Muslim Dating 101: If you’re a Muslim woman, don’t even think about falling in love with a non-Muslim. Despite the fact that Muslim men are, according to the Qu’ran, are permitted to marry women of the Abrahamic faiths (i.e. Jewish or Christian) and there is nothing that explicitly states that the same is forbidden for women, interfaith love is a total taboo for Muslim women, which makes dating in western countries like America a nightmare. Since we at MissMuslim believe in being a voice for the voiceless, this summer we’ll be featuring a series of stories highlighting the experiences of Muslim American women who are in or have been in interfaith relationships.
What better way to start than by publicly “outting” the author behind the series herself?
Since the moment I started to become a woman—aka hit puberty just shy of twelve years old—I’ve been forewarned time and time again about dating by several older members of not only my family, but my community as well. Technically in our religion, we should lower our gaze after the first time we set eyes on a man, I was told. In fact, in an “ideal” world, I should never even look at them twice. Of course, we all know that this is impossible when you have to communicate with the other sex on a regular basis. But still… there’s no such thing as dating—you should always be chaperoned when being courted, and only when you’re old enough, of course. In fact, just mentioning these things as a growing young woman was 3aib… but once you hit your mid-twenties, everyone expects you to produce a husband and children out of thin air. And don’t even think about nearing 30 if you haven’t found a suitable [see: Muslim, preferably from the same background] suitor yet.
With no open lines of communication about crushes and boyfriends between me and my mom, and DEFINITELY not me and my dad out of qdar/htarma (respect), I could only confide in and seek to emulate those around me. Like any normal growing child, I had my fair share of crushes here and there—in fact, my first crush might have been as early as Geovanni Gomes (he had the cutest dimples) when I was in elementary school.
It’s only normal that over the years, I found myself attracted to cute, nice (and definitely not so nice) boys who were not Muslim. The supply of Muslim boys was scarce—either they weren’t my type, I wasn’t theirs, or there were just very few around to begin with. But in the sixth grade, my mother made it very crystal clear to me that a non-Muslim was completely out of the question. No way could I date a gowri—abaden! How could I have a crush on John Lopez? I was totally and completely falling off the Muslim path.
As I got older, my identity crisis continued to develop. I found myself torn, always dangling between two cultures—not quite Algerian, not quite American—never truly finding solace on either spectrum. Eventually, I dated an Algerian boy but it took me a while just to warm up to the idea of telling my mom because I was only 16 and to her it was haram (even though my cousins were also dating boys in secret). He and I were on and off for nearly six years. Once I got to college and he felt I started to change aka began to forge my own, independent, third culture identity, our long distance relationship started to crumble. It was only a matter of time before it ended.
How can people be expected to maintain some sort of positive, healthy connection with a time difference of six hours and only a couple of short months to see each other out of the entire year? We finally called it quits my second to last year of college. Despite him being from Algeria and therefore sharing my languages, culture, AND religion, we weren’t able to make it work. Our differences were irreconcilable. His lived experience in Algeria, his environment, his day to day were so very different from mine— I joined a sorority, I went out with friends, I dyed my hair and pierced my nose; I was a bit too American for him and it resulted in a lot of tension, paranoia, anger, and so on. Where you grow up and who you surround yourself with have an enormous impact on your cultural frame of reference, or your way of interpreting, seeing, and doing things. It’s no wonder we had trouble seeing eye to eye.
With all of the angst, drama, and whirlwind of emotions that came with dating someone on another continent, it’s no surprise that once I graduated college, I craved a normal relationship with someone I would be able to share my life with all season round. All around me at Stony Brook, my Muslim and non-Muslim friends alike all had what I wanted: a significant other that they held hands with on their way to class nearly every day, someone to do something as simple as go to the gym or study with or as romantic as cook a homecooked meal for. These were all things that were virtually impossible when you dated someone back in a Muslim country where you A. Didn’t live and B. Had no location where you could share these things. In fact, most of the time my ex-boyfriend and I just ate and walked around downtown Algiers. Occasionally we would go to the beach. Dating isn’t that easy when you’re in Algeria—even more so when you only have two months there at most. It never occurred to me when I reentered the dating world after leaving Stony Brook and moving back in with my parents in New York City that I should limit my options to a non-Muslim; quite frankly, I didn’t care. I wanted to live my life. I wanted to be selfish.
While I feared God growing up, I also resented how this all powerful being in the sky could be so cruel to me. I hated how my parents would threaten to ship me back to the motherland when I’d be a little too mischievous for their liking, especially because I’ve always loved where I come from. But most of all, I loathed how my Muslim religion—which I realize now is actually mostly culture—stopped me from having the close relationship with my mother that I always craved and that all my girlfriends seemed to have with theirs. I don’t want to put the blame on my parents because I get that their cultural frame of reference is very different from mine – but I often wonder whether I would have swiped left on all non-Muslim men had my mom been more of the friend kind of parent than the authoritarian.
Once I hit my early twenties and my typically-super quiet dad saw all of my cousins around my age get married, he started to make his super limiting, aggravating expectations clear. “If he’s not Algerian AND Muslim, don’t even bother,” he started to remind me every now and then. Another time, he was Skyping with my aunt when she urged him to make sure that what had happened to their cousin Louisa’s daughters wouldn’t ever happen to his. See, Louisa’s daughters had done the unspeakable— they married men who not only weren’t Algerian, they were not Muslim. Unfortunately for my dad, his worst nightmare had already come true by that point.
It has been over three years since my boyfriend and I started dating, and I can say without a doubt that it has been the most challenging obstacle that I have ever had to face in my entire life. Once again, I find myself caught in the middle, only this time I’m torn not only between two cultures but between people that I love so dearly and unconditionally, with my family on one side and my boyfriend on the other. Despite everything we have put each other through, I do not want to choose between any of them or walk away from one over the other—and I shouldn’t have to. I will have my cake and I will eat it too, damn it.
Being in an interfaith relationship is not a walk in the park to begin with—there are plenty of kinks to work out when someone’s background is not at all similar to yours or when that person has been raised with a set of values, traditions, or societal expectations that seemingly clash with your family’s. It’s even more difficult when your relationship is deemed haram or forbidden and when your culture places a great amount of importance on what other people will say or think. Then, add to that, the fact that besides all the crazy shit in the media on Muslims, you’re your boyfriend’s only personal resource/connection to your religion and culture and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a relationship that’s certainly far from simple and ordinary. But when you’re a hopeless romantic and a hippy who thinks what this world needs now more than ever is for people to interconnect and create new generations of bad-ass, super diverse, loving, accepting families, you face that challenge completely (well almost) head-on.
“If he’s not Algerian AND Muslim, don’t even bother”
For me, the hardest part about being in an interfaith relationship as a Muslim woman is not that I have to lie and hide things from my parents and family— in fact, this story is my tell-all— but rather that their more traditional beliefs keep them from truly getting to know my boyfriend and in turn, isolate him from our culture. My heart breaks a million times over for him when he can’t come break fast with us for Ramadan or casually hang out with my dad shooting the breeze and talking about the damn good music taste they both have in common. There’s no such thing as boyfriends in our culture, Muslim or otherwise. A fiancé magically appears with his mother to ask for the girl’s hand in marriage. It makes me livid that as a result, all he knows about Algerian culture is the breadcrumbs that I provide him with here and there. And as a third culture kid, I am not the best source— my parents and family are.
I am so proud of my roots and my heritage, and I worry that it will only get harder for me to uphold them in the future because it’s very hard for him to relate to something so foreign (though he certainly does try). Who can blame him though? It’s not easy to continue to want to be a part of something that is so drastically foreign, seemingly out of touch, and most importantly, that seems to want nothing to do with you unless you convert. We can talk about how these things shouldn’t bother him, how he should just not care, until we’re blue in the face but at the end of the day, we’re only human. We don’t have a magic on/off switch for our feelings and for what bothers us.
At the same time, while the situation makes me very bitter and frustrated with my parents and family, I can’t hate them—even though I often wish that I was selfish enough that I could live my life without them and never look back. They are a product of their environment and upbringing—they don’t mean him or me any harm. In fact, from their perspective, I am the one hurting them by choosing to go against what they believe to be the truth and am only hurting myself by being with someone that they feel will never be able to truly understand me. 99.9% of Muslims have it in their heads that a non-Muslim woman can’t marry a “Person of the Book” (aka Jew or Christian) and is therefore signing herself up to eternal damnation if she ends up with one, which is also at the back of their minds. I refuse to ask him to convert, no matter how much easier it would make life for us in terms of my parents.
In the past three (almost four) years, I truly think I’ve personally grown and come such a long way regarding facing my parents and defending my relationship. When we first started dating, I never imagined I would be able to openly address the metaphorical elephant in my family’s living room (or groupchat) but now I feel more comfortable in doing so. It sucks so much to have a close relationship with my boyfriend’s family and love them like my own while mine seems to think I’m just going through a phase but I would have never imagined openly telling my parents that I was in love with a non-Muslim before I began dating “this one.”
The cat’s out of the bag and it’s not going anywhere. My boyfriend and I are probably the only two people on this planet who are so much alike while simultaneously so different (I know it sounds cliché but really there’s no better way to describe us). He’s the yin to my yang, the Clyde to my Bonnie, my proverbial partner in crime. There are times where we drive each other so far up a wall that it’s hard to see the ground below us. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to comprehend us. But the bottom line is, we get each other and love each other so fiercely that nothing else really matters. Life is a process of ups and downs, of lessons and growth, and I love being on that path with him as we both mature and come into our own individually and as a couple.
I know that there will be people who have so much to say, who will call me selfish and cruel for disobeying my parents, who will say I don’t love or respect them but they couldn’t be further from the truth. I love my family unconditionally—we’ve been through so much, long before my non-Muslim boyfriend even entered my life, and through it all I have never stopped caring or loving them, even if I don’t show it in the conventional, traditional ways I’m expected to because of the culture my parents are accustomed to.
I’ve finally gotten to a point though, where I don’t care what people think – even my family, no matter how much I love them. I know who I am, I know my worth, and I’m damn proud of the woman that I’ve become. I only wish that the fact that I’m dating someone who isn’t Muslim wouldn’t stop them from seeing that woman — the one who is so proud of her culture, who can’t wait to wear a karakou at her wedding, who is not without her flaws but whose heart is so big… the one who can’t wait to change the world for the better regardless of whether she’s religious or not.
The journey to gaining my parents’ acceptance has been and will continue to be extremely slow and definitely challenging, but I am a firm believer in everything happening for a reason and I know that they ultimately cherish and love me fiercely in their own way. After all, they did sacrifice their comfortable and successful lives only to slave away in unrelated meaningless jobs so that my siblings and I could have a better future and live the American Dream. Maybe I just see the world with rose-colored glasses on (sometimes), but I’ve failed them from a cultural/religious standpoint on more than one occasion and they haven’t disowned me yet.
Regardless of religious interpretation and personal beliefs, interfaith relationships between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man are inevitable in an increasingly globalized world. Prior to passing judgment and pushing people away, I urge everyone to put themselves in that Muslim woman and that couple’s shoes. Not all of these relationships end up working out—life is not a fairy-tale after all—but their existence should not be shunned, ridiculed, and considered taboo. I hope that through this series, we’ll be able to begin a frank, honest discussion so that we can all live happier, better lives regardless of what path we should choose to go on. I hope that other women like me will realize that they’re not alone and find that glimmer of hope that I personally spent the past four years searching through the Internet and social media desperately trying to find.