Are Muslim women being left up on the shelf?

Picture of a man's and a woman's hands, with the woman's decorated in hennaWhy British Muslim women struggle to find a marriage partner | Syma Mohammed | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

Syma Mohammed is claiming that Muslim women find it significantly more difficult than men to find a partner, as evidenced (she says) by the disproportionate number of women to men at various Muslim marriage events in the UK. She offers a number of explanations, including the fact that Muslim men can marry “people of the book” but women can’t (they must marry Muslims), and that Muslim men are likely to be able to get a wife from “back home”, while women are unable or unwilling to do this. I do not believe the situation is as rosy for Muslim men looking for wives as she makes out.

For a start, in fact very few practising Muslim men marry non-Muslim women. Many scholars recommend against it, as men are expected to make every effort to ensure that their children are raised as Muslims, and this means they see both their parents praying regularly and neither of them (for example) drinking alcohol. In fact, some even say that it is forbidden in a western context as we do not live in a Muslim country, and so the husband cannot guarantee that the children will be raised Muslim if the marriage breaks up and the mother objects. This cannot account for any significant surplus of unmarried Muslim women.

Second, one cannot entirely rely on the disproportionate number of women at these marriage events as a guide, because men and women may have different reasons for going to them. It could well be that the women who attend want to choose their own spouses because they do not want to rely on their own families to choose one for them, as the author says, because they want someone on her intellectual or achievement level, if not higher, and perhaps someone who might have a different mentality to someone their families might find for them. This is less likely to be a problem for men, who are not expected to obey whoever they marry.

She does not acknowledge that men are often expected to have a home ready for the wife to move into, or at least, have a steady job that can pay for all her needs. In theory, a man is expected to be totally responsible for meeting all the wife’s and children’s needs, such as food, clothing and shelter, although many families now accept that it is impossible to do this on one income in London unless one is very wealthy. In many Muslim countries, men cannot marry until their mid-30s because families demand high dowries for their daughters and, sometimes, gifts for themselves also, as well as an expensive wedding and feast and so on, and this is still true with some Muslim immigrant families here. If a man is finding it difficult to get work (as many men are given the economic climate), he is much less likely to be able to persuade a family to allow their daughter to marry him (and the woman does need the family’s permission).

Finally, converts often find it particularly difficult, because immigrant Muslim families are often wholly unwilling to allow their daughters to marry converts. In some cases, they will entirely refuse someone from outside their ethnic or tribal group; some will assume that someone who has experienced life outside Islam will go back to their old life, and some rejections are simply racist. This is not to say that this is never a problem for female converts, but Muslim concepts of “suitability” often demand that the husband have some advantage over the wife in wealth, profession, family history or whatever as he is the head of the household. A female convert will often express the desire to marry an Arabic-speaking man, which is likely to be greatly easier for her than for a male convert, particularly if the Arab is from one of the old Arab tribes.

None of this is to say that a woman who marries easily is guaranteed a satisfactory marriage, but there are factors which may make it easier for a woman to get married, particularly a convert, than a man. It may be easier for a well-educated Muslim man of immigrant background with a good job and a nice house to get married than a similarly well-placed woman, but it is not easier for men in more reduced circumstances.

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