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Published in the 16-31 Mar 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Difficult times for Muslim girls
Finding a life partner has become a struggle for many a Muslim girl. Young men have become extremely selective about prospective partners in these economically trying times says MH Lakdawala

Mumbai: "Marriages are made in heaven," goes the saying. The institution of marriage is one of the oldest institutions. Urban society is witnessing a strain on the edifice of this institution of marriage. Because of the socio-economic problems, marriages are delayed.
Stigma of age in terms of marriage is universal, but is significantly influenced by cultural values and is, therefore, different from society to society. Currently in North America, the average age for men to get married is 31 years and for women, it is 28 years. In South Asian countries, the age is much younger for both men and women, about 25 and 21 years, respectively. In India, among Muslims marriage proposals for girls start coming from the age of 14 years

The Muslim society, which was condemned for early marriages of girls, is witnessing a substantial population of unmarried girls, as Muslim men are delaying the marriage mainly due to economic reasons. 

Though the requirements imposed by modern life and the long period needed for education and professional training are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs, yet we find that in many cases, there are other reasons, besides the economic ones, which are responsible for this state of affairs. 

The urban society has transformed so drastically over the last decade that finding a life partner for many a Muslim girl has become a struggle. The ‘marriage market’ has undergone fundamental changes that damage the prospects of both sexes, but girls in particular. "The market, especially for girls, is down", explains marriage broker, Salim Baig. "Now even uneducated Muslim youth from the middle class are getting matches whereas they used to have a difficult time. Parents are willing to marry off their daughters to anybody who is an earning member". In spite of this, Baig has a long list of girls who have been waiting for matches for many years. Young men have become extremely selective about prospective partners in these economically trying times. 

Muslim girls were traditionally married off in their early 20s, but now many remain unmarried simply because there are not enough men available. The increasing emphasis on higher education has lessened the number of young marriages. In the case of professionals, choice is often restricted to those in a related field, which prolongs the search. 

It is ironic that instead of being a relieving factor, education becomes a hindrance to marriage. There is an inverse relationship between education and timely marriages. As Muslim males in urban areas are getting educated, they delay marriage. Once they finish education, they spend a couple of years establishing themselves in a profession. When they are all set to marry between the age of 25-32, they look for younger girls-atleast 6 to 10 years younger to them. So the girls in the age group of 23 -30 find it difficult to get good proposals. 

Stigma of age in terms of marriage is universal, but is significantly influenced by cultural values and is, therefore, different from society to society. Currently in North America, the average age for men to get married is 31 years and for women, it is 28 years. In South Asian countries, the age is much younger for both men and women, about 25 and 21 years, respectively. In India, among Muslims marriage proposals for girls start coming from the age of 14 years. Once the girls reach the age of 23 -24, parents panic and even girls start thinking that it is getting too late for them to get decent proposals. This result is in stress related ailments. As marriages get increasingly delayed, and young people try to cope with the increased stress in their lives, the impact is being felt. There has been a rise recently in psychological problems faced by both men and women. 

Uzma Nahid, Member, All India Muslim Personal Law Board, who runs professional courses for Muslim women opines that it is getting difficult for Muslim girls from the middle class to find a suitable match. "In my classes, many highly qualified girls from respectable families are still waiting for decent proposals. For many it’s turning out to be a long wait", she said. "One girl, in her late twenties has stopped offering Namaz as she is disturbed by not being able to get a decent proposal. I have to devote lot of time counselling these girls to channelise their talent in some constructive activities," she said. 

Dr Yusuf Macheswala, a psychiatrist attached to the JJ Group of Hospitals says that late marriage may give rise to psychological problems. "Many patients come to me complaining about some vague psychological problem. After examination, the root cause turns out to be the difficulty in getting proposals," he said. 

Eminent Advocate Nilofer Akhtar who is associated with NGO’s working for the upliftment of Muslim women agrees that delayed marriage or lack of decent proposals is today a major social issue facing the Muslim community. The community is an institution as old as the institution of marriage. But migration to urban areas has led to the disintegration of the communities. The single most important aspect in marriage proposals is the credibility. Communities take care of the credibility factor as because of the frequent interaction, members of the same community are aware about the credibility of each other and this facilitates the proposals. Usually people avoid sending proposal to unknown families or member of communities unknown to them.

Advocate Nilofer Akhtar opines that marriage bureaus today lack credibility. "Parents from decent families feel embarrassed to advertise in the matrimonial columns. So it is high time, the community takes up this issue. Pro-active role is needed from parents, activists and intellectuals to tackle the issue. If a conscious effort is made, this issue can be solved. All that needs to be done is to do some networking and help parents find a decent match", she said. 

Advocate Saeed Akhter admits that the issue is very serious, but its solution is very simple. "The problem is due to lack of information about the availability of the required match. Once the information is pooled in about bachelors, credibility is established, then all that is needed to be done is to arrange a meeting between the two families", he said. If Muslim activists, eminent individuals or social organisations take up the responsibility of screening the proposals for establishing the credibility, the issue can be tackled easily. But before this, the community needs to be aware that this issue requires the same attention as that of education as the welfare of the community is linked to finding a suitable solution to this problem.
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