCREAM LOUDER!!!!!

      Ps: Thanks for sharing your story Anjabeen.

  7. Anisa says:

    Dear Anjabeen. First of all, I want to congratulate you on your accomplishments and for writing this brilliant article. I wouldn’t waste time responding to this person. I just laughed through his response. “Men don’t fear intelligent accomplished women.” “Men have always ruled the world.” “To men we know younger women are more malleable. They don’t debate fiercely like older jaded women.” What a joke. Sounds like an attention craving five year old. I can’t stop laughing.

    • Anjabeen says:

      Thank you!😉

    • Salman Khan says:

      Ad hominem attacks – the castle in which feminists seek succour. Blame beauty product craze on the media but if any of you read anthropology you would know making up the face and wanting to appear young has been buried in the thousands of years old beauty-cream tin boxes found in ancient digs. There was no media back then. Females did this because they know men are universally attracted to younger and more beautiful women. As far as the dichotomy of opposing characteristics existing in a woman well yes they do – in schizophrenic and obstreperous women. The fact that feminists lack basic respect when arguing is now evident in the ego-this ego-that line of attack and this is what makes men steer clear of such vituperative women. Socially constructed or not, it is the de facto reality. Which you feminists escape from and love to bubble yourselves up in these nooks and island websites. If you want your chance in h*** to get married get with the program and learn lady-like etiquette and manners and how to cook and clean and rear intelligent children. And yes mutually exclusive characteristics do exist in women and sometimes those characteristics are all in line with femininity but sometimes they are polar opposites which only makes the woman a crude crone of a feminist at best and schizophrenic at worst. You may hate how society has crafted the marital match making process. But it works. It worked for your parents and their forefathers. It isn’t working for YOU because you stepped out of line. Get back in line and we’ll bury the hatchet.

      • m says:

        Really? Get back in line?

        I had a massive response typed out. then I realised, it’s better not to waste my breath – as my mother, my work-from-home, cook-amazing-meals, take-on-any-threat-to-her-kids, kick-ass mother would say, ‘A dog’s tail will always be crooked, even after you plant it in the ground – the same is a man’s nature, you cannot change it no matter how much you try. Better to avoid those who aren’t worth it.’

  8. Chinyere says:

    Thank you for highlighting your choice in this discussion. I think some of us have made choices and shuddered at the consequences. Should consequences be so harsh for certain choices, like the slimmer prospects of marriage as we age or become more accomplished? I don’t think so. But when we realize that where we are, coupled with the realities of our communities, is a place we made for ourselves and not regard it a prison with no escape, then we approach our choices in a healthier way.

  9. Aisha says:

    Dear Anjabeen,

    A great article and so true. I feel these discussions are so important. At the organization I work for in Southern California, I began focus groups with young South Asian women on the South Asian culture and the pressures of Marriage. I feel these spaces are important because for young women who feel they are alone in this battle come to these focus groups and realize they are not alone and others, like them are going through this as well. If you know anyone in Southern California who would be interested in these focus groups, please do have them contact me. My name is Aisha and my e-mail is aisha@southasiannetwork.org.

  10. Sabina Sheikh says:

    I loved this post, because I can relate to it. My family is looking forward for getting me married, whereas my sole intention now is to focus on my career and fulfill my dreams. It’s very hard to make them understand this things. But I am trying everyday to make them understand. Your post has given me a confirmation that I am doing the right thing and have boost up my confidence. Thank you so much…

    • Anjabeen says:

      Thank you Sabina! Hang in there girl, you are not alone! Take it day by day, moment to moment. Inshallah everything happens as it is meant to happen🙂.

  11. krahman4 says:

    Keep up the good work Anjabeen. Our society needs bright individuals like you in order to fix this the broken system. And also to encourage fellow sisters like me!

  12. Absolutely brilliant article.

    I am currently studying in University, and as usual I dream about following my career and doing something I worked so hard for. But I know exactly how many fights that will take. Career or marriage is the horrible choice given even while being encouraged to get fabulous grades. Since I was three, I started studying to become something. I’m quite sure if I had stopped somewhere before choosing a specific field, and had gotten average grades, I would be able to make a good dutiful housewife. I do not want all my hard work to go down the drain.

    I hope people in our society recognize the faults in this system and “fix” it. Soon.

  13. Donna Burton says:

    I would love to have you talk with my first-year students here at NC State. I want them to understand that there are many factors that go into finding the right path – and sometimes that means challenging your elders….