Tahirah Nailah Dean was two years out of law school when she began seriously looking for a husband.
She asked friends and the imam of her local Muslim community to help connect her to good prospects. But again and again, she was told that each eligible Muslim man she encountered was only looking for a wife from his own ethnic background.
“I’d hear, ‘Their spouse has to be Egyptian,’ or ‘They’re only looking for a Palestinian wife,’” recalled Dean, now 29, an Afro-Latina Muslim lawyer and writer living in the Bay Area. “They couldn’t even put me forward as a candidate. I couldn’t even get in the door.”
In the years since, Dean has taken note of the uphill battle Muslim women, often in their late 20s and beyond, face in finding a Muslim husband in the United States. Now, in a photo series called “The ISMs Project,” Dean documents the prejudices she and many other Muslim women face in what she calls this “marriage crisis”: ageism, sexism, racism and colorism.
Dean worked with photographer Qamara El-Amin and videographer Hauwa Abbas to capture the experiences of single Muslim women around the country. Each model is depicted in two photos: one that shows her struggling with a form of prejudice — symbolized by an item such as a clock, a teapot or a mirror — and another that shows her defiance of these obstacles. The Lily spoke to Dean about the photo series.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Where did the idea for this project come from?
A: Since 2018, I’ve been writing about the difficulties of finding an observant Muslim husband and the Muslim dating culture in the U.S. I’m working on getting a memoir published, but in the meantime, I wanted to get my and other women’s experiences into the public sphere. I wanted to showcase women going through the pains of finding a spouse in this age of dating in American society, trying to maintain their Islamic values, but finding these “isms” in their way. I thought a photo series would help put faces to a problem and humanize the issue.
Q: You talk about an “American Muslim marriage crisis.” What is that crisis?
A: It’s a heavy word, crisis, but I do feel we’re in that kind of situation. I’ve heard the term used by scholars and Muslim leaders in two regards. One is the increasing rate of divorce in the community. Many Muslim marriage counselors and imams are responding to this and working on initiatives to help keep marriages together. The other aspect, which you won’t find much of any research on, is the growing number of Muslim singles. It seems the number of unmarried women is higher than men. In part that’s because Muslim men are allowed to marry someone from outside the religion, according to many Islamic scholars. But women aren’t allowed to do the same.
You see these difficulties finding a Muslim spouse especially among women between the ages of 25 to 35, often highly educated and high-achieving. Many are also Black or dark-skinned — these are the women I focus on. When I started interviewing people for my book, I realized I wasn’t the only one struggling to find someone I’m compatible with but who also doesn’t have certain views of what a woman’s supposed to do or doesn’t have racist parents.
Q: So how is this crisis distinct from broader American marital and dating culture?
A: It’s all magnified in the Muslim community, where there’s an emphasis on marriage being part of the faith, on getting married young, and on parental approval or facilitation. There’s cultural baggage with mothers especially having this idea of who their sons should marry, wanting their daughters-in-law to take on more traditional duties, staying at home, having less regard for wives that are high-achieving, having an idea that a woman “expires” if she remains unmarried past 27. These are words that are actually said to women: You’re expired, your time is running out.
Q: How did you select the four “isms” you see harming Muslim women trying to get married?
A: These are just the issues I’ve seen over and over again, and I think they capture a lot of what’s plaguing these particular women I’m focusing on.
The issue with ageism begins with women being pushed to get married young. When I speak with matchmakers and women over 30, when they encounter men in their age bracket, they’re all looking for 20-something women. The blame is always put on the woman, that she waited too long to start looking, that she made the mistake of prioritizing her education and career. But men are doing that too, and it’s only women that are getting penalized for it.
The woman in the ageism photos is holding a clock. It’s not about the ticking time bomb of her fertility and biological clock. But it represents society forcing her to watch the clock because of the pressures society puts on her to marry young, or else she’ll never get a chance.
Sexism in this project is about how, in the same household, you have parents encouraging daughters to be high-achieving doctors, lawyers and engineers — while encouraging their sons to marry women who are younger, who haven’t established themselves, who only want to be housewives. So in the picture, the model is holding a teapot and a briefcase, and wearing a puffy wedding dress. Women are feeling like they have to choose either one or the other, or give up pieces of themselves to be a viable candidate for the men around them.
One of the models, who is South Asian, actually brought the issue of colorism to the project. In her experience, if you don't have the word “fair” written on your biodata, some South Asian people don’t even look at your profile.
I’ve also dealt with a lot of racism. Muslims are the most diverse religious group in America. People often want to stay within their own ethnic enclaves for safety and for cultural reasons. … To cut it off because they’re from different backgrounds — that’s a huge issue. It’s not that they don’t pray, or that they drink alcohol. It’s nothing to do with religion.
Q: Can you talk about your own experiences with racism on the marriage market?
A: It’s not necessarily even a lack of men being attracted to me as a Black Latina woman, but it’s more so when it comes time to bring me to their parents. They’ll say, “Actually, my parents aren’t okay with me marrying outside of my ethnicity,” or even, “I didn’t realize that they’re not okay with that.” Sometimes it’s not explicitly stated. Their parents will say, “Oh, she’s not going to know how to make dinner this way” or “She doesn’t understand our language.”
Q: What’s the significance of the wedding dresses the models are wearing?
A: A few years ago, one of my single friends bought a wedding dress on the fly. She said she just got sick of waiting for a man to have the experience of a wedding dress. And I wanted to give that experience to my models. I call them “nontraditional dresses for the nontraditional bride” because these are women that society sees as nontraditional for being wives.
Two Muslim fashion designers graciously gave us these dresses for free. One was Laterry Mohsin, who runs Sew Modest Studio in Detroit. She’s a Black convert in an intercultural interracial marriage, and she wanted to contribute because she knows the racism she faced when marrying her Yemeni husband. Then there’s Ayana Ife, who is a “Project Runway” runner-up from season 16. She’s spoken before about her journey getting married really young, getting divorced, and then getting into fashion and that helped her heal.
I wanted to make the statement that we’re not going to settle, even though we really want to be married and be in a loving relationship. We won’t let these -isms dictate the type of wife we are or the type of men that we marry.