Meena Malik shares the story of her one-year long engagement, and how she discovered one of the most helpful and meaningful rituals that helped her survive.
I found myself engaged over the winter break in my last year of undergrad. I was so grateful that I would finally experience a romantic relationship after waiting and fighting for so long to keep my desires in check. I had been working very determinedly for over a year trying to meet Mr. Right because I knew I could not wait much longer. I pursued getting married like the average college student would have pursued lining up a career for themselves. Since the tender age of 11, I knew that I was missing out as I saw many of my peers – Muslim and not – exploring and relishing in the pleasures of young romances, from first kisses to first “I love you’s.”
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It turned out however that I had to wait another year for the wedding. My in-laws-to-be adamantly wanted family from Pakistan to travel for the wedding and my family was vehemently unwilling for us to have a nikah, or Islamic marriage, before that point. I was a bit relieved and disappointed at the same time. My fiancé seemed like a complete stranger to me and I was not ready for that level of commitment just yet. On the other hand, I was also eager to move forward with our relationship because I thought he was “the one.”
So…wait a year in limbo and no nikah before then. What could I do at that point? It was now up to me to find a way to survive an engagement that would last a year. I did, alhamdulillah, and it was mostly due to something I call the “love journal.”
There was actually very little meeting and very little that was cute about our courtship. We were introduced in October through a matchmaker and got engaged in January. We were long-distance; he was in the Midwest and I was in glorious Southern California. We exchanged a few emails in which I made sure he fulfilled my handful of must-haves and avoided my deal-breakers. We had two video calls to test out the chemistry as much as you could possibly over a video call. By November, I vetted him. The reviews were glowing. In December, he and his parents visited us. After that visit, we both were ready to decide we wanted to marry each other. My parents and I visited the Midwest two weeks later and that’s when we got officially engaged.
Sentimental moments were sparse and mostly fancified in my own mind. I could guess that we had enough of a connection to be happily married together in all matters of a serious nature. My older sister sat me down and drilled me. What’s his favorite color? Does he like going on roller-coasters? What does he like to do on weekends for fun? She was incredulous that I could make up my mind so quickly without knowing any of these things. His personality and what he was like to be around were mysteries to me but I was somehow ready to mover forward.
Ground Rules (of Engagement) with My Fiancé
I was very strict about my understanding of what type of relationship I should have with any man who was not my mahram. I could interact with non-mahram men according to the MSA West maxim which I had taken to be true. They are the 4 P’s of gender relations: keep it public, purposeful, professional, and be mindful about personal space.
Now I had to figure out how to apply that framework to my fiancé. My fiancé and I had promised to be legally and Islamically married to each other and begin living with each other in a year’s time. But whatever way I sliced it, my fiancé and I didn’t have much legal grounding on which to build a relationship, at least in my eyes.
As far as I could tell, there was some gray area when it came to my fiancé. How could we be purposeful in our communication with the end goal of being married? How could we hopefully fall in love but not have any haram interactions before we were married? What a catch-22! Some communication with my fiancé would be necessary for us to get to the point where we could get married and be somewhat prepared for it. All this interaction should happen preferably with a chaperone at all times. This much I could deduce but I was definitely sailing in uncharted waters.
I did know one thing clearly at that time however – that I could never accept him to be my emotional boyfriend. I have no other term to encapsulate this phenomenon within Muslim circles: man and woman (whether secretly dating, fiancés, etc.) have a romantic relationship within the boundaries of emotional intimacy, having little to no physical intimacy in their relationship.
Let’s be real for a second, though. Did I want him to be my emotional boyfriend?
The Struggle: He’s Not My Boyfriend
Of course! What I really wanted was a halal emotional boyfriend. On second thought, I actually wanted a halal every type of boyfriend. I was 23 years old and had stayed on the straight and narrow as an act of devotion to God. The only solution for carrying out what I truly wanted, however, would entail us having an Islamic marriage in my eyes. But that would not happen for a year.
This is where being only engaged to my fiancé became so tricky for me. I wanted to move forward with our relationship. On top of that, the prospect of getting married to him without knowing him more and creating a more substantial bond with him was terrifying to me. It literally felt like I was engaged to a stranger who was off living in another dimension. Sometimes I thought he must be a hallucination because our extremely limited contact made our engagement feel unreal to me. But there was no way I could allow myself to get closer to him because I was so adamant on what I believed Allah asked of me in our situation as just plain old fiancés. It was agonizing.
Looking back on it nearly a decade later, I am astounded with my commitment to such standards. Particularly because none of my engaged friends, no matter how religious they were, held themselves to similar standards. Local couples were going out to restaurants on dates and taking adorable selfies together where their arms were definitely touching. Long-distance couples were texting all day and video calling every night. Even now, I have some younger friends who are texting guys they’re only “talking to” throughout the day on Muslim marriage/dating apps. Please do not misconstrue me as judging all of my friends for their behavior. I simply mention this because I was constantly comparing myself to them and the relationships they had with their fiancés. I felt insane because I simultaneously wanted to have video calls every night with my fiancé to the point where we had cute nicknames for each other, too, but I just could not bring myself to actually act on that desire because I believed it was haram.
This struggle was something that apparently the local imam and shaykh at my masjid, who we had mandatory premarital counseling session with, noticed as well. He privately encouraged me to call my husband on the phone and talk more to become comfortable around him and get to know him better. When I told him that I was worried that this would be inappropriate because I believed it to be haram, he made a completely flabbergasting recommendation to me. He advised me to secretly marry my husband without our families knowing (he outlined a simple plan to accomplish this). He thought that since we were a long-distance couple we wouldn’t get into any real trouble. I guess the “trouble” he mentioned was consummating the marriage behind our families’ backs. In essence, if we secretly married I could turn him into my halal emotional boyfriend.
For the record, we did not pull a Romeo & Juliet story with a happy ending – we did not deceive our families and secretly marry. I thought my imam was completely irresponsible and borderline crazy. Getting secretly married seemed 100% wrong. I will admit that I do question if my rules of engagement (great pun) were correct Islamically, healthy, or wise–but that is something I can’t answer or change now.
Not moving forward with our relationship in a substantial way during that year was torture for me. We sent about one email a week to each other and had video calls with marriage counselors about once every month and a half. But that wasn’t enough for me.
I wanted to randomly text him some days just to ask, are you really alive out there, my “fiancé?” Forget texting him, I wanted to call him as I walked to class on campus or stay up and talk to him late into the night to discover that hidden part of ourselves which only comes out in sleep-deprived, giddy conversations. More than anything, I wanted him to feel real to me and for us to actually start building something because I didn’t know how I was supposed to marry him on our nikah day and then go home with him literally the next day.
The “Love Journal” is Born
So what did I do with my intense emotions?
I thought of the one thing that has always been my safe harbor for my crazed, private emotions: writing. (If you’re familiar with some of my personal essays on MuslimMatters you have also realized this). I bought myself a beautiful notebook a week after we got engaged and I started journaling. This journal captured everything I wanted to say to him but just couldn’t. On some days he filled my Pride & Prejudice-like imagination (egged on to an exponential level due to my creative writing studies). When I ached to talk to him and be with him, I’d find time to sit down and write to him within the confines of our “love journal.”
These were my first love letters to him. It’s also very on theme for me, with my Jane Austen tastes. In my first post, I wrote, “So–I don’t really know what to call this thing” and repeated that in my last entry to him the day before our nikah:
“We made it! (Well, almost.) This is a … ‘love journal?’ I don’t really know what else to call it. Allah promised us love with our spouses, and I think we’ve been so patient with each other this whole time that we really deserve it. This journal captures the undercover story of how everything has gone down in my book since our engagement.” -December 23, 2014
This became my outlet to confide in him about my experiences in the year we were engaged. I would give him updates about my life, provide him with my perspective on our occasional video calls, or embellish the moments we shared into “cute” memories. I would disclose to him my fears about getting married and frustration with the strange limbo we were locked in. All of this writing made me feel close to him, even though it was completely one-sided. There was nothing wrong with writing these letters in my mind as long as he saw them only after we were married. I truly believe that love journaling helped me not only cope with a cruel year-long engagement, but also allowed me to help grow in our relationship – even if it was just through mental and emotional preparation.
Our “Love Journal” and Maybe Yours, Too?
The “love journal” was the special gift I slipped to my husband after our post-nikah photoshoot (a highly awkward endeavor and nothing like I ever imagined holding a boy’s hand for the first time would be). I was mortified giving the love journal to him. We had lunch together before our wedding reception the next day and I nearly fainted when he told me that he immediately began reading the journal and even stayed up late finishing the entire thing. But I’m so glad that he did. He was all caught up on everything and it was a load that had lifted off my chest because it felt like he was marrying so much more of me after reading it.
If you’re single or in an engaged relationship yourself, you may want to consider trying a “love journal” of your own. It was one of the most helpful and meaningful rituals I practiced to help me survive my one-year engagement.
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