As much as I love sharing my dating stories, there are a lot of experiences that I haven't had. That's why, as part of It’s Not You, I'll be talking to people with a broad range of experiences to see how things are different — and how they're the same. Of course, these individuals don’t speak for entire demographics, but they do provide some insight into the nuances of the very human search for love and connection.
This week, I spoke with Suraya*, a 27-year-old Muslim woman living in Chicago.
Can you tell me a little bit about your faith?
“I was born and raised Muslim. My family is Muslim. They immigrated to the US in the ‘80s. I think probably the biggest point for any Muslim was post-9/11. I was 11 years old at the time, and very naive in my understanding about the faith. I didn’t understand the politics of what 9/11 meant, and it was just a very tough time for Muslims in general.
“After that, living through that, and being a young person in that time period, you’re like, What does it mean to be a Muslim? Should I be a Muslim? Are we terrorists? During my teenage years, I came to an awakening about what it means for me to be a Muslim. Even though I was born and raised in this religion, that was my own awakening as to why this was a way of life for me [and I decided to commit myself to this faith].”
Do you wear hijab?
What does that mean to you and your faith?
“I started wearing the scarf when I was nine. I had to go through a process of that, too, because you’re immediately recognized as a Muslim if you’ve got your hijab on. It’s not the same for men, now that beards are in style. They’re not immediately recognized. You can be a hipster or you can be a Muslim. [Laughs]
“For the personality type that I have, the hijab was very simple way for me to maintain a balance and a center and a sort of discipline that I needed and that I don’t seem to find in a lot of other ways in this world. I’m not someone who likes to be told to do things. But the hijab is as simple as putting a T-shirt on.”
Is dating someone who shares your faith important to you?
“Yes it is. Damn, that’s such a heavy question. [Laughs.] But the thing is, dating isn’t something that’s talked about in Islam.
“If you’re a conservative Muslim, your family gets you some men, you pick and choose what you want, and it’s done in a really quick turnaround period. And by ‘quick turnaround period,’ I mean that some people can be married in, like, a month. It’s very serious. It’s a very regimented thing. And I don’t knock any sort of trajectory or pathway to finding love or getting married or having a marriage. Because you have people who do this arranged marriage situation, and the marriages work and sometimes they don’t. And then you have the opposite, where it’s like, you’re on these dating apps, and you have these hookups, and sometimes it works, and other times it doesn’t.
“Being in this culture, and being in the broader culture of how dating is so common, one of my biggest questions of this year is, How come there’s no, like, seven simple rules for how to have a successful marriage?”
“It’s, like, humans have been alive for so long. We know we need to eat. We know we need to sleep. I don’t understand — people have been married for centuries. It blows my mind to know that you can try this conservative approach, or this non-conservative approach…”
… And neither one is guaranteed! You’re like, god dammit!
“Yeah! [Laughs] It’s hit-or-miss in both situations. So that’s all to say that those conversations come up a lot.”
But there’s no full-on “dating” that goes on in your community?
“My parents know that I talk to men with the purpose of dating for marriage. But they don’t encourage ‘dating.’ They have encouraged me getting married. Often. Forever. [Laughs]”
Sounds like my parents.
“I live in Chicago, and I live in this great neighborhood, so I meet people all the time. And you’re going to meet men — men who are not Muslim. And you know it’s difficult because I do see that men do want to start flirting with me. So, you think, Wow I also find this man interesting and intriguing. Yeah, dinner doesn’t sound like a bad idea. And then, eventually, you’ve got to say, Oh shit, is this my boyfriend? Are we dating? How did this happen?! I wanted a Muslim!
“I tend to find myself in these situations when I know that my ultimate goal is to marry a Muslim. Because there’s nothing higher than a spiritual relationship and a true spiritual connection. My spirituality is very important to me. And it’s important for me to know that, in the good times, we’re pulling from the same spiritual toolbox. For example, Ramadan just ended, and just to know that the guy that I’m seeing is going to want to go to the mosque with me. Not just wanting to go to the mosque with me, but is going to be the one to be like, ‘Hey, I’m going to the mosque for these late night prayers. Are you coming?’”
This isn’t the same, but I relate to those feelings when it comes to the prospect of kids, since I’d never get into a long-term relationship with someone who doesn’t want to have children. You want someone who is going to be able to enjoy sharing these experiences with you. And as much as a Christian guy might be able to support you, they’ll never really know what you’re going through.
“Exactly. So now it’s like, where the fuck do you find a handsome, attractive, intelligent, emotionally sensitive, family-oriented Muslim? The dating pool is SO SMALL. As a woman, it’s already hard to find someone who is not a scum bag. It can’t be true, but it feels like there are way less men then there are women.”
I mean, I live in New York City, and I feel like that all the time. And I don’t have a religious caveat involved. So I can only imagine what it’s like for you. When you’re dating, how does the topic of religion come up?
“It comes up quickly, because I do wear a scarf. So I’m easily identifiable as a Muslim. But if a guy is Muslim, he’s very quick to bring it up. He might just say ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’ [Ed note: this translates to “Peace be unto you” in Arabic, and is the standard salutation between Muslims.] And I’m just like ‘Oh ‘Wa-Alaikum-Salaam’ [Ed note: This translate to “And unto you peace” in Arabic]. He might ask what mosque I belong to.
“Now, if the guy isn’t Muslim, it’s just kind of easier to tell. Because the initial conversation is about anything else in the world aside from the religion. And then, maybe during the third or fourth conversation, it comes up.”
So how do you give the non-Muslim men the brush-off then?
“[Laughs] I just have to tell them! I am at this point in my life where I would love to build a family and settle down. If nothing else, I just want something that has substance and is meaningful. So I do tell the guy, ‘Hey I’m looking for something a little more serious, and I only want to date a Muslim man.’ And some guys are like, ‘I can convert!’ And I’m just like, ‘Stop it. You’re just saying that because you have rose-colored glasses on right now.’”
Wait, have you had men offer to convert for you?!
[Suraya laughs hysterically.]
You have! Damn, girl!
“I mean, they’ve said these things. But you know how men are. They’re just talking shit. They just don’t know the depths and the gravity of what that means and what they’d really commit to. And men who are like that, you’re just like, Come on. And then, some Jewish girl is going to come along and they’re just going to run off for her…”
Yeah, he could be saying this to you, and then tomorrow be trying on kippahs for her.
“Yeah, exactly! But yes, they’ve said it. And yes, I’m just, like, rolling my eyes.”
Good. So your fuckboy meter is in check, which is good. I’m very happy to hear that.
“It’s taken some years.”
Oh yes. I know. I’m 27 years old, and I feel like I’ve just calibrated my fuckboy meter. Okay so back to your parents. If they don’t advocate dating, then what happens if you meet someone?
“Well they advocate dating to lead to marriage. I do want to reiterate that ‘American dating’ is totally against Islamic standards. You’re not even supposed to be touching somebody of the opposite sex. Those intimate forms of touch are just meant for your husband or your family members or whatever, and not just for strangers.”
So let’s just say you were to meet a man that you really liked. How would the introduction go?
“And he’s a Muslim?”
Yes! That’s important to you!
“I know! I have to remind myself. [Laughs] So this guy, whatever, dream boat, finally comes and takes that next step. I would assume he’s already spoken to his parents about it. Actually, he’s had to already have spoken to his parents. He can’t make these decisions without them. So his parents have given him the okay to move forward. Then he would have to approach my dad and mom and introduce himself to them and kind of ask for permission that way. And then both families would meet and feel each other out. See if there were any mutual friends just to get more insight about that person’s character and that family’s character and the reputation that they have. And then, if both families have approved it, then we would get married.”
I think that’s how my Italian-American parents would like this to go down.
“[Laughs] I actually have a lot of appreciation for it. It shows that my support system fucks with your support system, and we’re all going to build this future together.”
Are you on any dating apps?
“I was, but then I got off, because I met somebody in real life and then I just really — I missed the excitement that comes with meeting somebody face-to-face. I wanted whatever relationship I was in to have that excitement that comes from an organic meeting, because swiping is hopeless, and it just felt very, fuck, like automated and robotic.
“Part of it is like the race thing, too, which is a little hard. Ethnicity comes up. I’m East African and there aren’t a lot of East African Muslims on these apps. And anyone who identifies as a Black Muslim — there are less of them on these apps. The free apps are a little more diverse, but people were less serious on those. But the one that I paid for seemed more serious. So, I was on the apps, and I didn’t have any luck on them. But my friends have gotten married off the apps.”
Alright so now we’ve got to talk about sex. I know that Islam does not permit premarital sex.
Okay, I’m not going to ask you about your own sexual history, but from what you’ve seen, does that shit happen?
“[Pauses.] Yes. Muslims are having premarital sex. But you have to include the disclaimer that Islam forbids premarital sex. Like, it’s the worst thing that you can do. It’s like the second or third biggest. But Muslims do do it.”
But it’s happening on the down-low.
“Absolutely. Like, all the way down. Like put the lid on it.”
Damn! In your experience, do people talk about their sex lives with their friends?
“I will say that Muslim women, if they’re having sex, married or unmarried, tend to be really reserved about the conversations they have, compared to my non-Muslim friends, who tend to be very open and descriptive about the things that go on in their sex lives.”
How does that topic even get broached in a relationships if both parties are aware of the fact that this is not something that should be done?
“I think what Islam does say is that if somebody has a sexual history, it’s not anybody’s business to talk about it. That’s between them and God. Anything that they’ve done is between them and God. You don’t have to repent to your future spouse all the things you’ve done beforehand, because it’s not about that.”
So nobody’s checking the marriage bed for blood.
“Shit, I’m not married so I don’t know. [Laughs.] I think that’s a very conservative thing that hasn’t happened around me or anyone I know. So I’d say no.”
I feel like when you reached out to me, you had a story that you wanted to tell me. What is that narrative?
“One thing that is important is that you never really hear about Muslims and romance. Even in the most traditional Islamic way, there’s so much romance. The prophet himself — there are stories of him being super romantic and sweet to his wife. But you never hear those stories. You hear more of the negative sides. Whatever the media portrays about us. Does that make sense?”
I hear you. The narrative, unfortunately, that gets spoken about is that women who are Muslim are, like, subservient or are not allowed to speak or are really beholden to their husbands in a negative way. But it seems like in the relationships that you’re describing to me, that’s not the case is at all.
“Oh no. Not at all. A lot of my girlfriends that are married, you know, they’re super well-educated. A lot of the Muslim relationships that I know, even my own parents who are conservatives, are two-income households. The women are not sitting at home waiting for their husbands to come back.”
I feel like that’s the perception a lot of people have about Muslim women.
“That’s not the case at all. The reason I even reached out was because, for a while, I didn’t know what my future would look like in terms of how you’re supposed to find the Muslim man who also has a good sense of humor, is intelligent, is family-oriented. And I didn’t realize the steps that people took to get to that and if they even have found it. Even in my friend’s relationships — did they find it, or what are the things they compromised on? I’m now realizing that there is no set path for that — for how to find that person.”
The beautiful thing about this is that everyone feels so isolated in their journeys to find love. That’s what compelled me to start writing — I felt so alone. And I knew that there had to be other people out there who felt like me. And to know that you live in Chicago, and you’re a Black Muslim woman — you could not have a further experience from my life...
“And I’m also 27! We’re the same age!”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
*Name has been changed.
After being raised on a steady diet of Disney movies, I expected to meet someone and fall passionately in love — but wound up collapsing under the pressures of modern dating. Luckily, I eventually realized that there's no "right" way to date, and that I need to find happiness within myself, no partner needed. It’s Not You is where I write to calm the voices in my head — and hear from all of you. Follow me on Twitter, on Instagram, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.