NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– Before posting pictures of her boyfriend, 17-year-old Sania Iqbal blocked all her Muslim family members from her social media page. It wasn’t until a younger cousin took a screen shot that captured the images that she realized she wasn’t as covert as she thought she was. Her cousin showed the photos to Iqbal’s aunt, who later told her mother.
“She was mad,” Iqbal, now 18, said in a phone interview. Her mother asked, “Why would you post pictures up of you and him, especially kissing and knowing that the family will find out and see?”
Iqbal was ashamed that she kept her 3-month old relationship a secret. Her mother was more worried that the photos did not reflect well on the family. The fact that Iqbal had been sneaking around seemed to come second.
The whole situation gave Iqbal, an Arab-Muslim who lives in Copiague, N.Y., a bittersweet view of relationships. “I had to do everything behind my parents’ back [and] I didn’t like that,” she said.
Whether in response to an Islamic tradition that prohibits dating or to the desire to fit in with their peers, some Muslim teens are having relationships in secret. While this provides practice at being with the opposite sex, it can also fray family and friendship bonds.
Although dating is off-limits for these religious Muslim teens, they are allowed supervised visits with a potential spouse, who they are encouraged to meet through their network of family or friends.
“I learned not to trust anybody because that is how rumors are started,” Iqbal said. “People I thought were close to me made up things and it got around. It caused more drama. I realized that not everybody can be nice and I had to accept what was happening.”
Iqbal considers herself “more aware” in her current relationship, which her parents know about. “I have no close friends,” she said. “I’m more about me, my boyfriend and my family. I know I can trust him more than anyone.”
‘They Don’t Let it Get Too Far’
Other teens struggle to advise friends tangled up in this same way between faith and love.
High school junior, Adnan Shoukfeh, 16, of the International Academy in Oakland County, Mich., said some of his male friends are in casual romantic relationships.
“It’s not that bad if they don’t let it get too far,” Shoukfeh said in a phone interview from his home in West Bloomfield.
Shoukfeh said his friends communicate with their girlfriends outside of school by sending text messages and talking on the phone. But they don’t bring their partners home to interact with their parents.
“They meet up during school [because] it’s a lot easier,” Shoukfeh said. “You are able to see them every day. It would be pretty hard if it was someone outside of school.”
The boys fear judgment by their peers so they don’t share details about how physical the relationships get.
However, since school hours are the only setting for the relationships, Shoukfeh doubts his friends are doing much sexual experimentation.
Shoukfeh’s friends aren’t robots, however, and they occasionally leak details to him about their relationships. “All secrets are hard to keep,” he said.
Shoukfeh said his friends struggle to reconcile their religious beliefs and their actions. They admire American culture and cannot escape the societal pressure to date early.
However, they are fully aware of the risks of getting found out. Punishment, he said, can vary from spending compulsory time at the mosque to getting switch to a different school.
Grappling with Identity
Ibrahim Mossallam, director of the Muslim American Youth Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., says teens who date secretly are grappling with their identity as Muslims.
“They are going to want to hide their religion because it’s easy to be a target as a Muslim,” Mossallam said. By dating, he said, these teens can blend in with their peers.
But that is not how Sara, Shoukfeh’s classmate, sees it. She asked that her last name not be used to protect the identities of her family friends.
The 17-year-old says her Muslim friends who date are just being teens. They are young and in love, she said, and not worrying about blending in to conceal their Muslim identity. “They’re walking together, talking. I don’t feel like their guard is up . . . it’s very natural.”
The sneaking around and lying required to maintain a secret relationship was never appealing to Mehreen Zahid when she was in high school in Copiague so she refrained from dating.
Now, a college freshman at Hofstra University, she occasionally has feelings for her male friends but represses them because she doesn’t feel like she has the tools to handle a relationship. She is also wary about male-female relationships because she’s seen too many of her friends’ parents force a break-up.
“Growing up like that, you learn to keep your personal life a complete secret,” she said.