From swiping to “Muzmeets.”
On a rainy New York night, Chelsa Cheyenne holds onto her peach-colored shayla, a scarf covering all but an inch of her hair, and ducks into a pizzeria in the West Village. The shayla is a recent addition to her wardrobe, a symbol of modesty reflecting her recent conversion to Islam. Cheyenne had just left a mixer hosted at the Islamic Center at New York University, a discreet way to allow single Muslims to meet and potentially form relationships. She’d been attending for a month since she decided that she wants to marry a Muslim man.
Devouring a white slice, Cheyenne focused on her phone, scrolling through her profile to see if she’d attracted new matches on Minder. A pun on the dating app Tinder, this version boasts more than 350,000 Muslim users. Its slogan — “Swipe. Match. Marry” — appealed to Cheyenne, who’s 27. She’s had some conversations over the app, but one in particular highlighted an ongoing struggle. “I am not interested in any physical intimacy until marriage,” she told her prospective date.
Days passed by with no response.
“I’m still figuring out how to communicate that,” she said of when to tell matches she doesn’t want to have sex until marriage. “On the first date? Before the first date? How early is too early?”
New York City offers a buffet of dating options, but the search for a significant other can still be tough for anyone. And for young Muslims trying to balance their desire for love with the expectations of their religion, the dating scene can be even harder. Though 600,000 Muslims live in the city, “halal” dating proves more difficult than expected — though some are trying to change that through specialized dating apps and meetups.
In a 2010 survey published in the Journal of Muslim Mental Health, a quarter of single Muslim American men and women indicated that they wanted to find “soulmates.” This is in line with the 88% of Americans who, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, get married because of love. But for young, American Muslims, whose parents or grandparents adhered to more traditional and strict family obligations in dating, or had arranged marriages, the pull of familial expectations can be tough.
Canadian sociologist Arshia Zaidi, author of a study of Pakistani women in the United States and Canada, finds that the younger generation has shifted away from the strict family obligations their parents and grandparents may have adhered to. “People want to have more power and control,” Zaidi said. “They want a voice in the whole process.”
Muslim dating apps and gatherings, where young people can find others who share their religion and values, appeal to younger Muslims who want that voice.
Mariam Bahawdory, whose parents immigrated from Afghanistan, felt frustrated with the cultural idea that men and women shouldn’t converse. In 2015, she launched the dating app ESHQ —“love” in Farsi. It requires women to make the first move by messaging men they’ve been matched with — a stark contrast to tradition.
She expanded ESHQ to Chicago, New York and Washington D.C., the cities with the nation’s highest populations of working millennial Muslims.
Anne Haque, a strategy consultant for IBM, felt a similar need for alternative methods of dating, so she organized a Muslim singles’ luncheon. It drew 10 men and 10 women to a rented midtown penthouse, and its success inspired Haque to plan further “Muzmeets.”
But we’re still talking about dating, here, so it’s not like a meetup or a few swipes can fix the problems anyone might face in modern love. As such, Muslim women said they find it challenging to meet men who both match their religious criteria and appeal to them as individuals.
Essalh Omar, 23, said she has broken off two engagements after realizing her expectations for the relationships didn’t match up with her partner’s. Though born and raised in New York, Omar spent two years of high school in Yemen with her family and wants to marry a man with the same background. But if Omar craves religious and cultural connection, she also wants a Hollywood-style romance. She broke off the engagement with her first fiancé at age 20 because, despite parallel views on Islam and family, she wanted greater emotional commitment.
After she became engaged to her second fiancé, Omar quickly learned they lacked chemistry; every moment felt awkward. He failed to provide the attention Omar wanted, so she said she ended their relationship. Prior to the breakup, Omar said her fiancé asked if she wanted to be a housewife.
“That’s not the type of life I want,” she told him.
Now she relies on traditional matchmaking through friends and relatives, avoiding dating apps because of the stigma they still carry in Muslim communities. “If anything, you’ll find people with fetishes,” she said.
A cousin’s cousin wants Omar to meet her husband’s brother, who lives in Michigan. When she first heard about him, “I was hesitant because he’s a divorcé,” Omar said. But as she has learned more about his first marriage, “I think I’m more comfortable.”
Nervous about a third engagement, Omar is relying on her parents for guidance. They’ve essentially given the green light to the relationship, and things are progressing: Omar’s relative, Sara, said the man’s parents are already looking to buy gold, which is customarily given to a bride by the groom’s family.