Cover of the upcoming book, Love, Inshallah, out 2/14/11. The description states, “In this groundbreaking collection, American Muslim women writers sweep aside stereotypes to share their real-life tales of flirting, dating, longing, and sex." 

Okay, let’s reserve judgement for now, and for the moment just be glad that no veils were enlisted in the making of this book cover. One stereotype down, a million to go.

Choices by Anjabeen Ashraf

“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.”

Amazing post from Love, Inshallah.  Spot on.