City of Brass

City of Brass

An ideal husband

This is a guest post by G. Willow Wilson.

Asra Nomani’s recent essay in Marie Claire, My Big Fat Muslim Wedding, lays out a scenario that has become familiar to everyone in the post-9/11 world: despairing Muslim woman is forced to choose between her (literally) white knight and a traditional marriage to a boorish, vaguely ominous Muslim man. Losing love to Islam has become as universal a theme as finding love in Paris. It’s the subject of high art, low art and everything in between: Samina Ali’sMadras on Rainy Days springs to mind, as does the much-hyped failed marriage of Princess Meriam Al-Khalifa and Lance Corporal Jason Johnson. The implication of Nomani’s story, like those I’ve just listed, is that there are no decent Muslim men on planet Earth–or, if by some miracle they do exist, they are so difficult to find that it’s not worth the bother. This is the crux of the argument that Shari’a law should be changed to allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, and perhaps the reason even liberal Muslim groups can be defensive and traditionalist when it comes to this point. It is an implicit condemnation of Muslim men everywhere: in the eyes of women, they do not measure up in any way that counts.


Nomani’s complaints about her Muslim ex-husband are indeed cringeworthy: he is cold, withdrawn, childish, and sexually worse than useless. But this litany of failings is not limited to Muslim men–not by a long shot. The story of a passionate woman in a stale marriage is as old as Helen of Troy. The theme is so perennial that without the specter of Islam to dress it up, it’s almost boring. This is a case of cultural amnesia: as soon as a Muslim man enters the picture, women everywhere forget about Thelma and Louise, The Good Girl and The Divorcee, and pretend that sullen oafish husbands are an Islamic phenomenon. If this was really true, poor Shakespeare–along with hundreds of thousands of modern divorce lawyers–would have been out of a career.


Out-marriage is an issue religious groups have been wrestling with for some time. Of course men and women fall in love. Of course it’s not always convenient to their respective cultural and spiritual norms. Out-marriage is of such concern in the Jewish community that its leaders have gone to extraordinary lengths to encourage romantic relationships between young Jews. If they are successful, it is because they are not up against the same barrier: Jewish men are not perceived (by Jewish women or anyone else) as inherently threatening and perverse. In western culture, Muslim men start the marriage process with a handicap–because of the way they are portrayed and the example that is made of them, even Muslim women have begun, consciously or unconsciously, to view them with suspicion.


This puts those of us in healthy Muslim marriages to good Muslim men in a difficult position. On one hand, there is an onus on us to provide a counterexample, and inject a little hope into the grim picture of Islamic marriage. On the other hand, people in happymarriages are usually (and for good reason) unwilling to write about the intimate details of their sexual and domestic lives in magazines. So I will close with the conclusion I’ve come to after years of listening to girlfriends Muslim and non complain about men: the reason Asra Nomani discovered a dirth of eligible Muslim men is the same reason Carrie Bradshaw discovered a dirth of eligible Manhattanite men. The good ones go first, and they go fast. The battle of the sexes–love gained and lost, marriages failed and personalities mistaken–was raging long before the demonization of Muslim men became fashionable. Choosing a spouse with religion in mind is not always a mistake, especially if your heritage and your faith are important parts of who you are. The trick is, as always, to recognize a good thing when you see it–and never mistake the bad for something more.

G. Willow Wilson is author of the Eisner Award-nominated comic book series AIR. Her memoir The Butterfly Mosque is forthcoming from Grove Press.

  • paagle

    So its the portrayal of Muslim men in some non-Muslim media distorting the perceptions of Muslim women that is the most important factor in the supposed dearth of marriage-worthy Muslim men? Not the gross imbalance between Muslim men’s ability to marry non-Muslim women while Muslim women can’t marry non-Muslim men? Hmmm….
    The former’s effect is vague and unquantifiable, but it does allow Muslimas the emotional satisfaction of blaming the mean nasty “other” for Muslim problems. The latter’s effect is obvious, direct and much more easily quantified, but then the problem would be with Islam and not the others. Thats no fun at all!
    As an aside, from an outsider’s perspective this gender biased out-marriage policy in Islam is indicative an aggressive, unjust nature. So you can marry our women and all is fine, but if we marry your women they are ostracised at best, murdered at worst? Why shouldn’t this piss off non-Muslim men? Why wouldn’t this lead to friction between communities?

  • jacqueline

    Amien Paagle. As a Muslim woman, I agree completely.
    I must say, Muslim have a bad reputation with Muslim women because they treat us like crap in the masjid and out. I can count on one hand the marriages I know within the community that are functional- those that seem happy are even less.
    Amazing that the marriages where the woman seems to be happy and fulfilled are more often than not situations where the husband lives abroad and only comes home for visits. As an American, that sends off serious warning bells for me.
    Personally, I had to become a hijabi and marry a ‘mash’Allah’ brother to be treated solely as a sex object. I have never had a relationship where I existed only when he was horny and not one minute sooner. It has been a degrading, soul-sucking, quiet hell. I know I am not alone- I recognize it in other women.
    Yet any time I speak of what’s happened to me and what I see happening around me, I am silenced by other women. Told I can not generalize. Told I have to protect Muslim men. Told suspicion is a sin. Told my feelings have no value, no place, I have to protect the tribe…
    Why? Especially when the tribe has let me see time and again that they will not protect me? Wasn’t Islam supposed to wipe out tribalism?

  • Willow

    Who’s trying to silence you? All I’m suggesting is that not all Muslim men are like your husband–who, if he is anything like you say, doesn’t deserve you. You might consider contacting a spousal abuse hotline to get help and consider your next move. If you prefer talking to other Muslims, there are Muslim-run hotlines as well. Here’s one: I strongly urge you to seek professional guidance.
    If your community is toxic–if your imam ignores or even causes problems within local Muslim families, or urges you to stay with an abusive spouse–get out. By any means necessary. Know that there is more out there. I’ve been blessed to live in socially responsible, lively Muslim communities and have known many wonderful Muslim men. (And married one.) They are out there. Promise.

  • Caroline

    Willow is probably too diplomatic to mention it, but there’s another reason that some women (like Carrie Bradshaw) have trouble attracting good men: because they themselves are narcissistic and something less than ideal spouses. Decent traditional men are going to avoid women who are promiscuous, who don’t understand the trade-off between autonomy and security, who don’t like putting the welfare of children or old people before themselves, who are engaged in some form of self-worship (career, fitness, fashion, as Shaykh Helminski puts it), who prefer religion to follow their whims rather than vice versa, and so on. These women make themselves unattractive, then whine that they cannot find a good spouse.
    The other factoid that might have been worth a mention is that the shuykh actively discourage Muslim men from marrying out, especially in non-Muslim lands where there are so many unhealthy influences that a practicing father may find overwhelming. Being able to marry out is NOT a privilege, it is an extra burden, for those that value the preservation of their faith and values.
    Anyhow, as for Asra’s newfound white knight — it is hardly surprising given how much she has internalized orientalist paradigms and the wackier bits of pop culture. It is also slightly amusing. Except, perhaps, for poor Shibli.

  • faheem

    great article. more scientific proof in the link below.

  • shelina

    The author is absolutely right to say that the most common stories of marriage about Muslim women are portrayed as a choice between a “white knight and a traditional marriage to a boorish, vaguely ominous Muslim man”.
    I agree that we need to hear a wider range of stories, and that is one of the reasons that I wrote my book Love in a Headscarf, to try and convey humorously and compassionately that there are other love stories within Islam and Muslim cultures that reflect the pursuit of marriage as part of faith, and something which ultimately is the choice of the man and the woman based on faith, and not on prevailing stereotypes.
    Do take a look:

  • Dean Esmay

    As a side issue: comparisons to Judaism are a little hazardous. Although religion and culture usually go together, in Judaism it’s more than that. In Judaism–which is a tribal religion, not a universalist religion–if you’re born a Jew you’re a Jew until you die, no matter what. It doesn’t matter what you believe, or what you do. You can become Hare Krishna and you’re still a Jew. It’s innate to the religion itself: it doesn’t matter what you believe, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’re either born a Jew or you’re not. And, they actively discourage conversion to Judaism. You can do it, and it’s a lot of work, but they don’t actually want you to do it. By doing so, you’re not seeking sanctification from God, all you’re doing is trying to join the tribe, and they don’t want to make that easy.
    I mention all this because I know that like Christianity, Islam is a universalist religion. Anyone can become a Christian, anyone can become a Muslim. Judaism isn’t like that. When Jewish people are going out of their way to see their kids marry Jews, they aren’t (exactly) spreading the faith, they’re literally trying to save their tribe.
    I’m being didactic, I know, so I hope you’ll indulge me. My point is, the Jewish comparison doesn’t really work. When you’re raised Catholic the idea is that you’ll marry a good Catholic boy. You’re raised Greek Orthodox, you’ll marry a good Orthodox boy. You’re raised Muslim, you’ll marry a good Muslim boy.
    With the Jews it’s way deeper than that. And just so you know, I’m Catholic so I’m not advocating my own point of view.
    With the Jews, when you say “marry a good Jewish boy” you aren’t just saying “he’s a good boy.” What you’re saying is “you must help prosper the Jewish species.” It’s way beyond cultural norms, way beyond “he’s a good boy.”
    I don’t know if I said that all right, or, if it made sense, I’m just adding it as information.
    (By the way, Willow. “Dirth?” Are you kidding?)

  • Dean Esmay

    And by the way Willow, I wasn’t attacking you. You just misspelled a word. No harm no foul, I was just giving you grief. It’s “dearth,” rhymes with “earth.” 😉
    Spelling in English is a maddening set of contradictions, ain’t it? :-)

  • Dean Esmay

    Now I feel like I’ve been a jerk. :-(

  • Sha Zameen Razeek

    Thanks for this great article that makes a lot of sense and puts things into perspective. Things that are characterized as Muslim problems are usually problems that are faced by all communities. It’s just that when a muslim comes out with a story, it tends to gain a lot of publicity, in turn making people assume that it’s a muslim problem.

  • Willow

    Hi Dean! I blame my good-for-nothing spell check. I’m a red-blooded consumer of technology and I expect my computer to correct me whenever possible. I regard this as a failure on the part of Sony and/or Microsoft.

  • safiyyah

    I absolutely LOVED reading this article, your writing style and content are both excellent!
    as a happilymarried muslimah, i agree with everything you say here, especially that marriage/romance/love problems are NOT muslim problems, but human ones…
    i really do feel sorry for my muslim brothers, we often ignore the way they are stereotyped…(i write for muslimahmediawatch,org where we critique biased representations of muslimahs in the media).
    marrying someone based on shared faith is something i personally believe in and am very lucky to have found my “ideal husband” – a practicing muslim, kind, compassionate, romantic, deeply religious, egalitarian,,,etc etc,, but don’t feel that every1 should see it that way, i admire people who marry across religion and have strong healthy marriages whilst still practicing their respective faiths, that must take a lot, i can only imagine, and admire.
    there are good reasons why we wouldnt want to write about our intimate domestic lives, but perhaps we need to shape a discourse without all the gory detals….

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Ali from Canada

    One important reason why there are so few available Muslim men is that Muslim women have turned their backs on marriage. Why should a man wait until his 30s to finally settle with a Muslim woman when there are plenty of Christian women who are much less demanding and very happy to marry when he is in his 20s? Muslim women should either marry a Muslim man or go ahead and marry a white man and have Christian or atheist children — but stop complaining.

  • monirkhangt09

    Very nice post ANd very helpful

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