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Problems in American Muslim Marriages--Sondos Kholaki

 From in Focus, Southern California                          

When Ambreen and Amr married in 2003, they were young and in love. Despite them living on opposite ends of the state, Ambreen and Amr experienced obvious chemistry that propelled them to marry after being acquainted for two years.

 After the wedding, Ambreen moved from her home leaving behind her family and close friends. The relocation was difficult for Ambreen, who spent long hours alone while Amr looked for steady work. She sought solace in her new husband, but Amr seemed more interested in staying out of the house, saying that he was going to do whatever he wanted to do. Surprised by his immaturity, Ambreen kept quiet and hoped things would change. When her parents called worried about her depressed state, she reassured them that all was well. After a few months, the problem only seemed to get worse. Their financial situation did not help. The last straw came when Ambreen’s in-laws appeared to be rooting for the marriage to fail, claiming that Ambreen was not living up to her wifely duties. Finally, at the end of the tumultuous first year, Ambreen confided in her family. Her parents thought they could help, but the damage had already run its course. Within two years, Ambreen and Amr had divorced.

Unfortunately, such stories are not uncommon.  Divorce is on the rise in the Muslim community, especially in the West. According to a study conducted by Dr. Ilyas Ba-Yunus, a sociology professor at State University of New York, the overall divorce rate among Muslims in North America is at an astounding 31%. The state of California ranks highest with a 37% rate of divorce and New York, Ontario, and Texas follow closely with a 30% rate. Compared to the overall rate of divorce in the U.S. (49%) and Canada (45%), the increasing rate of divorce among Muslims is cause for alarm.

Reasons for Divorce Drs. Mohamed Rida and Ekram Beshir, co-authors of the books Blissful Marriage and Meeting the Challenge of Parenting in the West point to several reasons for divorce. Among them are non-compatibility between spouses due to differences in background, and mistakenly judging the marriage by the first years, which are the toughest and most critical. Overall, the Beshirs attribute carelessness as the most critical mistake in marriages today.

“We live in a culture of boyfriends and girlfriends, and youth want that kind of relationship so bad they ask to marry. They think they’re ready for marriage, but really they are seeing it as a replacement for the no-dating rule in Islam. Marriage comes with more obligation than this,” Dr. Ekram explained at a recent Muslim American Society (MAS) Family Development workshop in Sacramento.

Shaikh Yassir Fazaga, religious director and certified counselor at the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo has advised numerous couples with marital troubles. Fazaga, who holds a Master’s degree in psychotherapy and marital/family relations, says most of the couples who seek his counsel have been married for only five years or less. “It is in these five years that they find out they’re not right for each other or have mistreated each other for so long there is no chance of a comeback,” Fazaga said.

From his experience, Fazaga mentioned three recurring reasons for divorce: couples who are right for one another, but love and treat each other the wrong way; couples who are not right for each other, which could have been prevented if they had asked enough questions prior to the marriage; and people who are too impatient to work on the problem.

We get into this idea of feeling good in a second—have a headache take a pill, don’t like your teeth change them immediately. People treat their marriage in the same way. Nobody really wants to invest in their relationship,” Fazaga clarified. “If they want to keep their relationship, they must keep working on it. We all want the garden, but nobody wants to be the gardener,” he added. When it comes to couples who divorce long after their children have grown up, Fazaga explained that “generally speaking, these are people who have recognized they wanted a divorce for a long time, but kept things the way they were for sake of the kids.”

Nahla Kayali, founder and director of Access California Services, a human services organization in California that accommodates the immigrant Arab and Muslim-American community, holds that from her experience divorce is primarily due to lifestyle pressures.

“The main issue we see is that the husband gets tired of his responsibility and just walks out on the family. This is especially common with immigrants from Middle Eastern countries,” Kayali said. “People live under a lot of pressure in this country – long hours at work, everything is so expensive, documents, status – which they’re not used to overseas.”

“Domestic violence is another reason. The father hits his children and his wife, and the family or the neighbor calls the police and they take him away. Then the mother files for divorce. We’ve seen many stories like that,” Nahla continued. In these cases, the children end up with the mother or the system takes them until either parent can get them back.

According to Dr. Maher Hathout, senior advisor at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, the rise in Muslim divorce rates can be blamed partly on the recent “Me” culture, where people live only to make themselves happy.

“Here in the West and abroad where they are heavily influenced by the West, the ‘Me’ culture is overtaking our minds. False statements like ‘I have one life to live’ and ‘this is my life’ have been repeated enough times to suddenly become true,” Dr. Hathout said. “I ask, ‘Did you have a choice in your creation? Did you choose your life?’”

As a result of this phenomenon, Dr. Hathout explained, couples are dropping one another at the first signs of disagreement. “In Islam, the worst halal is talaq (divorce). Although it’s still halal, divorce is the last resort and should be avoided,” he said.

Looking back, Ambreen, now in her mid-20s, faults herself for not checking into Amr’s background before committing to the marriage. “When you fall in love, you sweep things under the rug because you convince yourself it’ll be better. Plus it was a long distance relationship, so we just looked forward to living together,” she said. “We both had different expectations in marriage—expectations based on surface things—and both of us were extremely disappointed,” Ambreen added.

The Need for Support Ambreen said that divorce has been the most difficult and painful process, compounded by little to no support from the Muslim community. She sought counseling from imams, but they did not help. “I couldn’t count on anyone to talk to. I found several Christian support groups, but no Muslim ones. We don’t want to air dirty laundry, but it’s hurting us in the long run,” Ambreen said.  Dr. Mohamed Beshir agreed. “We have a terrible need for human resources. If someone is successful at this, they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand.”

Dr. Ekram Beshir pointed to family development programs, like the one held by MAS, as a solution. “We need to optimize our resources. If every community selected a core group to train people we can build a strong foundation.” She added that support groups should be made up of different generations so that newlyweds can learn from parents and so on.

According to Fazaga, it is critical for imams to have formal training in this area. He emphasized this issue as a necessary part of the solution. “People are already going to our imams so we have to qualify them,” he said. “Couples want real change, so it gets to be very frustrating because people trust imams but come out disappointed.” Fazaga is hopeful that the growing number of Muslim counselors and students going into the field will put pressure on community leaders.

Kayali and her organization strive to prevent unnecessary divorce through education. However, often that effort is wasted. “When we announce a workshop, no one comes. We provide parenting and educational sessions, but attendance is really low. And we haven’t seen one man come to our classes. It hurts their ego—they don’t believe in that,” shesaid.

ACCESS is one of the few support systems out there, and Kayali maintains that they will continue to provide for the immigrant community. “We offer counseling under the supervision of clinical psychologists, we can find mothers jobs, and we can offer financial assistance.” ACCESS gets about 3-4 clients a week for divorce issues.

The next time around, Ambreen insists that she knows everything about her fiancé. “I would need to know the guy’s family, how he interacts with them and his friends. I want to talk to his friends and find out about him through them. I want to find out his habits and such, and what he thinks about divorce, counseling, and how he deals with problems. I would do my homework,” she said.
* Names have been changed.  
When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calleth on Me: Let them also, with a will, Listen to My call, and believe in Me: That they may walk in the right way.

Quran: 2:186
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