Talk to young Muslim-Americans about dating today, and they’ll tell you that the hookup culture is a lot like LinkedIn. It’s defined by awkward messages, questionable etiquette, and the unshakable feeling that you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. Actually, it isn’t really a “hookup culture” at all in the traditional sense (“sex without emotional entanglement”). Instead, for the majority, it’s the hunt for a husband or wife. Still, something resembling dating does inevitably take place. While there’s no line in the Quran that explicitly says that dating is haram (Arabic for “sinful”), what happens in modern dating—an unchaperoned rendezvous between a man and a woman and everything after that—isn’t exactly condoned.
Talk to mainstream media publications about Muslim dating today, and they’ll tell you that millennial Muslims—those who came of age after 9/11 and the Arab Spring—are “just like us!” It’s fashionable to investigate the supremely awkward speed-dating scene at religious conferences. The New York Times wrote there was the “excruciating air of a middle-school dance” in Queens. The Washington Post was keen on the sinus-clearing stench of perfume at a matrimonial meet-and-greet in D.C. Picture hordes of single men running towards single women and plates of biryani.
But it isn’t all tall, handsome doctors (that’s stereotypically what a Muslim girl should hope for) and buffets. Conversations with a dozen first-generation Muslim-Americans in New York City (several more declined to be interviewed) reveal a more nuanced scene. In fact, it isn’t much different from what happens in “normal” American dating. There’s even some sex. Sex that sometimes happens at that same, perfume-soaked religious event in D.C., sometimes referred to as the “ultimate hookup spot.”
Still, sexual liberation is a tricky thing, especially for the women: by breaking from tradition, especially in a society where men may want to have sex with you but marry someone more “pure,” how free can you truly be? That is, what can you do, without being considered a “slut”?
“Doing anything that could potentially taint your reputation, whether it be something as simple as dating or moving out of the house, sometimes seems not even worth it,” says Lena (not her real name), a 26-year-old in Brooklyn. “Yes you can be a visionary or trailblazer and try to reconcile Muslim traditions with Western culture. But at what cost? Girls with their own apartments and jobs want to get married too.”
There’s a disillusioning gap between the culture that young Muslim-American girls have been consuming—like HBO's Girls—and the oftentimes tedious reality of online matches and arranged dates. For instance, take this message a potential suitor sent 28-year-old Ohio-native Misha (not her real name) on the dating website ArabLounge.com:
first am coming soon inshallah and i will be looking for some one to marry with dts y i am sending u this. hey....well i really don't know how to put this in but before introducing ma self i am so serious and u will know isa / my name is [redacted]/ i am working as an accountant in a real estate investment company. am religious elhamdllah i teach quraan..../ i was a prof. athlete before that./ any way i hope i can get to know u in a legal way .... i will leave my skybe and facebook account hope to hear from u.
Misha was not impressed. And how could she be? This guy, lost somewhere in technological translation, didn’t exactly ooze romance.
“You grow up these very conservative households and you’re told from birth on, ‘You’re not allowed to date, you’re not allowed to date, you’re not allowed to date,’” says Aizzah Fatima, an playwright whose one-woman show Dirty Paki Lingerie tackled the stereotype of Muslim women in America. “Now you’re like 23 or 24, and your parents are like, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with you? Why can’t you find a guy?’”
Girl meets boy. Girl texts and gchats boy. Girl and boy hang out with friends. Girl and boy hang out alone. Girl and boy get married.
If only Step One were so easy.
When referring to the struggle of Muslims adjusting to America culture, the men and women interviewed for this article tended to compare themselves to early immigrants to the U.S., like the Irish-Catholics in the 1800s, trying to preserve the mores of the motherland. This tendency is of course prevalent in Indian-American communities and other recent immigrant groups as well. And for families coming from countries where pre-marital dating is verboten, the kids can find themselves caught in a weird cultural limbo.
“People who come here sometimes hold on to this weird set of values from 1957,” says Fatima, who won’t disclose her age (she says it’s an actress thing), of her immigrant parents. “They’re stuck in … the time that they grew up in.” She says that often, Muslim parents try to inculcate their children with the values of a bygone generation—ones that may in fact be more conservative than back in the home country.
Fourteen percent of Muslim-Americans come from Pakistan, making it the number one country of origin for Muslim immigrants to the U.S. But since families like Fatima’s moved away in the ‘50s, things have changed, particularly in Pakistan’s urban centers. Laila (again, not her real name), in her late 20s, tells me about the dating scene in Karachi, where her family is from and she lives now. In the big city, it’s not rare for people to sneak around curfews and for Muslims to drink (though doing so is illegal).
Laila, who works in advertising, says that when she was in high school in the ‘90s, before the Internet and American pop culture infiltrated, people were more cautious. “Even the most modern kids put a bit more thought into hookups,” she says. “Kissing and heavy makeout sessions were a big deal. Everything’s more casual now. Especially sex.”
Where Muslim-American girls definitely are not having casual sex is on dating websites like ArabLounge.com, Shaadi.com, and MuslimMatrimony.com. As the URLs suggest, these sites have been primarily used as a tool for arranging marriages. While Misha says she has been courted, or accosted, mostly by “freaks” in their early 50s (one man asked her, “I’M EASYGOING LOOKING FOR NICE GIRL FOR RELATIONSHIP LEAD TO MARRIAGE CAN WE TALK? HERE IS MY YAHOO”), and one of her aunts was duped into a Green Card marriage, every match isn’t doomed. Her cousin met her husband on the site.
“People meet people where people are. And people are online,” says ArabLounge COO Darren Romeo (yes that’s his real name). He sees profile pictures ranging from those in hijabs to those holding wine glasses. He says that dating sites targeted at Muslims don’t really fit into the conservative interpretation of Islam. “The technology affords privacy. Things you couldn’t do in your neighborhood.” ArabLounge has 1.3 million users, 65 percent of whom identify as Muslim—though those at the website say that number should actually be higher. While most users are in the United States, the site is booming in the Middle East and North Africa.
“I think there’s a huge fear of feeling desperate,” says Omar Mirza, a 28-year-old medical resident. He says that finding love on the Internet or even speed dating is still taboo. Mirza is one of the guys behind “Eid Extravaganza” (also called “Eid Prom”) a party to break fast at the end of Ramadan. In only a few years, the soiree has blossomed into a $50 per person event. (This year about 450 people went). You can mingle alcohol-free as if you’re having a casual chai. There’s also dance music. While it’s not explicitly in the party’s description, several people tell me it’s a hot place to meet singles.
Naqeeb Memon, a 30-year-old software consultant, was in attendance—those he was mostly keen to “network.” He tells me that when the ladies saw some “fresh meat,” or a new guy, that they liked, they pounced. And by “pounced,” he meant that they chatted him up. “A gentleman,” he says of the man. “He was pretty fit. And getting attention because of that.”
Eid Prom doesn’t have a salacious reputation—at least, not yet. That’s left to the acronym-heavy events like ISNA (Islamic Society of North America). The convention, which has been going on for two decades, has earned the reputation of being “club ISNA.” Misha says that while you’re supposed to be getting closer to God, people are getting “down and dirty.” Naqeeb says there are definitely some lewd characters on the prowl looking to score.
I’m told that these conferences have become so popular (and so sexually charged) because it’s like a Spring Break for Muslims. There’s a sea of new of faces, the majority of which you’ll never see again. The pressure is on to find someone now, amplified by the bleak dating scene back home. When you’re Muslim, you can’t just go to a different bar every night.
But when an old world culture slams into America, change is inevitable. It’s happening already: When you’re 21, you’re told to find a nice Muslim doctor. At 25, you’re told to find a nice Muslim. At 30, you’re told to find anyone, as long as you find happiness, too. Elders as matchmakers are an endangered species. Someday will there be an app like Grindr and Tinder, potentially called iSlam and specifically for hooking up? That’s up to the next generation of Muslim-Americans.