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How To Respect Your Teens’ Privacy

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بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم


Teenagers — youths at the threshold of adulthood, still harboring a carefree, emotional child within, need their parents to empathize with them during the rocky, transitional phase of adolescence.

From bawling infants requiring round-the-clock care, to toddlers that break free and run amok, to preschoolers learning to scribble and being read to, to hyperactive tots who love to help around the house and play with toys, parenting takes us on one roller coaster ride after another.

Just when we think it will get easier, one fine day, these munchkins have morphed into teenagers: awkward, lanky, self-conscious, acne-faced and aloof. “Where did that friendly child of mine disappear?” you wonder.

Do not worry; your offspring will resurface in good time. Meanwhile, here is what you should keep in mind when dealing with them from now on:

Recognize the signs

In the past, you could barge into your “children’s” room at any time, without knocking; shouting instructions off the top of your head, you could drag them out of bed to make them clean their room. No more of that, now, Ummi. Your teenagers will begin to indicate their privacy needs through body language. It might be a scowl when they are asked a question they find invasive, a tantrum when you go through their closet to look for something, or an outright wrangle with a sibling when the latter enters their room while they are studying.

Do not take all this personally. It is a natural endeavor to establish boundaries around their ‘personal space’, in which they can retreat for privacy, which is a genuine need at this age. They are transitioning into adulthood, and a need for privacy or space is natural. In addition, they will stop disclosing each and every detail about their lives and/or feelings to you, as they did before – this is a step towards establishing intangible, ‘emotional’ boundaries around themselves.

Provide them this “space”

As parents, we should not take offense at our teens’ increasing aloofness with us or their frigidity in social gatherings. The best way to console ourselves is to think, “This is just a passing phase.” It really is. They need us to back off with the physical and verbal expressions of love and to treat them more like adults. The best way to make them feel appreciated is to delegate some adult tasks to them and to respect their opinions on matters.

Ideally, teenage girls should not be sharing a bedroom or bathroom with their brothers or father. If possible, each teenager should have a personal place to sleep and study in, in peace, and a locking closet that younger siblings cannot get into. However, if this is not possible, especially in large families, you can improvise and think out of the box. Renovate your garage, gazebo, tool-shed (no kidding!), attic, study, or balcony/terrace to set up a small personal place for your teenager, such as a desk with a bookshelf. Most of all, expect your teenager to withdraw into this space for a few hours everyday.

Make sure they know that you are still the boss

What parents must be careful about at this stage is to maintain the tricky balance between keeping a strict but discreet supervisory eye over their teenagers and giving them freedom and independence. Teenagers should be made to realize that garnering trust and “adult” privileges (e.g. using the Internet in privacy, going out alone, driving the car, or possessing a personal cell phone) comes with responsibilities and restrictions. These adult privileges must be earned after proving themselves to be trustworthy, responsible, honest and morally upright youngsters – especially regarding fulfillment of Islamic obligations and duties. Conversely, they should know that any breach in their parents’ regulations or intentional treachery can immediately result in the elimination of these privileges.

Talk about their interests without probing

If you really want to know why your fourteen-year-old daughter is so glum since she came home from her friend’s house, instead of asking her outright, you can start a casual conversation with her by telling her about your day. Then you can ask her how she liked the snack you packed for her.

“Parents often don’t understand that their adolescent is resistant to questions for two good causes. Adult questions are not only invasive of privacy, they are emblematic of authority. They expose the inequity between adolescent and adult. The adolescent is expected to be answerable to the adult authority, not the other way around. Being repeatedly questioned by an adult can feel threatening, and agreeing to answer can feel demeaning.” – Dr. Carl Pickhardt, “Surviving (Your Child’s) Adolescence“, PsychologyToday.com

Teenagers usually take the bait and start talking once they know they have a sympathetic ear. What they do not like is the interrogative probing. Know that the torrent will come out at some time; just make sure you are there for them when it does.

Watch your tone

If your teenager mentions something about their friends or recreational activities that you find objectionable, do not jump into “tyrannical-lecturing-parent” mode immediately. Let it pass then, but perhaps express your disapproval by remaining silent or not laughing (e.g. if they crack a joke in bad taste, use a curse word, or talk about an elder disrespectfully) or leaving the room to prevent an altercation. Later on, once you find a secluded spot and a quiet moment, talk to them about the behavior that is not appropriate. Keep it short (remember, they hate lectures) and never, ever make the mistake of scolding or reprimanding them in public, before their peers, or in front of siblings. Also, do not tattle to your spouse in front of the whole family as soon as the latter walks in from work. This will make your teenager feel as if you betrayed their trust.

Keep up-to-date with what is going on in ‘their’ world

As a teenager, I remember naively thinking that my parents knew nothing about all the “cool” stuff in “my” world – one that revolved around my friends, slang words, glossy fashion magazines, music, movies, pop idols, makeup, supermodels, dirty jokes and romance novels. What teenagers do not know is that even their parents went through this phase, and know exactly what they are going through.

Read newspapers, magazines and blogs to understand all that is new in the youngsters’ world, including the slang words and sly jokes that teenagers use during conversation. Keep yourself updated; become the technologically and fashionably “with-it” parent whom they can proudly introduce to their friends when the latter visit. However, remember that you will still be feared and revered by your teenagers; hence, you will not exactly be welcome to ‘hang with’ their friends. Therefore, do not take your teenager’s embarrassment and awkwardness personally when you walk in on or sit with their friends for a while. Most likely, your departure will elicit sighs of relief all around!

Be the “toughie” friend outside their clique

As a parent, know that your teenagers will probably consider their friends clique the center of their universe for a few years but will come crying to you when they hurt them in any way. Your role as parent to a teenager, is not “the hand that feeds them or bathes them”, but rather “the friend who is always there” when needed. In addition, you must not be afraid to become the occasional ‘warden’ or ‘bad guy’ when the need arises; someone who is there to set limits, enforce rules, check performance, and unfortunately, as a last resort, exact appropriate retribution to wrong behavior.

Establish a rapport with their educators

If your teenager goes to school, establish a rapport with their teacher by casually talking to him or her about your ward’s progress and behavior at school. This will establish your concern as an “involved” parent; someone who can be approached easily if they want to discuss something about your teenager’s progress at school.

Do not go through their private things

Unless you want your teenaged son or daughter to brand you as “the enemy”, do not go through their stuff behind their backs, unless it is absolutely necessary. Do not read their diary (if they keep one) or go through their journals, notebooks, desk, dresser, closet, school bag, clothes, or accessories without a valid reason. You need to realize that they are no longer children and that your role has changed. If you do not tread with extreme care, you might cause irrevocable damage to your relationship with them, which is at a fragile, volatile stage.

Your focus throughout your children’s adolescence should not be just establishing and enforcing stringent rules, restrictions, curfews and chore-lists. Rather, you should also give importance to maintaining open, heart-to-heart communication, providing an understanding and sympathetic ear, and giving emotional support. You will need to relinquish some control in their lives, and instead, learn to delegate tasks to them in order to build their confidence as “wannabe” adults and make them feel trusted. The more teenagers believe that their parents trust them, the less likely they are to break rules or to disobey them.

Lastly, if a breach of trust on their part gets them punished, but they follow it with sincere repentance, ratification and consistent good behavior, you as their parents, should embody humility and justice by retracting their punishment and allowing them honorary privileges once again.

This will convey the valuable message to them that, just as Allah always accepts His penitent servants’ repentance and opens the door for them to a new beginning, so do you, as their parents, accept and appreciate atonement. They should know that you will continue to have hope in them to reform after a lapse in good behavior and are always there for them as their “rock” during these stormy, hormone-charged, formative years of their lives.

Thereafter, you can sit back and enjoy as they come to you, again and again, looking for a hug, a heart-to-heart conversation, and emotional catharsis over warm, homemade brownies and a cup of hot tea.

This article was first published in SISTERS Magazine.

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Sadaf Farooqi is a postgraduate in Computer Science who has done the Taleem Al-Quran Course from Al-Huda International, Institute of Islamic Education for Women, in Karachi, Pakistan.11 years on, she is now a homeschooling parent of three children, a blogger, published author and freelance writer. She has written articles regularly for Hiba Magazine, SISTERS Magazine and Saudi Gazette.Sadaf shares her life experiences and insights on her award-winning blog, Sadaf's Space, and intermittently teaches subjects such as Fiqh of Zakah, Aqeedah, Arabic Grammar, and Science of Hadith part-time at a local branch of Al-Huda. She has recently become a published author of a book titled 'Traversing the Highs and Lows of Muslim Marriage'.For most part, her Jihad bil Qalam involves juggling work around persistent power breakdowns and preventing six chubby little hands from her computer! Even though it may not seem so, most of her time is spent not in doing all this, but in what she loves most - reading.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    amq

    February 23, 2011 at 3:32 AM

    There are some MAJOR Issues in parenting today:

    1. Parents nowadays don’t anticipate children growing into teenagers, and thus they won’t train them as children behaviors necessary for a teenagers lifestyle.

    Recognizing the signs and providing them with “space” – this is obvious, everyone deserves it, why would you even need to think about it? Parents are adults, they have their own apartment/house and room. Why not give part of that house to a teenager? it is common sense!!! JUST give them space starting from childhood, train them to maintain it, problem solved.Yes it is easy.

    Being the boss – If the parents are nobodies in terms of low paying jobs, immigrants etc (this may or may not be their fault) expect your teenagers to have absolutely no interest in you and expect them not to obey you UNLESS YOU INSPIRE THEM about your job and YOUR LIFE when they are children.

    Basically, how in the world do the PARENTS expect something greater for their teens if:

    1. if the PARENTS don’t try or love their job, but want the teens to get a job.
    2. if the PARENTS aren’t close Islam yet remind the teens to pray 5x a day.
    3. if the PARENTS don’t train (“brainwash”) teens into good manners of everyday life AND PRACTICE By EXAMPLE, yet tell the teens to do it magically when they hit a certain age?.

    if the PARENTS … don’t lead by example, DO NOT expect the same from your teens.

    PARENTS who are not AWARE of this should NOT become PARENTS.

    Its all about awareness and not marrying just because of culture/your friends are. if you are single and thinking about marrying and don’t satisfy the things above DO NOT MARRY.

    The root cause is always the parents.

    Period.
    ————————————————————————————–
    About Probing:

    Parents shouldn’t need to do it… why? … Just train the teens (YOUR Children) to like and dislike certain things, make a diary to keep track, its not hard. Make sure when they are children, and you want them to dislike something, make sure either 1. They fear it if it cannot be explained (sex). 2. They understand with logic (Bullying hurts). its NOT HARD!

    So when they become teenagers YOU can trust them, the PARENTS should establish a child implanted routine the children can do (HAVE to inorder to feel peace – as a COPING MECHANISM) through training them as children ie:

    1. Family rock climbing.
    2. Family running
    3. Family Workout
    4. Family bike ride etc……

    Do all of the above things when they are children and they feel “sad”. This way the teens establish them as “coping mechanisms” they have to do when they grow up … to remember how they felt at EASE when they did these “cool” things with you!. NOT HARD.

    Conclusion about probing:

    1. Train “brainwash” them at early age to reject and accept things close to Islam.
    2. Develop coping mechanisms where you can “probe” them without problem.
    3. Do these THINGS YOURSELF AS ACTIONS and NOT JUST TELL THEM TO.
    ———————————————————————————

    Parenting is hard work, not because there is work. BUT because PARENTS TODAY are STUPID when it comes to marrying and raising children.

    PARENTS and THEIR KNOWLEDGE and STRATEGY is the problem.
    TEENS are NEVER to Blame.

    Remember that singles. Are you good enough to be a parent? Do you lead by example?
    If not, then PLEASE DO NOT BECOME PARENTS.

    Period. (for those who want to refute, don’t use ahadith or other islamic examples, i want to see your logic)

    • Avatar

      Umar

      February 26, 2011 at 10:42 PM

      “…everyone deserves it, why would you even need to think about it?”

      Actually no, thought precedes action so of course you would need to think about it. I think i know what you mean though, saying that a parent should naturally subconsciously give more space. But many don’t, and have countless issues with their child because of it so the writer is justified in mentioning it.

      “If the parents are nobodies in terms of low paying jobs, immigrants etc (this may or may not be their fault)…”

      Firstly using the word “nobody” to describe a low paid job or immigrant status is extremely unfair and insulting. Secondly, saying it may or may not be their fault does not detract from the implications of the previous line. Is it a fault to be an immigrant?

      “expect your teenagers to have absolutely no interest in you and expect them not to obey you UNLESS YOU INSPIRE THEM about your job and YOUR LIFE when they are children.”

      I agree that inspiring a child to your own life or job would no doubt increase their interest in you, but I feel it is an over exaggeration to say “absolutely no interest” and “expect them not to obey you”. The deciding factor would be what aspects of your life should you inspire children with. Most parents have no objections in saying “I have x job…you should aim for y job as my experience shows me that field gives greater profit/satisfaction”.

      “Make sure when they are children, and you want them to dislike something, make sure either 1. They fear it if it cannot be explained (sex)…”

      Making a child scared of the topic of sex because it “cannot be explained” is a bad approach. Sex indeed can be explained and should be explained according to the level of the child. Making a child afraid of something which they later find to be explainable is a one way ticket to losing the trust of the teen.

      “1. Train “brainwash” them at early age to reject and accept things close to Islam.”

      I am somewhat perplexed at your choice of words – it can be interpreted in two ways and forgive be if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Brainwash is usually used with negative connotations (‘brainwashed into becoming a murderous…’ why put Islam in this category anyway?…instead use a word like teach, explain, instruct etc.) : drugs, television & hypnotism. All these things require the mind of the child to be switched off. When teaching Islam, it is better if the parent explains each action clearly to the child, engaging the mind of the child and the Quran itself is something which should be reflected upon.

      I agree with a lot of what you said, but there were the above points and a few more minor points which I disagreed with.

      With all respect, the final line is something I disagree with most, and if you are a Muslim an extremely dangerous statement to make.

      You said, “(for those who want to refute, don’t use ahadith or other islamic examples, i want to see your logic)”

      If we do not use Islamic texts and evidences what more do we have? Everybody would have their own opinion on everything and if Islam is not included in the equation, where would that leave us? It would make us people of desires. Islam means submission and surrender to Allah, and is the criterion for judgement. So to say you do not want your comment verified by Islamic texts, wishing only to be judged by logic is:
      a. Naive considering this is an Islamic forum.
      b. Is lacking trust in Allah. Wouldn’t the commands of Allah be best for his creation.
      c. Is mildly hypocritical. You say you want to see my logic, but you ask for no Islamic references. The highest form of logic is to use Islamic texts! Isn’t Allah the most wise, and the most merciful. Wouldn’t therefore the guidelines of Allah be best for his creation?
      Therefore I guess I just refuted your comment asking for a refutation lol. 
      But really, this mentality of requiring some kind of logic, alien to Islamic texts, is in fact THE LOWEST FORM OF LOGIC.

  2. Avatar

    sakina

    February 23, 2011 at 4:43 PM

    Mashaallah, a good article :D Being a teenager myself (17) with teenage siblings (18, 16 and 14)I thought I’d mention things from our perspective;
    Alhamdulillah as a family we are really close. The best thing is that our mom is like a best friend to us, she spends most of her time playing with us, taking us out places. So all of us are more likely to open up to her and take her advice on board. She takes care to remind us about things privately and never embarrasses us in front of others, even in front of each other. I think if all parents were to be like this there’d be more happy, successful teenagers in the world.
    Though I must add I think that even if many parents spent their time keeping up to date with the latest teen trends, many of us would not consider our parents to be ‘with it’; because they are our parents, they are of a different generation and they do things differently, which is why the relationship between us is so strong. They don’t have to be like us to be our closest friends, they just have to be the awesome individuals that Allah created them as.
    I definitely agree with giving your teenager space, and respecting them as a young adult, but above all reminding them about the Greatness of Allah, without whom no teenager can survive this phase of his life without.

    • Avatar

      nayma

      February 23, 2011 at 10:10 PM

      Sakina, your point was beautifully put.

  3. Avatar

    Muhib

    February 24, 2011 at 10:36 AM

    MashAllah, very well written. Sakina’s points also beautifully complements the main article. I found it very useful.

  4. Avatar

    Abdullah

    February 25, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    @amq

    Just a clarification that if something is from the Quran or in the Ahadith then it is the most logical thing….

    The article’s and your points are good and I’m actually going to share them with my spouse, however it seems that you are really angry and upset. Parents try and some make mistakes, but to shout (CAPS) and structure your sentences the way you have is not going to help. The tone and framing method used by Sr. Sadaf is something that we can also learn a lot from.

    All the best and with a sincere desire.

  5. Avatar

    Sabeen

    February 27, 2011 at 10:06 PM

    A very helpful article for parents that are currently facing these issues with their teenagers. But is it not time to turn the tide on this license to disrespect and disobey that is granted to kids as they hit adolescence? It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that the expectations of rebellion leads to rebellion and the inordinately defensive attitude of some parents causes their teenagers to misbehave.
    Teenage as an accepted part of growing up is a fairly recent phenomenon. The term ‘teenager’ was used first in 1941 and in the decades before that there were two basic categories of people-either you were categorized as a child or as an adult. And the young adult deserves the same respect and privacy that any other adult does. In fact as a Muslim everyone deserves respect from us. The Prophet (saws) said
    “He is not one of us who shows no mercy to younger ones and does not acknowledge the honor due to our elders”. [At-Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud]
    However, parents that have already weathered the terrible two’s should not have to brace for attitude problems till their kids hit twenty!

  6. Avatar

    muslimah

    March 8, 2011 at 9:48 AM

    great article! sadly, a lot pf parents (from what i see around) think it’s their birthright to boss their kids around..i think it’s one of the reasons that messes up a lot of people big time.

  7. Avatar

    Safia K R

    March 8, 2011 at 2:37 PM

    ASA,

    i think the idea is to start early. The rapport building need not begin WHEN they are teenagers. This will be your training also because remember parenting is not an easy job description.

    I have an 8 year old and i realize that children are very smart these days (more than we were while growing up). Thanks to the exposure. We should use it as a positive thing in helping develop that relationship with our children – both boys and girls earlier on in their lives.

    Also i find it very helpful when i tell my children: You are my best friend. I am building ground for the future ensuring they remember this and they take me as THEIR best friend. They feel the connection immediately and it gives me a ground to work with them.

    Also i think as they grow older, we have to cut the yelling from the routine and go more “discussion” and talk. They listen to that more.
    May Allah help us with this role we have been given as moms. :-)

    JKK

  8. Avatar

    sesamestreet

    January 9, 2016 at 8:44 AM

    the problem in our household is that my parents are the ones who love to resort to yelling and dissing me when i try to talk sense/discuss with them. idek how am i suppose to cope up with this, and i believe theyre too old to change. and dont give me that “everyone can change no matter what their age is” crap. unless u’re godsend its almost entirely impossible. ive been doing the not replying to their diss talk and yelling for years and all i can say is that they simply do not care about what ive got to say. ive never felt so detached in my home.

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#Society

Black Youth Matter: Stopping the Cycle of Racial Inequality in Our Ranks

In Malcolm X’s Letter from Mecca, he said, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.” Yet, as Muslims living in America, we are not fulfilling our role in eradicating racism from our own ranks. We are making race our problem. With so much injustice plaguing the world, the time is now to embrace the youth, celebrate their diversity, and let them know there is a place for them in Islam.

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As we joined the rest of America in celebrating Black History Month and commemorating the legacy of the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., with tweets, infographics, and sharing famous quotes, racism and colorism continue to plague the Muslim community. 

When we hear of a weekend course about the illustrious muadhin of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, Bilal Ibn Raba’ah, may Allah be pleased with him, or a whitewashed cartoon movie based loosely on his life, we flock to the location. When the imam retells his story during a Friday sermon, we listen intently and feel inspired, we smile in awe upon hearing about his fortitude in the face of incessant torture. We cry while reliving the part where he enters the city of Makkah alongside the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) victorious, and calls the adhan atop the Ka’aba. 

Then, we leave. 

We return to our homes and all but forget about it until the next time he is brought up— unless we are Black Muslims. Like King, his impact comes in waves, maybe once a year like MLK Day or like Black History Month, for many of us. Yet, there were more Black companions and renowned Black Muslims in our history, just as there were countless civil rights leaders who fought for racial equality in America. For many of us who are not American of African descent, we live our lives unperturbed by the implications of ignoring the racial disparities that exist within our own places of worship.

However, it is our youth that bear the brunt of this injustice. 

A few weeks ago, I witnessed an incident that made me reflect deeply on the effects of racism and fear on our youth and the Muslim community. After picking up my son from middle school in Baltimore County, I drove to a nearby 7-Eleven for some snacks. While I was standing in line to pay for my groceries, I noticed that the man behind the counter was Muslim. From his outward appearance, accent, and name tag, I guessed he was South Asian. We greeted each other with salaam, a smile, and a head nod of camaraderie.

As he was ringing up my items, a group of chattery students still in school uniforms, approached the entrance of the convenience store. The cashier looked up horrified, and in mid transaction swung his arm back and forth as if swatting a fly. I turned to look at who he was gesturing to and saw the children were swinging the door open to enter. They were about 6 African American children from the same public middle school as my son. In his school, each grade level wears a different color polo with khaki pants as part of their uniform, so I could tell that most of them were in his same grade level.

“No! No! No!” the cashier cried harshly, “Out!”

I turned to him grimacing in disbelief, surprised at his reaction to the kids and then I noticed his expression. He had a look on his face of fear coupled with disgust.

One child cheerfully told him, “I got money, man!” My head turned back and forth from the students to the cashier. He reluctantly said, “Fine,” but as more students followed, he added sternly, “Three at a time!” I wondered if this was a rule when one of the girls in the group said, “Yeah, three at a time y’all,” and the majority stayed back, as if they were familiar with the routine. Some of them rolled their eyes, others laughed, but they remained outside the door. The cashier followed the ones who entered with his eyes intently as he finished bagging my items. He looked genuinely concerned. I tried to make light of the situation and get his attention away from the children, asking, “The kids give you a hard time, huh?” He smiled and nodded nervously, but I was not satisfied with his answer. 

As I swiped my debit card to pay, I felt troubled. My maternal instincts were telling me that I should defend these children. I felt anger and helplessness at the same time. These kids were tweens or barely 13 years old, yet they were being judged because of the color of their skin. There was no other logical explanation. They were not rowdy or reckless, not any more than any other child their age. They did not look menacing; in fact, they were all smiling and joking with one another.

Yet, this cashier, my Muslim brother, was looking at them as if they were a threat. The same way some white American may look at a Muslim sporting a beard and thobe boarding a plane.  

I tried to find excuses for his behavior. Perhaps he had a bad experience, or he was having a bad day. Could some of the kids from the middle school have stolen something before and this prompted his apprehension? There is some crime in this neighborhood located in the southwestern part of Baltimore County, on the outskirts of the City. Could he have suffered from some type of trauma that led to his anxiety? Maybe there was a fight in his store one day? Yet, even if any of these assumptions were true, I still felt like he was overreacting.

After all, these were just kids.

In Dr. Joy Degruy’s book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, she mentions that policing continues to represent one of the most pervasive and obvious examples of racial inequality; one that even the youth are unable to avoid. She cites an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, highlighting a study by UCLA, the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Boston, Massachusetts, Penn State, and University of Pennsylvania that investigated how black boys were perceived as it related to childhood innocence. They found, “converging evidence that black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their white same-age peers.” Consequently, African American youth are often unfairly singled out as troublemakers. 

They found, “converging evidence that black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their white same-age peers.” Consequently, African American youth are often unfairly singled out as troublemakers. Click To Tweet

On November 22, 2014, a 12-year-old African American child, like my son and his middle school peers, was fatally shot by police while he played with a toy gun in a playground. The child, Tamir Rice, was just a young boy playing cheerfully outdoors, but police officers regarded him a threat, demonstrating the ghastly reality of the above-mentioned study. After hearing about this atrocity, I remember telling my own children that they can never play outside with nerf guns or water pistols, out of fear of this happening to them. This is the type of world our children are living in. As Muslims, why do we choose to be part of the problem and not its solution?

Black youth

Junior football team huddling together

As I walked through the door and past the group in front of the 7-Eleven, all I could think about is that the kids were no different than my son who was sitting in the car, hungry, waiting for me to bring him some food. The only difference was that I was there to defend him, if need be. The children did not have an adult to stand up for them against the discrimination to which they were being subjected. I felt guilty for not saying more. I also remembered an incident where a group of African American youth were turned away from the tarawih prayers at a local mosque, not too far from the 7-Eleven, during the month of Ramadan, because they were perceived to be “too rowdy.” This prompted me to write about this incident; to speak up for them now, and to remind myself and other Muslims that the Prophet, peace be upon him, taught us compassion. 

He said, “Whoever does not show mercy to our young ones, or acknowledge the rights of our elders, is not one of us.” (Musnad Ahmad)

Even when a bedouin came into the masjid, the House of Allah – a place much more sacred than any convenience store – and urinated, yes urinated there, he still treated him with dignity. (Muslim)

The students standing at the door of the 7-Eleven were just going in for a snack. Even if they had been misbehaving, the gentleman at the counter could have addressed them with kindness. Similarly, the youth at the local mosque just wanted to pray tarawih. Now imagine the impact it had on them to be turned away from praying with their brethren during the month of Ramadan. 

I sat in the car where my son was waiting and found him looking out the window, unaware of what was happening. We were parked far from the entrance.

“Do you know any of those kids?” I asked him. “Yeah, the girl on the right is in my gym class,” he said.

My heart sank more and as we sat in the car, I wondered, what would have been the cashier’s reaction if the kids had been white? More than likely, he would not have treated them the same way. This racial profiling leads to devastating consequences. A recent news report by WUSA9 revealed that the state of Maryland leads the nation in incarcerating young black men, according to experts at the Justice Policy Institute. Their November Policy Briefs for 2019 entitled, Rethinking Approaches to Over Incarceration of Black Young Adults in Maryland, revealed that disparity is most pronounced among emerging adults, or youth ages 18-24, where, “Nearly eight in 10 people who were sentenced as emerging adults and have served 10 or more years in a Maryland prison are black. This is the highest rate of any state in the country.”

“Nearly eight in 10 people who were sentenced as emerging adults and have served 10 or more years in a Maryland prison are black. This is the highest rate of any state in the country.” Click To Tweet

What was most troubling about the incident at the 7-Eleven was that the students had been conditioned; they were already used to being treated that way. It was routine for them and business as usual for the Muslim cashier. While he may believe that he is doing the right thing, by averting a potential “problem,” the harm that he is causing has greater ramifications. He is adding to the trauma these children are already experiencing being black in America. Black students in Baltimore County were not even allowed by law to earn an education past 5th grade in 1935, and 65 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, the county’s schools are still highly segregated. Local and federal leadership in America have continuously failed African Americans, and it is disheartening to think that the immigrant Muslim community is headed in the same direction. 

I was haunted by this incident and returned to the 7-Eleven a week later to ask the cashier or the owner of the store about their (mis)treatment of the middle schoolers. I parked directly in front of the glass doors of the entrance and it was there where I saw a sign typed in regular white computer paper that read, “AT A TIME NO MORE THAN THREE (3) SCHOOL KIDS ARE ALLOWED IN THE STORE & please do not bring bags inside the store. Thanks.” I had not seen the sign before, maybe I overlooked it the day of the occurrence. Nevertheless, I went inside and spoke with the owner of the franchise, a Muslim gentleman who greeted me with salaam. I asked him about the sign outside the door and the reason why the middle schoolers were treated like would-be criminals. He explained that students from local schools have stolen goods from the convenience store on many occasions. To prevent this, they established a rule that only three unaccompanied school children could enter at a time and they were not allowed to bring their backpacks. The owner further added that crime and vandalism were prevalent in the area. Unfortunately, because this side of town is predominately African American, the blame falls disproportionately on this group. 

Nevertheless, patrolling and intimidating the African American youth in the area is not the solution. As Dr. Degruy stated in her book, “The powerful oppress the less powerful, who in turn oppress those even less powerful than they. These cycles of oppression leave scars on the victims and victors alike, scars that embed themselves in our collective psyches and are passed down through generations, robbing us of our humanity.”

A thirty-four-year veteran police officer named Norm Stamper wrote a book about racism in the criminal justice system entitled, Breaking Rank, (2005) and he mentioned that, “It is not hard to understand why people of color, the poor, and younger Americans did not, and do not, look upon the police as ‘theirs’… Do the police protect ‘the weak against oppression or intimidation’ or do they oppress and intimidate the very people they’ve sworn to protect?” Likewise, this young generation will begin to see Muslims of all colors as no different, if we take the role of the oppressor. 

When Abu Dharr insulted Bilal ibn Rabah, may Allah be pleased with them, by calling him, “O son of a black woman!” and the Prophet, peace be upon him heard of this, he rebuked Abu Dharr and said to him, “By the One who revealed the Book to Muhammad, no one is better than another except by righteous deeds. You have nothing but an insignificant amount.” We may have read or heard this and other narrations before, however, we fall short in implementing these teachings.

In Malcolm X’s Letter from Mecca, he said, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.” Yet, as Muslims living in America, we are not fulfilling our role in eradicating racism from our own ranks. We are making race our problem. With so much injustice plaguing the world, the time is now to embrace the youth, celebrate their diversity, and let them know there is a place for them in Islam.

Sometimes it takes one person to stand up and point out the wrong to set the right tone. The sign at the 7-Eleven in my neighborhood has been taken down.

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No-Nuptial Agreements: Maybe Next Time, Don’t Get Married

marriage
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 “Nikah is part of my sunnah, and whoever does not follow my sunnah has nothing to do with me.”

–Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), Narrated by Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her)

Many Muslims have experienced marriage, then suffered a subsequent divorce as a financial, emotional, and social meat grinder. Some critics have noted the divorce system seemingly exists primarily to benefit itself; the lawyers: mental health experts, investigators, forensic accountants.

They form an entire industry dedicated to extracting the wealth of a disintegrating family, often forcing the middle class or working class into poverty and bankruptcy. All of this happens without any noticeable benefit to society. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone.

For many, divorce happens multiple times. A divorced person who gets remarried is more likely to get divorced again.

While men often complain about how the “family court” system is against them, the reality is that women often bear the financial brunt of divorce. Divorce is more likely to drive women to bankruptcy than men.

After one or two divorces and a few lost years of retirement savings or a decade or more of home equity, another “marriage” starts to look downright irrational. My advice to such people: stop getting married, at least under state law. Get a nikah and a “no-nuptial agreement” instead. Allow me to explain.

Fun with Words

It is impossible to have a meaningful conversation about virtually anything unless we have a common understanding of the meaning of words we are using.

In law, even ordinary words have definitions that defy conventional understanding or even common sense. Basic familial terms like “son,” “daughter,” “father,” and “mother” have state law definitions that are different from what those words mean in Islam or our understanding. Under state law, “parents” can adopt adult “children” a similar age to them or even older, and have the same status as a biological child. In Islam, an adopted child is not the same as a biological child and does not have rights to inheritance in Islam.

In law, even words like “life” and “death” don’t always mean what you think they mean. A living person can go to court to dispute his death, demonstrate he is living, breathing, speaking, and everyone agrees he is the “dead person” in question, yet, he is ruled legally dead. Famously, corporations are legally people and are immortal.

Law is not the same thing as truth.

Similarly, it is folly to conflate nikah, the thing that exists in Islam, with marriage under state law. In different states, rules for who and under what circumstances people can get married can vary. One thing that all the state law definitions have in common is that they are not marriage in Islam.

What is Marriage?

For marriage, there is a state law definition, there is an Islamic definition, and there is the definition that the individual married couple has. Under state law, two men can be married to each other, but three men cannot be. In Islam, marriage (let’s call it nikah to be more precise) is a halal social and sexual relationship, and there are rules in the fiqh that are different from state law.

Under some state laws, “secret marriages” with no witnesses or publicly available registration are part of the law and commonly used. In Islam, there is a witness requirement for nikah. None of the rules in Islam require the state’s approval for nikah.

The third definition is how each couple sees their marriage. It is a flexible institution. To the extent it is an economic, social or familial partnership can vary widely. Couples may live together or apart. They may have one income or two.  They may share the same social circles or share none of them. The variations are endless.

Domestic Partnerships

For most of the history of legal marriage in the United States, marriage can only be between one man and one woman. States started allowing for “domestic partnerships” to give some “benefits” of marriage to same-sex couples, like employer health benefits and hospital visitation.

In many instances, these were available almost exclusively to same-sex couples, even after same-sex marriage became part of the law in all states. However, as of January 2020, California opened up domestic partnerships to everyone, including different-sex couples.

As a practical matter, domestic partnerships are simply state-sanctioned marriage by another name. It is notable though some jurisdictions may have limited domestic partnerships that are something less than marriage. In most states that have it, the same family law system, for good or ill, that comes with marriage under state law is also true of domestic partnerships.

While domestic partnership combined with a nikah is available to Muslims in states where it exists, there is no real advantage to using it.

No-Nuptial Agreements

For decades now, in the United States, there has been no taboo against men and women openly having sexual relationships with each other, living and raising families together outside marriage. Courts have long recognized these people should have contractual rights with each other.

When a man and women live together, those involved may be gaining something and giving something up. So if a man promises a woman something, and the agreement is not founded merely on sexual services, the state should enforce those promises, not in family court but civil court.

Marvin started it all

The principle case that established this is the California case of Marvin v. Marvin in 1976. A couple broke up, but the woman wanted to enforce promises made to her by the man. The man felt such a commitment should not be enforceable because, among other reasons, he was legally married to a completely different woman when this non-marital relationship started. Under California law, at the time (abolished by the time the case got to the court), this was criminal adultery.

No-nuptial agreements (sometimes called cohabitation agreements or Marvin agreements) can be used by couples when they want to have enforceable contracts but do not want to subject themselves to the family court system or the family code. They can include provisions of mahar, sharing expenses, equity as well as dispute resolution processes like arbitration and mediation.

The couple can also document limits on what they agreed to to what is in writing. For example, during a breakup, one party may be able to claim an oral promise the other party never made and potentially have it enforced in court. A written agreement protects both parties and the understanding they had when they entered into the relationship.

These agreements have a broad utility for many different kinds of couples. However, for some couples, the main benefit would be documentation that nobody is under the illusion that this is a marriage under state law. It is a private contract between two individuals.

Example of a No-Nuptial Agreement

Salma, 58, does a nikah with Sheher Ali, 62. They also create a no-nuptial agreement. Sheher Ali is a widower, and Salma is a divorcee. They both have their separate assets, including their own homes. Each has adult children and young grandchildren. Both want to put their adult children at ease that this relationship does not exist for predatory financial reasons – a common fear when parents marry later in life.

Salma, 58, does a nikah with Sheher Ali, 62. They also create a no-nuptial agreement. Sheher Ali is a widower, and Salma is a divorcee. They both have their separate assets, including their own homes. Each has adult children and young grandchildren.Click To Tweet

Salma and Sheher Ali do not plan to live together, which is common for couples their age. They mostly pay for their expenses themselves. They may spend the night at each other’s homes whenever they want but will split time with their separate children, grandchildren and social circles. Sheher Ali pays for joint vacations and outings. He agreed to a mahar. Both agree in writing they did not marry under state law.

Sheher Ali and Salma can still call each other husband and wife, since that is true for them and everyone they know. Both keep all of their finances separate, and each does their independent estate planning where they name each other as partial beneficiaries of their estates as required in Islam. The two also complete HIPAA forms allowing each to see the other’s private medical information and name each other in Advance Healthcare Directives so they can make healthcare decisions for each other.

Legal Strangers

Unmarried couples are “legal strangers.” Doctors won’t share healthcare information. Islamic spouses don’t get an inheritance from a no-nuptial agreement spouse by default. They don’t get things like tenancy by the entirety, community property, or elective shares in places where such things exist. As I described above, though, this can be remedied. However, as I described in the example above, the “legal stranger” aspect of the relationship may be more of a benefit than a downside in some cases.

Some “benefits” of marriage under state law are against Islamic principles.  For example, some state laws that provide for “elective shares” are diametrically opposed to the Quran’s share of inheritance.  Muslims must follow Islamic rules of inheritance anyway, which are different from default state rules, so being under state law is no special advantage. Even with proper planning, the downsides of the “legal stranger” problem still may come up in extraordinary contexts, however, such as lawsuits.

Immigration and Taxes

Another concern is that employee benefits to spouses and dependents don’t generally extend to those with no-nuptial agreements. Immigration law does not allow a path to the United States through the “family unification ” process for those with a no-nuptial contract. Marriage under state law (or the law of a foreign country recognized in the United States) may be the most practical solution in such cases.

In some cases, state-sanctioned marriage may lead to lower taxes. Other legally married couples may experience the so-called “marriage penalty” and pay higher taxes than couples with a no-nuptial agreement. Couples may often find they will pay less in taxes with a no-nuptial agreement than they would if they were married under state law.

Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements

One may wonder, to avoid the “meat grinder” of the family court system, why not just get a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement? It’s accurate that in general, having such arrangements are superior to not having them. These agreements offer greater certainty, though by no means total confidence, on how a divorce would end. There are disadvantages to such an agreement over no-nuptial agreements, however. A big one is that divorce is still in the family court system.

Many Muslim men, especially immigrants, may perceive cultural biases cause a stacked deck against them in family court. The nature of these agreements may make this perception worse. Sometimes, courts treat prenuptial and postnuptial agreements with a presumption of coercion. It is different from an ordinary contract. The family court system is often free to be more paternalistic and make a husband prove he did not force his wife to sign a document.

The Uniform Premarital Agreement Act, which will be worded differently in the different states that adopted it, provides for a process to make these marital agreements harder to defeat. However, the process is perhaps arguably more expensive, cumbersome, and awkward for a couple than a no-nuptial contract. Talking about a prenuptial agreement with a fiancé may be more uncomfortable than bringing up a no-nuptial arrangement and nikah. Without a state-sanctioned marriage, a written agreement is essential. Many people perceive the pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements as both optional and, perhaps unfairly, as a sign of mistrust.

Custody and Child Support

Unfortunately, there is no agreement you can come up with that will pre-settle child support and custody. A judge will decide those things.

It does not matter if you have a “plain vanilla” marriage governed entirely by your state’s family code, a prenuptial agreement, or a no-nuptial agreement. Children are not parties to such a contract. No court anywhere will subject a child’s care and welfare to such things.

For custody and child support, courts in family court will use the sometimes hard to define standard of “best interests of the child.” One Massachusetts family law attorney in a popular divorce documentary cryptically joked that she called children in the system  “little bags of money.” They are often a significant reason family law cases are so profitable for lawyers, mental health professionals, investigators, and everyone else.

No Protection for Poor Life Choices

A good rule to follow is never to do nikah with a person capable of having children unless you are sure she or he can be trusted to raise your future children, and you have made peace with making child support payments to this individual if your relationship ends. If you have a child, you may be suck with a child support order. There is no getting out of this one.

As an Islamic estate planning lawyer, the most important advice I can ever give anyone is not to get a proper estate plan. It is not to get a good lawyer. Of course those things are good, indeed no-brainers, but they have limits. The most important advice is to choose a spouse wisely. If you fail here, there is no law, no lawyer or document in existence that can turn back the clock. A no-nuptial agreement may make a future breakup easier than a family court divorce. There is still no guarantee it won’t be a complete mess anyway. Good documents are never a substitute for poor life choices.

“The Law of the Land”

Islamic institutions like masajid are conservative don’t like taking needless risks, as they should be. Many will not officiate a nikah unless there is a marriage license. They usually will not officiate bigamous marriages, on account of it being illegal.  Of course bigamy, like marriage, has a specific legal definition under state law. One almost universal refrain is that as Muslims we need to follow “the law of the land.”

No-nuptial agreements are in full conformity with the 'law of the land.' It is not a marriage under state law. Nobody is claiming that it is. Limiting nikah to marriage under state law not based on Islam.Click To Tweet

But what if that term did not mean what you think it means? No-nuptial agreements are in full conformity with the “law of the land.” It is not a marriage under state law. Nobody is claiming that it is.  Limiting nikah to marriage under state law not based on Islam. Recently, the Islamic Institute of Orange County, a large masjid in the Los Angeles area, changed its nikah officiating policy. Instead of always requiring marriage certificates, they will also recognize no-nuptial agreements.

Masajid Should Welcome No-Nuptial Agreements

Masajid should have standardized policies and procedures in place. Every masjid should have carefully considered policies to protect the vulnerable and the institution. No masjid wants to open themselves up to a “drive-by nikah” or other nonsense. One policy may well include mandating a no-nuptial agreement when there is no marriage certificate. There is no reason to believe one protects people and institutions better than the other.

Nikah is a vital sunnah for us. It is not something that should be in the shadows, secret, or something shameful. It is fundamental to how we organize our families and communities. When it’s done right, it helps us strengthen our iman, bring us closer to our communities and our loved ones. State definitions of words should not always be your guide to right and wrong.

It is appropriate that Muslims want to do the sunnah of nikah at the masjid, publicly and with friends and family watching.  We should recognize and celebrate every new couple that has done a nikah in our communities. Never mind the state has not sanctioned it.

The state statute book has its definition, we have ours.

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The Culture Debt of Islamic Institutions

The reality across America is that too many people have used the masjid to serve their own egos, fulfill their desires for power, and give themselves a big building as something to point at and say, “I built that.” Too few have created a vision for the spiritual upliftment of a community and then worked to serve it.

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Our community institutions are in debt – cultural debt. And the bill is due.

There are major consequences when the bill comes due on a debt you owe. Personal debt can lead to bankruptcy or foreclosure and the loss of your home.

If paid off before the bill comes due, debt can be a tool. Many communities in North America have utilized the qardh hasanah (goodly loan) as a way to expedite construction projects and then pay people back over time. When businesses fail to pay debt back, they are forced to liquidate and go out of business to satisfy their creditors. In extreme cases, like the economic crisis of a few years ago, major institutions repeatedly utilizing debt as a tool became over-leveraged, creating a rippling collapse.

Financial debt is not the only type of debt an organization carries. Every decision made by an organization adds to a balance sheet of sorts. Other types of debt can be technical, or even cultural.

Consider a new company that keeps making the decision to cut corners with their technology infrastructure – creating ‘technical’ debt. At a certain point, the infrastructure will need to be replaced. If not properly planned for, the cost to fix it could cripple the company.

Put another way, impatience and short-term decision making create (non-financial) debts that can destroy an organization.

The cultural debt for an organization, especially Islamic organizations, can be the most devastating.

These decisions may appear rational or well-intentioned compromises, but they come at a cost.

For example, if a community prioritizes money into a construction project instead of an imam or youth director, what is the cost of the compromise? A 5-year construction project means an entire segment of youth who will be aged anywhere between 13 and 18 risk being disconnected from the masjid.

What about the cost of marginalizing the one sister on the board multiple times such that other sisters become disenchanted and unengaged. Or what if the marginalized board member is a youth, or a convert, or a person of color? How is the collateral damage to those segments of the community assessed?

What about when the same 2 or 3 people (even without an official title) remain in charge of a masjid and aggressively push out people not in line with their agendas? Dedicated and hard-working volunteers will end up leaving and going to other communities.

What about when a few people are responsible for creating an environment so toxic and exhausting that volunteers don’t want to come to the masjid anymore? And they get so burned out that they refuse to get involved in a masjid again? Who is going to pay the bill for all the talent that’s been driven away?

What is the spiritual debt on a community that refuses to invest in an Imam or scholar for over 10 years? An entire generation will grow up in that masjid without a local resource to take guidance from. What is the impact on those kids when they grow up to get married and have their own children?

What is the cost of having overly-aggressive daily congregants who yell at people, make people feel uncomfortable, and ultimately make them want to stay away from the masjid?

Will the construction committee that decided to build a customized dome instead of a more adequate women’s prayer space ever make it up to them?

What is the cost on a community of building a massive albatross of a school that can’t cover its own overhead – and yet services less than 5% of a community’s children?

What is the cost on a congregation when the Friday khutbah becomes associated entirely with fundraising instead of spiritual development?

Did anyone plan to repay this cultural debt when they were making decisions on behalf of the community? Who is paying attention to it?

Some communities are able to shift, and make strides. Some communities are able to recognize a larger vision for growing and developing a community spiritually.

For other communities, they are now over-leveraged. The culture debt is due. To continue the financial analogy, they’re at the point of declaring bankruptcy.

These are the masjids that are empty. These are the ones where, pardon the crassness, after a few people die off, the masjid will most likely die out as well because there is no community left to take over.

These are the communities that people avoid, where they refuse to volunteer, and eventually where people stop donating.

The culture debt of the community is that people no longer feel a part of the community, and therefore the infrastructure they worked so hard to build will crumble.

Cultural bankruptcy is the loss of people.

Can the culture debt be repaid? Is there a way out? How do you undo the loss of people?

I was really hoping to have a nice and tidy 5-step action plan to fix this. The reality is, it’s not going to be easy. People don’t realize the collateral damage they’ve caused over the course of 10-20 years despite the good intentions they had.

How do you get them to accept responsibility, much less change?

It’s not going to happen. The change will be outside the masjid. This means there will be a continued rise in third spaces. Parents are using online tutors instead of Sunday schools, making their children even less attached to the masjid. There will be an increase in small groups of families getting together in their homes instead of the masjid to try and build a sense of community. There will be an entire generation of new adults who will not even desire an attachment to the masjid beyond the Friday and funeral prayers.

People will replace the local community with online communities (and sometimes the dubious online personalities leading them)

People will replace the local community with online communities (and sometimes the dubious online personalities leading them).Click To Tweet

We all see the masjids in our community that have been hit hardest by this culture debt. They’re the ones that used to be full and are now empty – while the same 2 or 3 people remain in charge for literally decades. They’re the ones that we fear will eventually close down or be sold off due to a lack of any real community – because the community was never invested in to begin with.

Those in positions of influence should seriously take account of the consequences of their actions on the community. Recognize the wrongs that were done and do your best to rectify them. At the least, seek forgiveness for the ramifications of your actions.

We can no longer make the excuse of having to do what we had to do in order to get institutions up and running from scratch. As the saying goes – what got you here won’t get you there. The reality across America is that too many people have used the masjid to serve their own egos, fulfill their desires for power, and give themselves a big building as something to point at and say, “I built that.” Too few have created a vision for the spiritual upliftment of a community and then worked to serve it.

And now we see the consequences of those decisions. The culture debt is due, and we might not be able to pay it back.

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