How the Muslim Community Can Step Up
By Kiran Ansari
Asmaa Hussein was just 27 when she became a single mother. Her husband, Amr, was killed in Egypt while peacefully protesting the injustices in the aftermath of the military coup. Her daughter was not even one at that time. Hanan Ahmad* was 45 when she finally had the courage to leave an unhealthy marriage. Her children were teenagers. Imam Pavlíček’s boys were just 8 and 10 when he became a single father. The demographics may make these individuals sound very different. However, they have a lot in common.
These brothers and sisters in the Muslim community feel stigmatized as single parents. While the acceptance may be improving slightly, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.
“There is 100% a stigma – and it’s not subtle,” Hussein said. “It was mere weeks after my husband was killed that I was being asked when I will remarry! I was still in my iddah (mourning period).” Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she poured out her heart into a bestselling book, “A Temporary Gift: Reflections on Love, Loss, and Healing.” What started off as her journal has become a handbook for thousands of readers.
Despite being able to use her gift of words to help others, single mom life still has its challenges. “Not having a second parent to share the spiritual and emotional load of parenting has been the hardest part,” Hussein said. “It can be incredibly overwhelming even if the physical tasks are not so many.”
Single fathers don’t have it any easier. Hasan Syed’s daughter was only four months old when he became a single dad. He found it particularly difficult to juggle work and parenting. Luckily his mother was able to help. Imam Christopher AbdulKareem Pavlíček of Ojala Foundation in Chicago agrees.
“I truly don’t know how I would have been able to take care of everything without the help of my mother, sister and my son’s abuelo (grandfather) helping out,” Pavlíček said.
Types of Single Parents
One might think there are just two types of single parents – widowed or divorced. That is not true. The stigmas and assumptions also vary between single parent categories.
“People are more sympathetic towards widows because it’s not considered ‘their fault’,” Hussein said. “In contrast, I have seen the unhealthy levels of blame placed on divorcees.”
“We tend to be selective about what we attribute to Allah as His decree,” said Fahad Khan, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Deputy Director of Khalil Center, the largest provider of Muslim mental health in North America. “We may consider certain aspects like death as part of His divine plan while blaming ourselves for others like divorce.”
“Say, “Never will we be struck except by what Allah has decreed for us; He is our protector.” And upon Allah let the believers rely.” (Quran 9:51)
Separated parents are bombarded with questions about whether they are getting back together or how long they will remain “in limbo.”
Ahmad believes we also have many “married single parents” in our community. It may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s much more rampant than you imagine. It’s a term coined for parents (mostly mothers) taking on all the parental responsibilities even while married. The fathers in such situations believe their job is only paying the bills. This uneven share of parenting is leaving children in seemingly regular homes grow up with a void from one parent’s active involvement in their life.
Regardless of the type of single parent, one thing remains the same: the barrage of questions and lack of support.
“Why couldn’t they work it out?”
“When will she remarry?”
“I wonder what he did that she left him” and so on.
Even though divorce among Muslims is on the rise, it is still considered taboo and against our faith.
“In the Prophet’s time, both men and women used to get remarried multiple times. Whether it be because of death in battles, disease, or divorce, it was common to remarry,” said Dr. Khan. “What we see in our community today is that after a certain age, women particularly, are not even considered for marriage.”
“Remarriage is not bad, it’s the sunnah,” Hussein said. “But remarriage with children can be a minefield.” Scholars are not addressing this. Blended or single parent families are not even brought up at seminars.”
Dads are not off the hook either. “Those that embrace Islam as single parents are definitely pushed towards marriage,” said Imam Pavlíček. “This can be harmful for new Muslims and even more so for their young children.”
“Why do people at the mosque feel compelled to point out who is available?” wondered Syed. “Let’s be realistic, available should not be mistaken for compatible or desirable. Having a peaceful life is more important than society’s approval. Introducing children to the possibility of a new figure in their lives is a huge undertaking. A toddler will react very differently than a teenager. Not everyone gets a fairytale.”
Another huge struggle for single parents is dealing with their former spouse. It becomes even harder if parenting styles and priorities are poles apart.
“When Palestinians get divorced, women are often encouraged to give the kids to their father, so they can get remarried easily,” said Hebeh Fares from Ohio. “However, I would never want to be away from my children, ages 7 and 4. If Allah wishes, I may find someone who loves me and my children.”
Co-parenting can become very triggering at times because of different parenting styles and priorities. However, she has learned that it’s all about picking your battles.
“I miss my kids terribly when they spend alternate weekends with their father, but I know Allah loves them more than I do, and they’ll be okay.”
Since single family homes are not discussed openly, kids often bear the brunt. When Syed’s daughter was growing up, other children would ask her “where’s your mom?”
“I tried to be there for her, but I could not be her mom.”
The Muslim community has some other unique struggles that prevent access to justice too,” said Maliha Siddiqui, a family law attorney in Chicago. There could be immigration issues with U.S. citizens marrying people abroad and then not enabling them to get the right paperwork once they are here. New immigrants or refugees could have financial literacy or language issues. There are legal aid organizations that help for free or on a sliding scale. However, they are overburdened and may not understand the cultural nuances of iddah, mahar, jewelry as heirlooms, etc.
Siddiqui is on the board of Muslim Bar Association of Chicago. She chairs the South Asian Bar Association of Chicago and volunteers at their monthly legal clinic. She can help people know what they could be entitled to as far as child support and parenting time goes. However, Muslims are often hesitant to come to these clinics because of “what will people say if they saw me here?” In that case, most attorneys also offer complimentary initial consultations.
How Can the Community Help?
The community needs to invest time and money in creating special programs specifically for single parents. We need support from the mimbars (pulpit) and stories about brave single parents in Islamic history.
“Our community still doesn’t know how to talk about marriage properly, let alone divorce,” said Rashed* who was a single parent for more than a decade. “Single parents feel invisible in their mosque. It’s not like we have a disease that someone can catch. It’s ironic that something that was normalized in the time of the Prophet is so stigmatized today.”
“Someone once close to me said no one will invite you to events if you leave your husband. Families don’t want to mingle with single women,” said Ahmad. “I am proud to have proven her wrong today, but that thought was scary then.”
Imam Pavlíček believes the support offered to single moms in our community is getting better as the challenge becomes more common. However, events and support for single fathers is severely lacking. Consider a father that is desperately trying to keep his children involved in the Muslim community. Many children’s events are organized by women. The single dad may have to drop off his kids to the masjid hoping and praying that some sisters look out for them. The opposite is true too. Single moms with sons that hit the age of puberty are often told they can no longer bring them to the sisters’ gatherings. We must find alternatives.
We also need matrimonial services for single parents. Just like a physician may want to marry someone in the same field because they may relate more to residency and match struggles, single parents may be able to relate better with one another too.
Community members need to know who lives around them. If they know the true circumstances without judgment, they may be able to offer childcare for a single parent who has no one as backup in case he needs to go out. Without perpetuating stereotypes, a single mom would appreciate her neighbors coming over to help assemble furniture or mount a TV. A single dad would be grateful if the family round the corner invites him for a home cooked meal on occasion.
Reach out to single parents and see how you can help. Never assume they are rolling in alimony payments even if their former spouse earns well. Coparents often go to great lengths to avoid paying. No one hears an automatic ka-ching in their bank account.
If a single parent is starting from scratch, see if you can help cosign a car loan or help them lease an apartment. They might qualify for government assistance like Medicaid or food stamps. Help them with the paperwork.
What community members should not do is give bad advice. “I’ve seen people tutor ex-husbands to pay attorneys to try every loophole to not pay alimony (now called maintenance) or child support,” Ahmad said. “Such advice can be very damaging as it goes against the Islamic teachings of the father being responsible for his children’s needs. It’s their haqq (right). By robbing the children of that right, you may consider it a legal win. But it can haunt you in this life and the Next.”
How Can Single Parents Help Themselves?
“Sometimes mosques don’t want to talk about single parent homes because they feel if they do, it can be misinterpreted as them advocating for divorce,” said Farheen Khan, a certified elementary educator and Muslim parenting coach in Pennsylvania. “Muslims are not immune to this topic,” Khan said. “It won’t go away if we don’t talk about it.
She wants to provide emotional validation to children who can’t verbalize emotions when they transition between parents. So, she wrote a book called, “One Thing That Stays The Same…At My Mom’s House and My Dad’s House.” Even though she hasn’t included any specific Islamic traditions, it’s the first children’s book about single parent homes written by a Muslim.
“It’s normal for kids to feel a little sad leaving one parent but it is often mixed with joy of seeing the other parent,” Khan said. “That is what we need to acknowledge.”
When parents are themselves in survival mode in a divorce or separation, it’s hard for them to pinpoint what kids need. Through her online sessions and social media, Khan wants to help parents remain more child centered through divorce and beyond.
Single parents can also help their children by adapting to unique arrangements that work for their family.
“You need a good village to raise a child. They can benefit from multiple healthy role models,” said Rashed. “Our Prophet was raised by his grandfather and uncle.”.
When it doesn’t become a tribal war between dad’s side of the family versus moms’ side, kids win. Rashed worked hard with his first wife to come up with an arrangement that he feels worked out well. They decided that while the kids were young, they would stay with their mother. And high school onward they would stay primarily with their father.
“We have a problem with masculinity in our community,” Rashed said. “If fathers are removed from the equation, the problem can get worse. We have a responsibility to both our sons and daughters to be healthy role models of manhood.”
Even though her husband died, Hussein tried to have her daughter spend time with her uncles, so she has a positive male influence in her life.
Shabnam’s* children were 2, 4, and 6 when she left her husband. “I left for my kids not to have to live in a toxic environment. I left for my mental health so I could be a strong parent for them. We are groomed in our culture to keep taking it. But we need to appreciate ourselves as human beings too.”
Coming to a healthy co-parenting stage took a lot of time and tears. Even though it may sound surprising, she credits her ex-husband’s new wife for being the best “angel mom” to her children.
“I literally prayed for her, so I refer to her as my kids’ angel mom,” Shabnam said. “My kids get two loving moms, and it has helped bring my kids closer to their father. If I had wished bad for him, I could be causing generational trauma for my kids.
In return she includes her children’s new brother in as many activities as she can. He really enjoys spending time with his older siblings even if they do live in a separate home.
Single parents should refrain from badmouthing the other parent. You may be hurt (and broke) from the divorce but wanting your kids to hate their mom may backfire and end up with kids hating both parents. Kids are not the pawns with which you get back at your former spouse.
If coparents “part with goodness” as recommended by our faith, they may not have to spend as much time and money in the court system. Unfortunately, however, that doesn’t usually happen. A peaceful co-parenting situation is what a child needs. But if your ex-spouse was understanding and cooperative, they might not be an ex today. That’s when you need the law.
You might feel you’ve spent enough time and money on the case, and you want to wrap up as soon as possible. But every line of the parenting plan is important. There is a basic template, but attorneys can help you add or subtract things that best suit your family. It’s not just about who gets to spend Eid al Fitr with the kids. It could also include which mosque they would follow for Eid day if there is a difference.
Siddiqui hopes single parents understand that until the children are minors, their ex can keep coming back to the court system. That can be a good thing too as checks and balances ensure orders are respected. That’s why it’s crucial for parents not to rush the parenting plan in their divorce process.
Parents should also have reasonable expectations. Unless there are significant safety concerns, the law requires minor children to spend time with both parents. Both mothers and fathers need to put their ego aside and do what is in the best interest of the child. A child should ideally have a healthy relationship with both parents. This can set the foundation for them to have healthy relationships with their own spouses one day.
“My advice to clients with high conflict co-parents is to track everything on a calendar. Try to minimize in-person conversations as judges need proof of everything,” said Siddiqui. “Also, please don’t vent about your ex on social media. It can come back to bite you.”
This Too Shall Pass
The initial years post death or divorce are usually the hardest. Single parents find it hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But Allah does not burden any soul more than he or she can bear. Yes, it takes time, court appearances, boat loads of money, and many sleepless nights. But it does get better eventually. Some single parents find peace on their own. Others are happily remarried. Kids get older and parenting time squabbles fizzle out.
Syed’s four-month-old daughter is now a teenager and the center of his happiness. Ahmad feels all that stress and money was worth it for the peace and dignity with which she can raise her children today.
Kiran Ansari is the Assistant Editor of Islamic Horizons. She has been living in the suburbs of Chicago for the last 24 years.
*Few names have been changed for confidentiality