Muslim Americans on Finding Love as Third Culture Children Come Adulthood


When 21-year-old Mariam Mokhtar started taking karate lessons for fun with her little brothers, she expected to exercise and learn self-defense, not meet her future husband. Mokhtar and Rai Shaw were both in high school at the time, and they became friends throughout the class.

“We were doing karate for years,” she says. “We saw each other like every week, and, you know, it starts out like nothing, and then you become friends because you see them all the time. And then yes, things developed from there.

A year after they met, he knew he wanted to marry her. She wasn’t so sure.

“One day he said, ‘I love you,’” Mokhtar said. “And I was like, ‘Uhhhh.'”

As a young woman hoping to find a mate one day, Mokhtar said she has always sought common ground between the traditions of their parents’ Muslim culture and the world of her non-Muslim peers. Western media and even Bollywood portray romance in a way, but American Muslim couples and chaplains say the way they often meet, fall in love, and ultimately decide to marry is generally misunderstood or not told at all.

“Many young Muslims are trying to slide their love affair between the traditional cultures their parents may have come from and their new American culture,” said Imam Sohaib Sultan, longtime chaplain at Princeton University who died in April, at NBC Asian America in February.

It made it difficult for Mokhtar to be sure of what she wanted. Even though she loved him too, they were so young and still had college ahead of them. And because of her faith, she didn’t really want to come out like her non-Muslim peers.

“It’s hard to know what the social expectations are, what the family’s expectations are, and what a person’s own expectations are.”

“I was like, I wouldn’t marry this guy right now,” she laughs. “But then, over the years, I watched him grow up.

So they waited, remained friends, and finally the time was right. The two tied the knot last summer in an intimate ceremony with just the couple and their immediate family. Four years of waiting reached their climax during a pandemic. But Mokhtar couldn’t be happier.

Navigating in love hasn’t always been easy for Mokhtar, who is an American Egyptian. Growing up, she felt like everyone around her had different ideas about what the partnership and marriage were supposed to be like.

Although the community is not a monolith – Muslims span cultures, races, ethnicities, nationalities and traditions around dating and marriage – spiritual leaders say the young people they work with come to them with common questions and concerns, including balancing family expectations, wondering how to find love without participating in the dating culture and not being portrayed in the media.

“I think a lot of second generation immigrant youth were brought up in communities or households with a lot of expectations,” said Imam Omer Bajwa, the Muslim chaplain at Yale University. “So it’s hard to know what the social expectations are, what the family’s expectations are and what a person’s own expectations are.

For young American Muslims looking to adhere to their faith and culture and live a halal lifestyle – the Islamic term for “religiously allowed” – Bajwa said it may take willpower.

“My parents knew each other before they got married, but their early interactions were interesting,” Mokhtar said of how his mother and father first introduced themselves as potential marriage partners. “And I didn’t want that for myself. I was like, I want someone that I am friends with and I love them.

“Some Muslims seek this magical environment. How can you have a halal relationship and find that halal love and have everything our society tells us – that it’s full of passion and that you will find your soul mate? ”

For years, she and Shaw, whose family is from Guyana, were just friends, texting on occasion and seeing each other every week in karate class.

“It’s hard to stay where you want to stay when you love someone and want to push your marriage years into the future,” she said.

She grew up watching American TV shows and movies that made high school and college dating feel like the norm. She knew it wasn’t for her, but overcoming the wait required a lot of soul-searching and conversation.

For those who find meeting in person difficult, apps like Minder and Muzmatch seek to connect American Muslims with similar relationship interests and priorities.

“There is not a single singular or monolithic Muslim experience,” Bajwa said. The students he has worked with, spiritually guided and sometimes even introduced to their future spouse have a wide range of plans and priorities when it comes to their love life.

“Some Muslims are looking for this magical environment,” he said. “How can you have a halal relationship and find that halal love and have everything our society tells us – that it’s full of passion and that you will find your soul mate?”

He said a lot of young people try to meet each other in a way that’s not limited to Friday night parties. He has seen this happen in student clubs like Muslim student associations, where people can make friends and stay connected in meaningful ways.

Others opt for someone to fix them.

“They will go to people they trust,” he said. “Let’s just call him, for lack of a better term, a matchmaker – an older brother or sister, an older cousin, someone in the community they trust.”

Bajwa himself played this role.

“Many students have come to me to ask me for advice on relationships, to ask me how to meet people in the best way, to ask me if I know people to whom I could perhaps introduce them”, he said. he declares. “I honor this request because they say, ‘It’s hard to navigate out there, so I’m looking for someone I trust who has my best interests in mind.’ ‘

The smell of tandoori chicken, a flash of red fabric, and henna-adorned hands signal one thing for Desi couples around the world: wedding season. For a couple, who requested that their names not be used for privacy, it was overwhelming. This moment had been on their minds since they were freshmen in college, so they had to get it right.

“I loved watching Bollywood movies, for example. So it certainly had an impact on my ideal of romance from an early age. ”

The couple met during their undergraduate years at an East Coast school and got to know each other through freshman orientation events and their Muslim student association.

“When I first met her, I was a teenager and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll end up marrying her’, kind of half-joke,” he said. said.

She didn’t reciprocate her crush right away. She was practical and was reluctant to fall in love so young. Growing up, she says, American chick movies influenced her image of what dating and marriage was meant to look like. But the Desi media weren’t much better.

“I loved watching Bollywood movies, for example,” she says. “So it certainly had an impact on my ideal of romance from a young age.”

He grew up on the West Coast with parents who had already been in the United States for a generation and a more traditional lifestyle than many of his peers.

“I would have a crush here and there, but unlike my friends, I wouldn’t act on them,” he said.

During college, the two grew closer with their group of friends. But after graduation, the job took them in two different directions until they reconnected a few years ago.

Their wedding day at their mosque passed in a blur. Family and friends were busy. The couple smiled for photos at a reception with 300 people.

“Our faces were like, sore enough to smile at the end,” he said.

At events with her family, the bride wore a traditional red lehenga, henna and jewelry, and her family played classic Desi wedding games before the ceremony. On the West Coast with her family, she wore a white dress, he wore a tuxedo and they celebrated on a golf course.

But the best part came when the noise died down and the two could just be together.

Covid-19 made Mokhtar’s experience a little different. There was no crowd or dancing, just her and Shaw and their closest relatives.

“When the day came, I had to consciously let go of it and let it fall into place as it did. And it happened, ”she said. “In many ways, even though I didn’t get the big reception I wanted, I felt so blessed.”

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