The latest demographic studies indicate that women have outnumbered men in America by 51 to 49 percent. Among Muslims, the gap as indicated by several studies is less then the national average. However, within certain ethnic communities among Muslims, this number is large.
For instance, among the African-American and Arab communities, girls outnumber boys by 5 percent. Among South Asians, there is a gap of three percent. Finding a suitable match is, obviously, a major problem, especially when a great majority of marriageable age don't frequent masajid and don't have avenues to interact with each other except in schools and colleges where their level of interaction depends on the nature and scope of Muslim Student Association policies. If the MSA is very strict in restricting gender interaction, then it is almost impossible for a Muslim boy and girl to interact in an Islamic setting.
Masajid are not very helpful in arranging gatherings where boys and girls can interact each other according to Muslim rules. In several places the rules of segregation are so strict that it is almost impossible for the two genders to even look at each other. Since most Muslim families move within their own ethnic circles, the chances of boys and girls meeting Muslims of other ethnicities are not very high.
This leaves two avenues open to most boys and girls. Internet and schools. These two avenues offer unlimited opportunities to every one to interact with each other at whatever level they want to interact. If their family foundations are strong, and their commitment to moral values is unshakable, then the freedom may result in a very responsible behavior and action. If the moral foundations are shaky and family ties are loose, then the freedom may cause undesirable consequences for both.
Obviously, this is an issue that has not attracted the Muslim American attention as it should have even though everyone realizes its importance. We should have invested in conducting research on the issue to understand its dimensions and scope. We should have conducted workshops on the mechanism of forming families and agreeing on acceptable norms and behavior. We should have prepared training courses for a successful marriage. In the absence of all this, the community has been forced to face another big challenge, the rising divorce rate and the consequences of divorce on the couple and their children.
The national divorce rate is about 40 percent. The Muslim divorce rate is in the upper thirties as has been suggested by a few research studies. Consequently, single parent families are also on the rise.
Some organizations have tried to work on the issue by providing a match-making forum in their national or regional conventions. However, much more is needed if the community want to develop an institutional framework to address the issue. What is needed is an understanding of the changes that have occurred in the family system in America and the role that the two genders play in nurturing and sustaining it. Without developing a sound understanding of the emerging family system, it would not be possible to work on developing strategies to address the issue.
Perhaps, a more open and honest debate and discussion on the issue might pave the way for this understanding. But this debate and discussion should involve those who are directly related with it, namely the boys and girls of marriageable age. It is perhaps time to develop forums where older adults and younger adults exchange on an issue that is important for developing stronger foundations of the Muslim community in an ever-changing society.
Dr. Aslam Abdullah is editor in chief of the weekly Muslim Observe and director of the Islamic Society of Nevada.