“You’re not like other Muslim women,” he told me with a quizzical smile, as his head tilted to one side. Perhaps he expected me to be flattered, but I wasn’t. While he waited for a response—expecting, perhaps, a favourable one—I sat with my mouth slightly ajar, willing my words to come.
It was spring, late enough for daylight to still linger, but too early for the commuters’ rush home. We were on the patio of a café in Toronto’s Kensington Market and up until he started talking about “other Muslim women,” the date had been going well. He was pleasant and polite and self-effacing in a way that added to his charm. He told me about his travels, including a stint in South Korea teaching English.
I was intrigued by the way he spoke about slowly and uncomfortably became aware of his own foreignness while he was in Busan, something I interpreted as a budding acknowledgement of white privilege. His self-reflection made him more attractive to me; his travels seemed exciting and belied a cosmopolitan outlook. All of this made it easier to feel a connection—superficial though it was—and for me to drop my guard that much faster. And then he compared me to other Muslim women.
People always assume I’m only interested in casual dating
This wasn’t the first time someone had implied that I don’t really look Muslim, though usually people pussyfoot around it instead of saying so directly. I understand this disconnect; my appearance and my faith are seemingly opposing elements. I don’t wear a hijab, which is the most visible marker of Islam. I also have piercings—septum, tragus and tongue—and several tattoos, even though body modification, with the exception of beautification, is frowned upon in Islam. (It is seen as vandalism of the unblemished holy body, but since I consider tattoos and piercings to be beautiful, I am comfortable laying claim to both parts of my identity.)
But it was a particularly frustrating to hear him say those words, because it came with the implication that other Muslim women were interested in marriage, whereas I must only be interested in casual dating. And actually, I want to get married.
I hate when people refuse to see me as an individual, instead pigeon-holing me as someone who isn’t really Muslim…or who’s not interested in a traditional relationship. They believe there’s a connection between someone’s values and their appearance and behaviour, which is why stereotypes are so powerful. But people are much more complex than that. I am much more complex than that. I can be non-traditional in some ways—for example, holding body positive, feminist and sex positive views—and yet still want a “traditional” relationship.
But actually, I want a relationship like the one my parents have
Because what makes me Muslim isn’t my looks, it’s habits—deeply-seated habits and behaviours that are influenced, at least in part, by my upbringing.
I was raised in a conservative household in Mississauga, Ont. My parents are from Somalia and as practicing Sunni Muslims, it was important for them to instil Muslim values and manners in me. In Arabic, these values are encapsulated by the terms adab and akhlaq, which refer to specific beliefs, behaviours, and actions that prioritize decorum, decency and morality. These weren’t hypothetical concepts for me; growing up, I witnessed my parents treat each other with kindness, taking care of each other with words and actions. I remember my father boiling water for the hot water bottle for my mother when she was unwell, or telling her to sit while he put away the groceries.
For me, wholesome family values mean what I saw my parents do: appoint themselves the keepers of the other’s heart, and embrace the obligations that stem from that. Commitment, responsibility, and clear vows to uphold certain specific roles (as defined and structured by the couple) holds enormous appeal. In short, I am looking for a conscious marriage with a like-minded partner that shares similar values and outlook.
Some men respond by challenging my feminism
I believe in openness and transparency, so I’m very clear about what I’m looking for when I meet a romantic prospect. But dating is hard, even without the complication of having my desires misinterpreted based on my appearance. For a long time, I felt like I could not ask for what I was seeking. So, when I was younger, I avoided the uncomfortable moment when I had to explain that I didn’t want to “see where things go” or “just date and see what’s out there”—I wanted to find someone to marry. I would quickly change the subject if I could, or if it was too late, I would laugh it off, even though that meant diminishing the importance of serious, committed relationships.
It took me a long time before I could embrace self-acceptance and vulnerability. Ironically, it took leaving Canada and travelling to Muslim-majority countries such as Morocco, Turkey, and Indonesia to find the freedom to be myself. It was being exposed to the diversity of Muslim women—women who wore hijabs but dated, or fasted during Ramadan but drank alcohol the rest of the year—to appreciate the nuances of people’s identities, and mine in particular.
My dating life has changed with my new-found confidence and the reactions to my authenticity vary. Sometimes, when I say I want to find someone to marry, the men keep silent, but I can see the unspoken questions in their eyes. Other times, I am met with incredulity. These men push back by challenging my feminism, perhaps unable to reconcile the idea of egalitarianism with the patriarchal roots of marriage. But as my parents have shown me, you can have partnership and equality in a marriage.
I haven’t had another encounter like the one during that spring afternoon in Kensington Market, but if I were asked that question today, instead of keeping mute, I’d have a response ready: “Maybe I am not like the Muslim women you’ve met. And that’s fine.”