Contributing Author: Abeer Minhas
I remember meeting a hakim along the path to knowing love, who once told me that God must destroy all idols. I had come to him with a broken heart, lamenting the fact that long lasting partnerships eluded me. I harbored fantasies of what it would be like for a relationship to endure. At the same time, I allowed cruelty and neglect to pervade relationships, putting prospects on a pedestal, and I did not commit to the work that love requires. I had turned them into objects of my affection. This is how I understood that the hakim wasn't talking about worshipping golden cows. It is much easier to love the idea of someone, than to see who they are. To carry on unaware of yourself and your needs, instead of revealing vulnerability, uncertainty, and imperfection. But this is how many of us enter into relationships with each other. Whether we're searching for marriage or a fling, we don't see one another.
We inhabit a culture obsessed with perfection, one that is simultaneously mired in prejudice and structural inequality. If a prospect does not meet our extensive standards based on class, race, or level of religiosity, we toss them aside to find another. Why settle for anything less when we have so many options? In such a culture, we turn people into objects or idols. They represent ideas that promise to improve our deen or veer us off track. They symbolize racial and cultural fetishes as well as familial expectations. When the search for love is premised on these notions, it is difficult to realize our longterm needs and to truly love each other.
In bell hooks' groundbreaking work, All About Love, she talks about a pervading sense of love illiteracy in our culture. We mostly learn what love is from dysfunctional models in the media, from our families, and communities. Her primary concern is how love is mystified through intangible definitions and damaged by power dynamics. While many writers philosophize about love, we are not instructed on its practice. Most importantly, we aren't aware of how sexism, racism, classism and homophobia inhibit our ability to know love.
It's hard to recognize how prejudice informs the way we pursue relationships beyond the typical racial and classist profiling of marriage prospects. We hear khateebs declare that Islam is inclusive of all races, yet this is not reflective of the reality. Many of our families have stipulations for our suitors that greatly limit our choices. They must be from the same tribe, fair-skinned, and of a certain body type. On the other hand, some only date or marry those outside the ummah stemming from community-loathing, marginalization, lack of belonging, and even fetishizing another race. But these lines are often blurred. We don't have the opportunity to explore love prospects within our community until we reach the point of settling down. This is due to a great amount of cultural shaming, gender segregation, and imbedded homophobia. For many young muslims, we learn in Islamic school that improper gender interactions are a sin. We fear having feelings in case it's a transgression against God. Inhabiting these strict homosocial spaces makes it easier to stereotype and misunderstand one another when it comes time to talk about marriage.
bell hooks dedicates much of her writing to exploring the intersection between power dynamics and love. She begins by pointing out gender disparities based on heterosexual relationships. Early on, girls are socialized to desire romance, to pursue longterm relationships, and cultivate themselves as marriage material. Men receive a very different education on love, which translates into inequalities at an intimate level. This idea rings true in our current state of straight relationships. Many Muslim women have confessed that they cannot find male partners who understand love as deeply as they do. Some male partners exert their power over a relationship by being emotionally unavailable, elusive, and condescending to women. In fact, these same men may admit their resistance to vulnerability. They are socialized to be the family leaders, breadwinners, and pillars of stoic strength. In this model of masculinity, men are at a disadvantage. They must fear emotional honesty in order to uphold societal expectations of manhood. As a result, this fear inhibits connection, intimacy, and honesty.
So how do all these pieces fit together and why is it important? The way we are currently socialized does not prepare us to be real with one another. Contrary to popular belief, biodatas, CVs, and carefully crafted dating profiles are not a gateway to love. When looking for a partner, our expectations stem from fantasies and our particular socialization. I was once told by a Muslim guy who only dated white girls that I was the perfect blend of white and brown, Muslim and secular, and everything his parents wanted for him. This man did not really know me, but he thought he did based off of superficial identity markers. What's worse is how he looked to me as the solution for all his problems in the same way that men look at hijabis as tools to improve their deen. In the act of creating ideal partner checklists, we are itemizing whole human beings. Reducing them to words and identities that don't encompass their humanity. Because we do not spend time learning about love or gender dynamics until we're pressured to get married, we misunderstand and mistreat each other. Our greatest barrier on the path to love lies in the assumption that we know what it takes, when there is still much work to be done. We must smash our monumental expectations and erect new spaces for love.