Many of the Muslim women that I know are highly educated and came to this country as a young person starting a career with no thoughts about permanently staying in this America. 20+ years later, they have lived in America longer than they may have lived in their country of birth. Although this may not be a representative sample of a typical Muslim woman in this country, these are the women that I know. Many of their concerns about family are shared with other immigrant women.
Because most of these women come from predominately Muslim countries, they find that religion was not as emphasized in their home country. Being part of American culture, with so many different religions, makes for much more frequent discourse on the topic. Religion in America is what we do on Sunday, as opposed to a Muslim country where being Muslim is what you do every day. Mosque attendance at home is expected and simpler, as the majority of children and teens also attend. In America, traveling to the Mosque is often by car and not by foot, due to the limited number of places of worship. And when you arrive, many of your children’s friends from school and their neighborhood will not be present. As children become teenagers, friends, social life and being part of the majority and not the minority become increasingly important. Although religion may have been the central part of the parent’s life growing up in a Muslim country, is now considered “uncomfortable” in America and can create tensions between parents and children.
Being part of a family and dependence on family members is honored in most Muslim countries, while America honors and equips our children for independence. Many of the women I talked with lived at home until they were married, studying for college and professional school in the same bedroom that they studied for high school. They were dependent on their parents for monetary and emotional support and continued to participate in family social obligations. As part of this support system, they also needed to deal with the uncomfortable reality that everyone minds everyone else’s business and can be very judgemental. Raising their children in a culture that encourages independence can be frightening. The extended family support system is half a world away. Many of the American teenage norms are a foreign concept. When you have never heard of a “sleepover” or never were part of co-ed groups, it is difficult to know where to set the boundaries with your own children. As children become young adults, marriage and dating issues arise. Dating is considered the next step to marriage and taken very seriously by Muslim families, while in America we view dating as part of normal teenage activity. While arranged marriages are the norm, interracial marriages are rare and usually result in the couple being split from the family.
But there are also numerous benefits of raising a child in this culture, not available in many Muslim countries. Advanced education is available for everyone and entrance not subject to who you know or your family’s position in society. Although there are exceptions, Americans are not as judgemental of individual differences. Support systems exist outside of the nuclear family due to the more fractured nature of extended families. Having grown up in America, first generation children (those born in this country to immigrant parents) feel more an outsider in their parents country than they do as a minority in this country. A mother’s long-held dream of finally returning to her home country to live and spend missed time with extended family is now in opposition to the realization that it will mean being separated from her adult children and grandchildren.
Variations of these struggles are present with many of us. My husband and I have different expectations for church attendance from our children while they are in high school as compared to college. Dating guidelines and curfews vary from what we experienced as teenagers. We attempt to withhold judgement regarding others differences, but are not always successful. Understanding the similarities, while acknowledging the different struggles that Muslim families encounter, will certainly help our society to function more peacefully and without fear.