Half Agony, Half HopePosted: April 3, 2014
“Do you have any children?” a nice woman making small talk asks me.
I reply pleasantly, “No, I don’t,” but my inner monologue is racing.
“Children? I don’t have children because I don’t have a husband. I don’t have a husband because I never had a romantic relationship with a guy. I never had a boyfriend, I’ve never even been kissed and I’m way older than Drew Barrymore was when she was in that movie with Michael Vartan! I’m older than Jesus ( AS) when he was on this earth! Oh God, what if it’s too late for me to have children?”
My inner monologue hysterically wonders about how hot hot flashes actually are, as I smile at the nice lady who’d innocently assumed that a Muslim woman my age is almost certainly married and almost certainly a mother.
I am an unmarried Muslim woman of a certain age. To be honest with you, I’m not surprised that I’m in this demographic.
I grew up in a tight-knit Muslim community, but no aunty in my community has ever suggested a son, nephew or cousin to me. I’m from the wrong ethnicity and I don’t fit their standard beauty norms. I never expected most of these families to embrace me, but I didn’t expect to be utterly invisible to my community, which is obsessed with matchmaking. When most of the girls in my peer group were getting married, I went away to college. By the time my friends were on their second child, I was past “entry-level” positions at work. Now, I regularly attend weddings where the bride, and increasingly the groom, is a decade younger than I am, but no aunty tells me “Inshallah, you’re next!”
There are other reasons why I’m not married aside from the ethnocentrism of my community. I grew up in a conservative religious community where no “good” adolescent engaged in a romantic relationship. Not the boys, nor the girls. Since no one dated, the adults in the community helped to match couples, facilitating meetings and arranging for youth to get to know each other. Therefore, all my life, I’d been conditioned that girls don’t pursue the man. Since I naively assumed that the adults in my community would help and introduce me to suitable young men, I didn’t fret about finding someone when I was younger.
In college, I began to learn how to interact normally with young men. Non-Muslim guys were the best. They had no romantic interest in me and the feeling was mutual. Best of all, they didn’t have the weird gender paranoia that the MSA boys had. Because I wear hijab, many of the MSA boys assumed things about me. One of their assumptions was that I don’t talk to boys at all. Another was that I am conservative. To be fair, many of my Muslim girlfriends shared these misconceptions. One of them once predicted that I would be the first in our friend group to get married. We all had a laugh about it.
But the joke’s on me. I’m one of the last people in almost all my social circles to get married. All of the kids I went to high school with are married. In fact, some of them are on second marriages. The same with my peer group from the mosque. The MSA boys and girls? Almost all are married except for me. This is also the case with my non-Muslim college friends. And thanks to laws being passed across the country, even my gay friends have been getting married!
The only social circle where I’m not a misfit because of my status is my close group of unmarried Muslim girlfriends. Some might consider us to be “too old and too career-minded” at this point in our lives. But these women are amazing. Professors, engineers, doctors, teachers, writers, you name it. We are intelligent 30-something women with sparkling, witty personalities. All of us are practicing Muslim women; some wear hijab and others don’t. Some are tall, some short. Some are dark(er) skinned, some very light. They’re all awesome. I frankly would marry any one of these wonderful women, if I were a Muslim man.
But I’m not a Muslim man; I’m an unmarried Muslim woman. And my pickings are slim. Not because Muslim men are terrible, but because I was never considered a desirable marriage match. Back when I was younger, I was the wrong color or ethnicity. Now, I’m still the wrong color and ethnicity and I’m also the wrong age. I’m not outrageously beautiful, I’m not rich and I’m not interested unleashing whatever “feminine wiles” are in order to find a husband. People often ask me, “Don’t you want to get married?” As if I’ve had zillions of proposals from men who would make Mr. Darcy go green with envy and I recklessly turned them all down.
I’ve had all of 3 marriage prospects in my entire life. The first was by a family friend who talked up Mr. Alif. I turned her down on account of his being much too old for me and his growing up in the home country, sharing no cultural commonalities with me, nor an understanding of what it means to develop a Muslim identity as a religious minority. Mr. Ba was a convert in my community. I turned him down because we were religiously incompatible: he was much more literal-minded and conservative than I am and he was also very macho and held traditional gender views. Mr. Ta was from the home country and had zero interest in living in America. He also had zero interest in taking no for an answer and stalked me via text, email, Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter for almost two years. You might think that at my age now, I wish that I had married one of them, but I firmly believe I made the correct decision each time.
Having said that, I’m aware that I have a real problem being realistic about romantic love. I freely admit that decades of reading Jane Austen and watching movies like Never Been Kissed has warped my mind. I’ve come to think of romantic love as something that only happens to other people. Characters in a book or movie. Friends of friends. Not to me. Not in this lifetime. My unrequited crush will not send me a letter ala Captain Wentworth and tell me that he lives half in agony and half in hope. He will not tell me that I pierce his soul.
I’m aware this is a huge problem; unrequited crushes have been the only romantic relationships in my life. That’s not healthy. I’m an unmarried Muslim woman of a certain age who has never been kissed. I’m lonely and scared of living the rest of my life alone, but I’m honestly trying not to be bitter about it. I am praying to gain courage to do something, wisdom to accept God’s will and a supportive partner. My subconscious cheers me on. At weddings of couples a decade younger than me, she tells me, “Inshallah, I’m next!”
Zaynab Mohamed is a 30-something Muslim woman who lives and works in an urban metropolis that is home to many married Muslim couples.