Dating apps are stressful, marriage is always on your mind and it’s easy to get FOMO watching people with simpler love lives – but it’s not all bad
Finding love as a young Muslim in 2017 Britain can be a stressful experience. Navigating society with all the complexities of dual-identity, coming from a conservative religious background in a hyper-sexualised secular society – it can all be challenging when you’re looking for love.
However, the advent of social media, Muslim matrimonial websites and apps such as “Minder” and “MuzMatch” have allowed Muslims to meet each other more easily than before. One of the pioneering Muslim matrimonial websites “SingleMuslim.com” boasts over 50,000 marriages taking place as a result of users meeting on the site over the last 17 years. Digital dating and matrimonial services seem to have replaced the traditional system of being introduced to a potential marriage suitor by your aunty and going to meet them in their living room, making small talk over chai.
These apps and websites often provide a platform for Muslims with hectic, busy lives to be able to get to know one another while still being honest and upfront about doing things the ‘Islamic’ way. There’s probably nothing more awkward than joining Tinder as a hijabi and explaining that you’re not really into hook ups but would be happy for them to speak to your parents about marriage.
My experience of these Muslim apps wasn’t exactly amazing. Selecting my religiosity on a sliding scale for a marriage app gave me a mini existential crisis, how practicing even am I?! Does it seem insincere to portray myself as more religious than I am? I also couldn’t help but reject men for trivial things, like their profile pic being a blurry selfie they took on the train (seriously, this is marriage bro, make an effort) or a bio that overly emphasised how much they respect their mum, which I couldn’t take seriously at all.
“There’s probably nothing more awkward than joining Tinder as a hijabi and explaining that you’re not really into hook ups but would be happy for them to speak to your parents about marriage”
I deleted the app after 24 hours feeling completely overwhelmed; it just felt way too intense and I realised I’m only 24 (although in Pakistani match-maker years that seems to be around 45) and I’m in no rush to get married until I’m absolutely sure I’ve met the right person.
Other young Muslims I spoke to had better experiences than I did; Javed, 24, said that “it’s easier to meet Muslim women online now because it’s not like we’re white people who can just go to a club or a pub to meet girls, and I’m not gonna meet them in the library am I? So it’s a perfect opportunity online.”
But not all Muslims feel comfortable meeting their potential spouse online, there is still some stigma and sense of the great unknown when it comes to online dating and it’s no different in the Muslim community. Aisha, 23, told me “I would much rather meet a guy in person, I mean I have nothing against meeting your spouse online, however I feel like meeting someone in person is different… just because I have this trust issue where I worry that people will make up their persona online and it might lead to false expectations, but I know there are both good and bad stories from couples that met online.”
“We understood: if you’re gonna talk to boys on MSN on the computer in the living room, have another tab of Solitaire open just in case”
For many Muslim kids growing up in Britain from a diaspora background, often our parents’ cultural and religious values at times felt burdensome and in direct conflict with our own hormonal desires and social environment. Watching shows and films on television showing teenagers pursuing relationships openly made me feel major FOMO when even talking about dating at home was taboo. Well, until we reached our twenties and then we were suddenly supposed to have a string of possible marriage suitors lined up in waiting.
For many teenage Muslims, the extent of sex education or conversations about relationships was that sex was ‘haram’ and having boyfriends was shameful. And from that we understood: if you’re gonna talk to boys on MSN on the computer in the living room, have another tab of Solitaire open just in case.
I envied the fact that my white friends always seemed to have it easier than me in terms of meeting and dating guys. They seemed free from the stigma and shame of dating even as young teenagers and were allowed to bring boys home and introduce them to their parents. They didn’t have to get caught up in an elaborate web of lies in order to go to get a burger or see a movie with a boy on a Saturday afternoon. And none of them seemed to feel the debilitating guilt and fear of getting caught out that almost made it not worth it in the first place.
“I envied the fact that my white friends always seemed to have it easier than me in terms of meeting and dating guys”
However as I grew into adulthood, I realised that the secular Western model of casual dating and sex was not exactly desirable to me either. I grew up seeing so many of my friends heartbroken at a young age, having the freedom to have sex without really possessing the emotional maturity to make informed decisions that their parents hadn’t prepared them for. Being well aware of misogyny in my own culture due to my mother’s strong and outspoken nature, I began to notice the deep-rooted misogyny in British dating culture too. It was clear to me that young women were expected almost without exception to present themselves in a hyper-sexualised way, under immense pressure to look good, whilst boys often navigated this same dating scene with a strong sense of entitlement and lack of respect.
As such, it became increasingly clear to me that I was not interested in random hook-ups or throwaway dating culture with no long-term prospects. I found my own spiritual identity in adulthood and realised that I’m not just a Muslim by name, or out of respect for my parents’ traditions or my cultural heritage, but because I believe in this religion and that it holds profound truth about the world we live in. I only wanted to find somebody likeminded, travelling the same spiritual path as me, sharing the most intimate parts of myself with that person alone. I wanted to find and marry a Muslim man. Easy peasy! Well, not really. As it turned out, getting to know Muslim guys and finding the right one was just like getting to know any other type of guy – exhausting and emotionally draining.
I loved, and still love the idea of getting to know someone exclusively for marriage. Of course it’s not a perfect model, and the institution of religious marriage alienates many queer Muslims, or other Muslims for whom an Islamic marriage (nikkah) is not accessible to, for various reasons. I will be honest in saying I don’t have an answer nor a solution for that other than continued dialogue and understanding, however the intellectual process behind attempting to find a life partner at a relatively young age is something I subscribe to on a personal level too.
It sounds really bizarre when I discuss this with non-Muslims, but for me there is some kind of refreshing transparency when two people are both on the same page about long-term commitment. The onus on marriage from the get-go kind of transcends a purely sexual connection and requires a real effort to get to know someone intellectually and emotionally. I guess we kind of see dating and romance in general as a means to an end, rather than the end itself. It gives an opportunity for two people to grow together, sharing the burdens of hardships and the benefits of success as they experience life side by side. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s life.
However, the ‘marriage’ elephant in the room when dating a Muslim can be a double-edged sword. Every simple argument can send alarm bells ringing in your head when you start thinking “This is the future father of my children? This man who plays video games in his underwear until 3am?” which may not be the immediate thought when one is dating casually and taking things slow. It can add strain to a blossoming relationship and can magnify flaws, creating a whole list of impossible criteria in your head that no partner can ever really meet, because it’s marriage, and it’s scary, and it’s for life.
“You start thinking ‘This is the future father of my children? This man who plays video games in his underwear until 3am?’”
It can also cause people to lower their standards completely out of sheer desperation and a longing to be loved and supported. Many Muslims don’t see dating or pre-marital relationships as an acceptable practice in Islam, and so try to rush marriage in order to have their romantic or sexual desires fulfilled. Sometimes these people marry young and end up outgrowing their partners and separating soon after.
Then of course there are those Muslims that don’t really feel a sense of urgency about finding someone to marry, as long as they can have sex in parked cars and Starbucks disabled toilets without getting caught. I have been in Canary Wharf at 9am and seen public gardens and car parks littered with young, visibly Muslim couples who presumably travelled all the way here from other parts of East London just to make out on benches away from the prying eyes of relatives. There is a real generational disconnect if Muslim parents honestly think that refraining from ever talking about sex and dating in the home somehow ensures celibacy and restraint when it comes to romance.
While many Muslims today meet their own marriage partners, the traditional practice of “arranged” marriages are still popular amongst young Muslims who find it difficult to meet people. People often tend to associate arranged marriages with ‘forced marriages’ yet in reality arranged marriages nowadays are often more like a family member introducing you to a guy, and then you get to know them yourself slowly over a few meetings and Whatsapp conversations, and then you marry him quickly before discovering his most annoying habits.
There is a tendency to see Muslims in the West only through the “clash of civilisations” narrative that pits ‘Western’ norms against ‘Islamic’ ones, which only seems to portray a Muslim as being conservative, backwards and extreme for upholding Islamic practices and values, or an acceptable liberal Muslim who is held back by community stigma, and longs to live a secular, Western lifestyle.
It also fails to contextualise the experiences of many Muslims who have been born in Britain but who still hold their Islamic values dear to them while feeling culturally British. A lot of friends of mine have expressed their same frustrations as me when it comes to marriage, but they don’t let that put them off doing things the ‘halal’ way and waiting until marriage for intimacy. Muslims are by no means a monolith, and finding a partner who suits your preferences is just about as difficult and complex as it is for any other person of faith or no faith.
Illustrations for this piece by Owain Anderson.