Increasing women’s access to education and removing barriers to entering the work force has made a huge impact in the lives of millions of women and families in societies around the world. But focusing on academic success or building a career impacts other aspects of women’s lives. One such aspect is dating or courtship; statistics on average age at marriage support this (US Census Bureau 2012 average age of marriage: 26.6 female/28.6 male compared to 1982: 22.5 female, 25.2 male). These numbers do not represent dating patterns, but it is true that many women choose to delay both marriage and starting their own families. Other unmarried women do not consciously make this choice yet remain single after their twenty-seventh birthday.
Religion has a role to play in forming women’s expectations about their roles in society and families, including the roles of wife and mother. I have had many conversations with mostly Protestant Christian and Muslim women about this complex topic. Specific to single women, we often talk about our desire for a husband, dating trends, familial pressures to marry, and occasionally, how religion figures into our singleness.
One aspect influencing decisions to marry is income and financial stability. Muslim women in Malaysia explained the role men hold as “providers” throughout a female’s life. Technically, their father holds this responsibility until they become married, at which point the husband assumes this responsibility. As women are educated and encouraged to earn their own income, they could mitigate the sense of financial burden by providing for themselves. Most of the single Malaysian women I knew sought to earn their own income and also wanted to find a future husband who could earn a good income. Many women said they would gladly give up their job to be a housewife or stay-at-home mother, although many Muslim women in Malaysia also created interesting jobs allowing them to work from home. I saw entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility in friends who run a cake business from home, a woman who tutors chemistry students from her home, and a few friends who started online businesses selling fashion for Muslim women.
Women pursuing advanced degrees expressed concern for finding interesting, intelligent men. One Muslim friend told me she worried about finding a husband who had a solid career and was ambitious. As an example, she has advised her younger sister to break off a relationship with a man who had no job and was enjoying the income her sister was willing to share. A Muslim friend from Iran was pursuing her master’s degree in Malaysia and lamented the difficulty of finding men who were not intimidated by her education or career goals.
Even while independently supporting themselves, many of my Muslim and Christian friends yearn for a life partner and hope to find one from the same religious tradition. Identifying such men can be complicated. One Muslim friend beginning her career as a doctor used word-of-mouth, announcing her interest in finding a husband to her social circles. She explained to me that this was an explicit call for these people to identify and recommend men for her to vet. Other single women have found eligible bachelors within the church or religious learning centers. Another Muslim friend said she found her current husband at an Islamic learning center. As a Christian, friends suggest I find men at church; however, my experience has yielded few single Christian men in their 30s—most are already married, or if single, are also gay. A married male friend told me that in his opinion, many Christian men “come back to the church” after marriage, especially when they have children.
So where can a single woman of faith meet men of faith? Many say the dating pool is best while on campus as a student because after this stage in life there are fewer options for co-ed mingling. Christians may find a “young adult” group at their church. The intention of these groups is rarely explicitly to encourage singles to mingle and find potential spouses, yet this can occur. In my own experience, these groups vary greatly based on the denomination’s attitudes toward sexuality. More conservative groups can separate young adults by gender. After my undergrad, I attended a weekly gathering with friends where 50 percent of our weekly meeting time was divided by sex. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Christian friends have told me about their experience in groups where men obviously hit on any new single women with hopes of a date. This made them uncomfortable because they were attending these meetings for spiritual growth and Christian fellowship. As for Muslims, I found a type of “young adult” group for Muslims in Malaysia that met regularly, offering spiritual, social, and service activities. But before making any comparisons or drawing conclusion, I recommend a need for more thorough analysis comparing dating and courting across culture and religion.
For many women, their faith communities simply don’t know what to do with single women over typical marriage age. A friend who previously lived in the Midwest—an area with many churches—said she could never move back to the region without a husband. She explained that her church had no programming for single women in their 30s. If she returned without a husband or children, she would have no activities within her faith community other than worship services.
In the absence of “young adult” groups, or when those are lean on men, many friends have turned to faith-based online dating. One Muslim friend told me she had tried an online dating site for Muslims but found that many profiles of men did not portray them as loving spouse or father material. They seemed much more interested in sex. Many Christian friends have shared their attempts and given me recommendations for web sites. My primary concern is that perhaps only conservative men would use faith-based dating sites. It can be difficult to discern someone’s morals and values from a web profile.
As single women navigate shifting spaces for finding single men of faith, we also negotiate the expectations of parents. In general, friends in the United States say their parents want them to be happy and are therefore patient. In more private conversations, parents can express preferences that their daughter only marries within their faith tradition. Parents also offer prayers, hoping God will provide a suitable match soon. For an Indian Christian friend and an Iranian Muslim friend, their parents helped find men to introduce to their daughters. There is room for more research exploring attitudes of parents regarding later age of marriage for daughters, as well as attitudes about suitable men from their faith tradition, and what happens when daughters marry outside of the faith tradition.
Secular and religious spaces are seeking to honor women’s equality; however, the women who play the typical roles of wife and mother best fit into existing expectations. Single women who have prioritized their career or have yet to find a suitable spouse are seen as outliers. They lack support from their faith community and can even be judged for their singleness. It is worth asking faith communities how they value women at all stage of life—including those who never marry. And for my own tradition, I’d like to know why there are so few single young men in the pews on Sunday mornings or active in other faith activities.
Photo Credit: Felipe Belza
Crystal Corman is the program manager at WFDD. She holds a B.J. in advertising from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, an M.A. in international peace and conflict resolution from American University, and an M.T.S. from Wesley Theological Seminary. Crystal was a Boren Fellow in Malaysia, where she researched Muslim women’s agency within Islam, and she also served as a volunteer English teacher in Thailand through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s young adult in global mission program. Prior to working with WFDD, Crystal worked at the World Bank on issues related to fragility, violence prevention, and gender. She is interested in working with religious leaders and communities on development issues related to gender equality, women’s agency, and peacebuilding.