I am Muslim. My potential father-in-law, Bob, is an evangelical Christian. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with his daughter, Jillian, but Bob had some serious concerns about that plan.
“What if he exerts his Muslim manhood on you?” he asked Jillian.
When Jillian told me about her father’s remark, I thought, “I barely have manhood. How do I get Muslim manhood?”
In 2013, I had been dating Jillian for a little over a year. She made medical school bearable at the University of Wisconsin, where during our third year we were placed at the same hospital for our psychiatry rotation. After we finished that, Jillian hosted a Rubik’s Cube-themed party, and I swapped clothes with other classmates and ended up in all yellow clothes, including not-so-flattering yellow tights.
I hadn’t made a move on her during the party, so I hung around after everyone left, offering to help clean up. Before I knew it, Jillian’s roommates were asleep, and I was sitting on the couch alone with her, talking about what she should say at her grandfather’s funeral the next day. I think I gave her good advice; at the end of the night, we made out.
Over the next few months, we went on a series of dates throughout the state of Wisconsin as we worked through our different clinical rotations. When I finished days on the general surgery service in Madison, I would meet Jillian outside the medical school library, and we would talk about our patients. The days were long, waking up at 3 a.m., but I always looked forward to seeing her. It was in these moments that I thought I could do this for the rest of my life.
At the start of our fourth year of medical school, it was decision time for us. To continue being together, we would need to apply for a “couples match” to ensure we would be in the same city for residency. I wasn’t going to continue our relationship if we were in different states. To me, that was near impossible, especially given how busy medical training is. When Jillian brought up the idea of matching together, I hesitated.
I’m not a devout Muslim — I don’t have the discipline to pray five times a day. I’m not even sure I could take medications twice a day if my life depended on it. But I believe in God and fast during Ramadan.
Jillian is agnostic but was raised by an evangelical father who refers to Islam as “a religion of the sword.” My father is a conservative Muslim. I could see the trains colliding from the moment she brought up the idea of matching together. Before even thinking of getting our families involved, I needed to think solely about my relationship with Jillian and if we were compatible for the long haul.
On paper, we were so different. She was from a small town in Wisconsin. I was born in Bangladesh. Raised in America with other Muslims, I believed that I was destined to marry a Muslim woman. I was told stories of marriages that crumbled because a Muslim married someone outside their faith.
My three older siblings all had married within the faith. And they were concerned that Jillian and I were too different. Instead of providing the vote of confidence I so desperately sought, they urged caution.
I consulted my South Asian friends, friends from college and childhood, who also warned me about marrying outside my faith and culture. At times, when Jillian was asleep in my bed, I cried, looking at her, thinking of a world without her.
But when I looked at our relationship outside the constraint of religion, I felt comfortable. We laughed a lot and understood each other’s jokes. Jillian and I were from the same economic background, which I valued because I had read articles that said divorce in America is often because of money issues.
Since neither she nor I had much money growing up, we were both in major debt from paying for school and were similarly committed to living within our means. I didn’t want to throw away what Jillian and I had together simply because our religious beliefs differed.
I didn’t want to be religiously rigid either. Jillian and I went on many walks around the city of Madison, talking about how we would raise children and how she would support my Muslim faith, but she was not going to convert.
I wanted her to because it would make my life easier and make my parents happy — the same parents who uprooted their family of six to start over in America so my siblings and I could have a better life. My father, who had an M.B.A. in Bangladesh and was a successful businessman, did janitorial work upon first arriving in the United States.
But I knew that I couldn’t ask Jillian to convert for me. I decided to evolve away from thinking that I needed to marry someone of the same faith. She and I had similar values — that’s what was going to make us work.
I committed to doing a couples match with Jillian. Convincing our parents that our relationship would work would take a lot of effort though.
Jillian met my parents for the first time when we went to their house in Oshkosh, and I was happy that my parents didn’t kick me out for bringing someone home who didn’t believe in the Shahadah, or faith. I was excited about that, but after we left, Jillian looked distraught.
During dinner, my mother had said, “Two doctors? How will you have kids?” And after we had finished, my father said to Jillian, “You can marry my son when you become Muslim.”
On the drive back to Madison, Jillian said, “I can’t become Muslim just to marry you.”
“That’s fine, you won’t have to,” I said.
It was the first time my parents had met her, but I knew if they got to know her, they couldn’t reasonably object to our getting married. They would see in her what I saw: a kind, caring and talented person.
I no longer intended for Jillian to convert to Islam; I just wanted her to understand it. That way, she would understand me and my family. I needed her to understand that I had grown up only eating meat that had been prepared according to Islamic tradition — meaning, no Big Macs. To have halal meat, my parents slaughtered chickens in our garage.
Eventually, by spending time with my parents and cooking with my mother in her kitchen, Jillian won their approval.
Jillian’s father was a different story. When she told him of her intention to marry me, he said, “You’re making a giant mistake.”
Bob didn’t participate in any of our family’s initial meetings. My parents and Jillian’s mother, Mary (she and Bob were divorced), got along because Mary was genuinely interested in other people and liked talking to my parents.
Bob wanted to meet with me when Jillian and I made our intentions to marry clear. He and I met at a small Mexican restaurant in Green Bay. We ordered burritos and he told me about his concerns.
Bob was afraid his daughter was marrying someone who would force her to do things that she wouldn’t want. I imagined that he was afraid I was going to make her wear a burqa or adhere to Shariah law, which was very much in the news at the time. I could tell he was doing his version of looking out for his daughter.
I tried to address Bob’s concerns, putting my ego aside, but it’s hard and awkward to try to disprove someone’s negative perceptions of you. I assured Bob that in the house where I grew up, my mother was the glue that held our family together. Jillian would be the same.
Despite my assurances, Bob wasn’t convinced, and I could tell that I wasn’t going to be able to convince him. And that was OK.
After Jillian and I matched to residencies in the Twin Cities, we married in a tiny ceremony in my parents’ living room with 10 people in attendance, including Jillian’s mother and grandmother. Bob did not attend.
Nine years later, Jillian and I have two children who have the gift of being raised by parents from two different countries, two different traditions and two different faiths. As for Bob, he visits occasionally and loves his grandchildren and calls me “a good guy.” My hope for my children is that they learn from our example to become compassionate humans who are accepting of others. I call that exerting my Muslim manhood.