Sunday, September 25, 2005

How can something that feels so right be wrong?

Note: This piece of writing is completely based on my own opinions & experiences. Although I can't speak for all Muslim women, I've had this discussion with enough girls to be comfortable using "we" in some cases. In addition, even though I am mostly familiar with the Khoja community, I know that this debate isn't unique to us. I also realize that this may offend some people, for which I apologize.

Last summer, during a "sister's circle" at my mosque, the topic of discussion was marriage and education. As more and more young Muslim women are pursuing education be it a Bachelor's degree or beyond, this subject matter is a huge point of contention.

As the debate progressed, the discussion became education vs. marriage, presenting the two as irreconcilable aspects of life rather than a productive conversation about how the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Since a good friend of mine and I were the only two "older" girls that had pursued education and were not married, we both were inevitably highlighted.

Some women started talking about how educated girls are "too picky" or "too fussy" when it comes to accepting a proposal. Some even insinuated that girls pursuing their education or career were giving those goals a higher priority than marriage.

In many Muslim communities, once a girl turns 18 or 19, community members start giving her the "look" expecting that any day, her engagement will be announced. For girls who are in their early-mid twenties without a diamond on their finger, we are sometimes even considered by many as "old maids."

All Islamic seminars that I have attended on marriage emphasize that both guys and girls should be careful about choosing a partner based on compatibility, etc. But then why is it when a guy presents certain criteria that he is not willing to compromise on, he is considered responsible. But when a girl does the same, she is being anything from too "idealistic," "picky,' "fussy" or even "un-Islamic."

The most frustrating thing is the assumption that women pursuing an education or career don't want to get married, when in many cases, that is simply not true. We just haven't found the right guy. Honestly speaking, finding the guy you want to spend the rest of your life with, is just not as easy as picking out your favorite kurti from the closet and trying to find a matching hijab.

My biggest pet peeve is when people talk about how important it is for Muslims, especially women, to get an education and get involved in various activities; but when it actually comes to supporting them, the buck stops right there.

Although I've had to deal with this issue from elders of my community before, what has been really exasperating is to see a similar attitude by some young Muslim guys. I've heard many guys talk about how they're glad when they meet independent women who are ambitious, have already embarked on their career and considered a "breath of fresh air." However, when it actually comes to committing and supporting women in their career or educational goals, many of them are unwilling or scared to take that leap. I'm in no way implying that all guys are like that or that some of them are not sincere because I know many who are not that way. But unless more guys actually say, "I do," it is just going to seem like lip service to many girls.

The most hurtful part for me has been is that I question my career choice all the time. I wonder if it was a mistake not to choose something that was more "marketable."

But then I try to remind myself why I chose to do what I do in the first place: after 9/11, I decided that more Muslim voices were needed in politics, and I felt the best way for me to serve God was by serving His people. My education and my work has allowed me to explore the diversity of humanity and the world we live in, which makes me feel close to Allah and proud of Islam like never before.

Many of my Muslim female friends – no matter what their career choice is – feel the same way. So then why is the core of our very being attacked? Why are we so ostracized? Muslim guys – of all ages – need to start being comfortable with women who can talk about Brad Pitt one minute, the future of Palestine the next and a chicken recipe the minute after that.

When Napoleon said, "The hand that rocks the cradle rocks the world" he had a good point. We need to realize that educated Muslim women are crucial for the healthy growth of Muslim communities, especially if Muslims want to prove to the world that we too have a lot to offer humankind. It is time we recognize that educated women are assets to Muslim communities, not liabilities.