Saturday, January 4, 2014

If I Had Married Young

Many Muslims tell us that we should marry early—and early usually means late teens and, at the latest, early 20s. Mid- to late-20s is “too old” and by then, we’ve reached the level of spinsterhood. And no one wants to marry a spinster, right? So here are some reasons why I am so, so glad that I didn't marry young and didn't listen to anyone who was telling me to marry--and completely ignore people who think that girls above the age of 18 are "too old" to be marrying now.

Note: None of this is to suggest that I condemn other people's choices to marry young, though I know that in many cases, they're not the individuals' own choices but they end up getting married young out of pressure from parents/family or are blackmailed in some way or another due to certain religious and cultural beliefs. I wish everyone well, especially those who have been or are in such situations.

When I think about who and what I was when I was younger, in my teens and early 20s, I make myself laugh. It’s not that I pity my then-self, and it’s not that my then-self surprises me. In fact, if it wasn’t for who I was then, I wouldn’t be who I am today. You see, in my late teens and early 20s, I had no idea who I was... like most other people in that age range. I was a biology major because I wanted to become a doctor, like every other Pakistani student you know. Not once did I ponder over this expectation and whether this was my dream, too, or whether it was something I was expected to do because it looks good to be a doctor and to tell people your daughter is a doctor. Basically, I had no idea what I wanted to be but was going with the flow because it was convenient and safe.

I was a huge fan of Zakir Naik. For anyone who knows this medical-doctor-gonet-televangelist, feel free to let out a heartfelt laughter. I do. Not to make fun of Zakir Naik or anything, but I don’t have much respect for his audience or his intended audience, and certainly not for him. So I was introduced to him in early 2007, and I’d spend nights and days listening to his lectures, reading his articles and everything else that was available on his website at the time (the website is now different, and most of his articles and Q&A pages have been published in the forms of books now). I was mesmerized by his every movie and word and “logic,” and each time he’d “win” an argument with a Christian or an atheist or a Hindu, I would applaud with a huge smile on my face. I even would wish that one day, he would become the president of India. Everyone would become Muslim then! Yet, by April of the same year, hardly less than four months later, I had started to note too many gaps, too many contradictions, too many double standards in his arguments and teachings, and I was slowly starting to question his authority and knowledge. He presents his teachings on women as though they were “Islamic” and “good” but they are demeaning, misguided, and misogynistic. He has no tolerance and respect for non-Muslims—by which I mean non-Sunnis, actually. He does not let people challenge his opinions and claims without mocking them or indirectly encouraging the audience to laugh at the questioner by repeating what the person has said in a humiliating manner.

I realized that the reason South Asian Muslims worship this man is not because he’s “knowledgeable” (because if they did their research, they would see the truth for themselves) or because he’s a “scholar” (believe it or not, many do consider him a scholar), but because he had been a medical doctor before he became a polemical preacher. And we all know how South Asians view doctors. That’s why we can marry only doctors and can become only doctors. A doctor can do or say no wrong, and his status as a medical doctor gives him the legitimacy to present everything on Islam, and especially on Islam and science, as the truth and nothing but the truth. Never mind that we often have no idea what he is saying—all that matters is that he’s challenging, often by cutting them off and sometimes by mocking them, anyone who has the audacity to challenge our beautiful religion. Thank God for people like Zakir Naik to save our faith from the evil monsters out there.

The point is, in my late teens and early 20s, I was the kind of person who thought Zakir Naik was the best thing after pizza. I would’ve even readily married him if he’d asked me to. I would also have not married anyone who did not love Naik as much as I did because it would’ve meant they were not following the “true” Islam, which is what many South Asian Muslims tell me today when they ask what I think about him and I respond that he makes for a fascinating study but not someone I would consider an authority on Islam.

I was also generally a judgmental Muslim girl who thought that my interpretation and practice of Islam were the only correct ones because, I don’t know, the sources I was using were the superior ones. I thought girls who didn’t cover their heads had no respect for themselves. I spent a significant amount of time during my du’a time after prayers praying for all non-Muslims to be converted to Islam, and I was heartbroken when a good friend revealed to me she was Shi’a: I prayed for her becoming a “Muslim” too.

I could not sleep when I’d see, read about, or hear someone challenging mainstream teachings of Islam.

If I had married at that time, or if I had gone searching for a husband at that time, I would’ve ended up with the wrong person, and I’m certain I would be miserable. The only benefit young marriages may have—that even, for some people, not for all and certainly not necessarily—is that they might refrain from pre-marital sexual activities. And if the marriage works out and the couple is happy with each other and survive a successful marriage till the end of their lives, they were among the lucky couples out there who enjoyed a lifetime companionship and love. But lifetime companionship is not guaranteed with early marriages, and they can come with late marriages a well.

Then there’s the religious/cultural problem. My mother has been telling me ever since I was about twenty years old to “please get married; you’ll have more freedom that way.” Why on earth would marriage be liberating, you might ask, right? Well, that’s easy: because as unmarried women, most of us (Pakistanis and Pashtuns especially) don’t have much freedom, and our parents are constantly worried about every move we make, every statement we utter that becomes known to “people” can destroy their reputation. There’s always the risk that we might never get married, and unmarried women are burdens on their families (because traditionally, in South Asia at least, unmarried daughters are supposed to stay at their parents’ house; when the parents die, they are passed on to their brothers. If they don’t have brothers, they’re, simply put, doomed for life and are the excellent target of everyone’s pity). Of course, things aren’t the same in the U.S., though, so why would our parents still be anxious to marry us “off”? Because ideas like that are really hard to give up. Their reputation is still always under threat by anything we do and say that anyone ever comes to know about. Once we’re married, our parents pass their responsibility of caretaking and control on to our husbands and in-laws. As my mother tells me—that I know isn’t entirely true—“once you’re married, I will leave you to your husband, and then you can do whatever you want that your husband approves of. I’ll just tell people to go bother your husband instead of me when they don’t approve of something you do.” So there’s a possibility that marriage will free us if we marry someone who loves and respects us and whom we love and respect as well, someone who doesn’t believe in “letting” us or “not letting” us do things but who respects our choices and recognizes our agency, power, and will. Someone who advises us as a friend and life partner but doesn’t order us around. Someone who doesn’t feel threatened that we might do something that could harm his reputation because our dignity, health, and happiness—not his or his family’s reputation—are his priority. In that sense, yes, marriage will be liberating. But what are the chances of that happening for most women? Because let’s face it – it’s more likely that we’ll end up with someone who thinks he has the natural (read: religious, cultural) right to dominate and control us. Who’s willing to take that risk, right? In that sense, then, marriage becomes hell, not liberation at all.

Early marriages, I believe, have more harm than benefits. No one stays the same person they are in their teens or late teens or twenties (early or late). Yes, everyone changes, and that’s expected during marriage as well, but the issue is that some of us change so drastically that we become whole new persons. If I had married when I was younger than I am now, I would’ve married someone who would fall into the category of those I have a hard time respecting because of their outlook on life, Islam, and other people. Sure, he may have changed with me over the years, but most people I know who were like me when I was younger are the same way today as well. I do not believe I’m necessarily better than those people, but I do believe that I’m necessarily better than who I was back then. And I feel better, too. I feel liberated and happy to not have the burden of judging people and submitting to interpretations of Islam and women’s rights and non-Muslims’ rights that I find chauvinistic, un-Islamic, and absolutely wrong.


Dare to opine :)

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