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June 2005

The Marriage Dilemma

by Shaden Mohamed

Sydney Australia

On my 22nd birthday it finally hit me - I was single and likely to remain that way for some time. The possibility of being middle-aged and desperately lonely was lurking in my mind.

As a young woman living in Sydney, Australia, and still trying to find her way in the world, being single is not the problem - it is the circumstance with which I remain single: my list of prospective partners is dictated by religion and culture because I am Muslim, Egyptian and aware that finding my soulmate in a non-Islamic society is like finding a Weapon of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

Many young Muslim women face this problem because they refuse to settle for the first Muslim man who comes along with the promise of marriage.

No Relationship Outside of Marriage

Under Islam, the only sexual relationship permitted between a man and a woman is within the context of marriage. By the teachings of the Quran, a man must respect, protect and provide for his wife and any child he has fathered. From these religious guidelines has stemmed a culture to protect young women from deceit and corruption.

That is why having a "boyfriend" is taboo. If he is not her fiance or potential future husband, then what reason do they have to form such a relationship? Both parties could be vulnerable to temptation and thus stray from their religious beliefs.

While there is nothing that forbids the sexes from interacting at gatherings or in a group environment, Muslims are encouraged to steer clear of meetings that would excite emotions towards a member of the opposite sex or lead to a breakdown of morality and modesty.

These guidelines are written in the Quran and are often at odds with the prevailing non-Muslim culture, where sexuality, for example, is accepted in almost all its forms, where having a lover (whether boyfriend or husband) is a normal part of life.

Arranged Marriages and Awkward Matchmaking

So when it comes to meeting my soulmate, I'm faced with a terrible quandary: if dating is not feasible, then how do I find and get to know a prospective "husband?" If you have ever heard the term "arranged marriage", well, this is where it stems from.

And no, it is not where the "poor 16-year-old girl" is forced to marry a wealthy 50-year-old man with a harem of 29 wives.

"Arranged" simply means the couple were introduced through friends or family, and they begin to get to know each other with the approval of both families. It's the equivalent of a blind date.

Those who are lucky overcome the problem by marrying a childhood friend, or falling in love with a colleague from work or university, for example. They have avoided the, "What are your intentions?" question, usually asked by the parents before they even meet.

They have also avoided the awkward matchmaking, often carried out by concerned friends or family. And most importantly, they have not fallen victim to the desire to abandon their faith and culture.

No Potential Partners and No Way to Meet

Many young Muslims in Sydney grow up, study and work in an environment where there are no potential partners. While many of my Egyptian counterparts chose to live out west, my family settled in the Sutherland Shire, where there is not a single mosque.

So why aren't there sufficient youth groups in my community to address this dilemma? Why isn't there a place where I can go and meet other people with the same interests and concerns as me?

While there are plenty of "segregated" Islamic youth groups, the suggestion of such a place where the sexes can meet has raised eyebrows among religious groups misinformed or sceptical about the need for such interaction. They fear the exploitation of young women looking for partners, but much of this fear is unfounded.

Many young Muslims - especially those who are studying at a tertiary level - interact with others regularly, both men and women, and very often with non-Muslims. So why should young Muslim men and women be denied access to each other?

The Need for Flexibility

Mufti Sheik Taj el-Din Al Hilaly, the spiritual leader of Australian Muslims, agrees that support is lacking on the issue because of ignorance.

"If a metal bar is rigid, it will snap if you try to bend it," says the mufti, as he explains the importance of flexibility and awareness. "There is nothing wrong with people meeting in a public space to interact and discuss important issues."

Although Sheik Taj has organised activities in order for young people to meet, the community must unite on this issue if such events are to continue taking place.

Sheik Taj is optimistic about the future, and talks of plans to provide a common space for young Muslims in particular. But until the blacksmiths of our community learn to forge a softer metal, opposition to such plans is inevitable.

So until then, my options are clear: remain single until I happen to befriend and fall in love with Mr Right, or wear a sign on my back that reads: "Muslim, single, contact my mother on ...."

Of Egyptian background, Shaden Mohamed was born and bred in Sydney, Australia, where she attained a degree in Media & Communications. As an accomplished writer, Shaden has a passion for educating and informing others in her community on the beauty of her culture. "My dream is to inspire people with my writing because I believe that literature is the most beautiful form of expression."

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