We are constantly told about the unity of the Muslim Ummah and the beauty of sisterhood. A Muslim friendship is allegedly “better” and “more fulfilling” than a non-Muslim friendship. Muslims pride themselves on “compassionate” and “glorious” friendships based on a mutual love of Allah and a desire to obey him.
But is this the reality?
Unfortunately, it is becoming all too common for Muslim women to feel shunned by their fellow sisters. These Muslim women have even found love and friendship in the arms of non-Muslims. What does that say about the Muslim Ummah?
I spoke to two sisters who struggled to find support, acceptance, and meaningful friendships among the Muslims around them…
The Polygamy Repellent
When sisters initially hear a woman’s husband is planning to remarry, they tend to say the right things. They offer sympathy and words of comfort such as rules that could potentially dissuade the husband from his decision. However, this compassion quickly evaporates once the husband has actually gone through with it and the new wife arrives on the scene.
“My friends invited my co-wife to a gathering and not me,” Maria* told me. “They obviously didn’t think she would tell me, but she’d heard them talking about her once she’d left the room. It was clear they were simply gossip hunting. And these women were supposed to be my friends. I couldn’t call them sisters anymore.”
Maria explained that it seemed her friends hated polygamy so much they became almost aggressive in their attempt to distance themselves from her: “It was as if they thought it was contagious. I felt completely cut off during a time when I needed the most support.”
“It was a very isolating time in my life,” she admitted. “I tried to listen to Islamic lectures, but whenever marriage came up, I felt cut off from that as well; I felt it didn’t apply to me anymore. Bit by bit I became withdrawn. I wasn’t a part of this ‘loving’ ummah anymore. Invites to gatherings and study circles stopped and I found myself completely alone without a support network. I lost my husband and then I lost my friends.”
Polygamy is a topic that gets people talking; it’s practically a guarantee. But gossiping simply adds to the already raging fire of chaos. As women, we should be able to sympathise the most with a fellow woman in such a situation. As sisters, we should understand the need for support and compassion. Maria received neither.
Another sister spoke to me about the difficulties of moving abroad and leaving her friends behind.Hijrah is something a lot of Muslim families are considering recently, and most often, any concern is for the children. Will they adapt well? Will they make friends? How will they settle?
But sometimes the adults struggle to settle more than the children. Especially in a case where the woman is staying at home whilst her husband works, it can be even harder for her to build that essential support network of friends. Sisterhood really does begin to feel like a myth.
“Before I moved abroad, I believed I had a solid group of sisters around me.” Amina* tells me. “The thought of leaving them to start a new life thousands of miles away actually scared me. When I first, moved, my friends still messaged me and were available for video chats when we needed a good catch up and a cup of tea. But as more time went on, the video chats reduced, friends took longer to reply to messages, and when I went home each summer, invitations were turned down and new gatherings were taking place without anyone thinking to invite me. Now I’m lucky if I get one visit for an hour or so. And it feels like it’s out of courtesy more than anything else.”
As if this wasn’t hard enough, Amina explains that it wasn’t so easy finding sisters in her new home to bond with either: “Many sisters reached out at first. Everyone wanted to know who the ‘new girl’ was. They talked about gatherings and halaqahs, but plans were never followed through. I found myself surrounded by acquaintances who were all smiles and hugs when we met in the street, but I didn’t have one sister I could turn to as a friend.”
Unfortunately, this seems to be a feature of a lot of expat communities. As the environment is ever-changing and the people almost seem to be on a conveyor belt, it is difficult to form lasting friendships when anyone could leave at a moment’s notice. And so, Amina felt isolated in her new home and forgotten in her old one.
“I’ll admit, I’m more withdrawn now.” Amina admitted. “I’ve stopped reaching out and stopped trying to keep in touch with people. It protects me from disappointment and I have begun to enjoy time to myself, especially being a mum. But part of me feels it shouldn’t be like this. Surely I should be able to find some sisters I can truly fit in with.
“I tried to develop a halaqah which was wonderful for a few weeks, but soon sisters stopped turning up and it eventually fizzled out. However, the mums I met at the local creche were non-Muslim and more welcoming and friendly than most of the Muslim sisters I had met. And even though a lot of these friends did move on to different countries, we still keep in touch and the friendships I have formed are more solid than the sisters I left back home.”
It’s great that Amina was able to find comfort in her own company, but she’s right: it shouldn’t have to be like that. Not all sisters are able to adapt this way and loneliness can begin to have a rather negative impact on their iman, happiness, and well-being. Allah created us as sociable creatures, so why is it so difficult for many of us to find meaningful friendships among fellow Muslim sisters?
What to Avoid
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to do in order to support a sister you know very little about, but remember:
• Withhold judgement. Everyone has two sides: one they show the world and one they reserve for those closest to them. You might not like a sister initially, but get to know her, invest some time and bond with her. You might find a true friend in her “reserved” side once you both relax around each other.
• Don’t assume. It’s very easy to fall into the dangerous trap of making assumptions about people; why they said a certain thing, why they act a certain way, and what they think about certain issues. But you don’t know what’s in someone’s heart and you’re not a mind-reader. Make 70 excuses and give someone the benefit of the doubt whenever possible.
• Don’t give up. It can be disheartening to have a bad experience with the Muslim community, but never give up. Take a step back, by all means. Take time to recover and look after yourself, but once you’re ready, jump back in and keep trying to connect with fellow sisters. In our current world, so many people are against us, we can’t afford to be against each other as well.
It is sad that these sisters felt so pushed out from a community that is supposed to be known for its support, compassion, and inclusion. Why do some communities of Muslims alienate their sisters like this, whether intentionally or not? We all need to make an effort to reach out to sisters around us and provide a safe space which is free from judgement and filled with love and support.
Let’s build a network which emulates the friendships among the companions that we read about in the seerah. Let’s be the sister we would hope to have in our time of need.