This article first appeared on Beliefnet in 2003.
As I begin my annual Ramadan fast this week, I'm not celebrating the way my mother did in Pakistan, or even the way I did as a child in Colorado. My mom's Ramadan dining table was filled with South Asian delicacies. She and her brothers, sister, and parents would gather just before sunset to open their fasts for the iftaar meal. Freshly fried onion fritters with mint chutney; spicy lamb chops with tamarind and plum chutney; soft, hot, doughy naans as well as fried tortilla-type bread called "parathas"; chicken tikka with another kind of bread called "chappatis"; pudding made of carrots grown on my grandfather's farm and other sweet dishes called "halwa."
My mother and her siblings would sit before this grand table, eyeing the items that my grandmother had spent the whole day preparing and whose scent had filled their home.
For me, this same rite of opening the fast includes warming leftover pasta in my microwave. If I'm feeling spunky, I might order Indian food for delivery. My dinner companion is Alex Trebek, hosting Jeopardy. I pray by myself and then decide whether or not to go to the gym. The only scent filling my apartment is from my neighbor's evening cigar.
If I were married, as I should have been 10 years ago under Pakistani cultural standards, I would not be opening my fast alone. And this Ramadan, like me, many Gen X Muslim women will also be fasting alone. According to statistics compiled by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), American Muslim women in their twenties and thirties outnumber Muslim men in the same age group two to one.
Ramadan is family time. My mother and her family, for instance, after eating the feast at iftaar would pray together and then have another meal - dinner - together, where they would discuss the day's events and plan the next day's fast. Traditionally, the last 10 days of Ramadan in Muslim countries are filled with frenzy in preparation for the Eid holiday that comes at the end of the month. The wedding season begins soon thereafter, packing schedules with nightly wedding events. Eligible women are at the dressmaker's store daily, begging the head tailor to complete the new, fancy outfits they commissioned before Ramadan. They want to look their best at the weddings - the site of much matchmaking in Pakistan.
For Muslim women in America, however, finding a mate is not so simple. Many female readers of my first book have recently begun asking: where do I meet eligible men who are my age, who will support my career and help me raise a family, and who are also Muslim? This query was probably the most frequent one I heard when I attended the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) Convention on Labor Day Weekend. (I also heard, quite frequently, "Wearing hijab is required," from Muslim men about the same age.) The fact that these women were asking at ISNA shows how dire the situation has become. ISNA is populated primarily by immigrant Muslims and their children. Because there is no matchmaking wedding season in America, ISNA fills the void. How? To put it bluntly, the annual convention is known as a "meat market," where second-generation Muslims flock from all over the country to check each other out.
I was stunned! If you know anything about ISNA, you know how odd a "dating" event at ISNA is. (Imagine an evangelical Christian conference hosting a keynote speech explaining how to support gay rights, and you'll see why I was surprised.) But perhaps ISNA is finally taking notice of the marriage crisis gripping many young American Muslims.
Sadly, speed dating is probably not the answer. Reports from the event were that well-intentioned women in their late twenties showed up, only to meet men who were either dressed gang banger or like maulvis and just shy of their sophomore year in college.
"Aunties were gathered outside the speed dating room, inspecting all the women who came in," a dotcom founder attending ISNA told me, rolling his eyes.
"Just like back in Pakistan," I added.
I appreciate that ISNA is trying to address the marriage problem in a creative way. It's too bad, though, that the effort was not fruitful.
One online Muslim dating service had a strong presence at ISNA, giving away lipsticks and tote bags at an exhibit hall booth. The company's promotional flyer, with a picture of a happy, young Muslim couple (of non-descript Arab or South Asian ethnicity) was supposed to have been included with the materials each registrant received when they checked in--a spot the company had paid for. But at the last minute, the conference organizers pulled the plug, leaving the flyers to be passed out individually or stacked on tables. The woman in the flyer was not wearing a hijab, and ISNA didn't want to be perceived as endorsing her lack of modesty.
One of the purposes behind Ramadan is to learn what suffering feels like, to experience what those who are hungry do every day. Waking up alone in the early morning hours, by myself, in the dark, to eat a pre-dawn breakfast is not easy. When I fast at my parents' home, I usually have a family member to cajole or entertain me. Or my mother will simply stay up all night to make sure I wake up in time and then make her own version of her mother's feast.
But to fast alone--to fast single--makes the process more alienating than it already is. Eating eggs and burnt toast at 5 a.m., watching a Saudi maulvi recite the Qur'an on cable, is a far cry from the eventful Ramadan gatherings my mother told me about when I was little. Her father forced her and each of her siblings to drink a large glass of water and a banana. His instruction was that, if you were going to fast for the day, these two items were essential, and he would not let any of his children fast without having eaten them.
Ramadan single is perhaps, in a way, reaching a truer meaning of Ramadan. Although families observe Ramadan as a unit, Ramadan is actually not meant to be fun. Ramadan alone is more suffering than Ramadan together. It can make you more sympathetic to the plight of those who are hungry, helpless, and alone. For those who fast the full 30 days with sincerity, great rewards are promised. Hopefully, for my female readers, a mate will be one of them.