Something old, something new: The courtship rituals of today’s young Muslims

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SHAFAQNA – As young people attempt to align their religious and cultural values with Western culture, many are increasingly moving their search online.

Growing up, Olivia Smith-Elnaggar was definitely a romantic. “We watch movies and we read books and whatnot about people who are falling in love,” she said. “And there’s the one hand where you’re like, ‘This is normal for me to want’ … but you’re also kind of expected to be removed from that.”

By “that,” Smith-Elnaggar means falling in love, finding a life partner and getting married. The 24-year-old is definitely interested, but she’s also Muslim, and Islamic traditions for courtship and marriage often conflict with North American dating culture.

Those traditions can vary greatly, of course – there are several million Muslims in North America whose ancestors come from all over the world. They range in orthodoxy from extremely devout to moderately strict to more culturally Muslim than truly religious.

But among practising Muslims, the core rules for finding a partner remain more or less the same. Young people are expected to involve their families in their search, and chaperones are commonly present when potential couples are getting to know each other. Engagement and marriage are the goals of courtship, and it is only after marriage that a couple is physically intimate – everything from holding hands to kissing and sex.

“In my idea, a proper kind of courtship would be going to normal, fun events, like dates – but with a chaperone or at least in a group,” said Smith-Elnaggar, who lives in Washington, D.C. Like so many other Muslims of her generation, she’s figuring out how to align her religious and cultural values with Western society, technology and what she wants for herself.

Following traditional courtship rules can make it difficult to meet like-minded young people, especially since interaction between genders is often discouraged in Muslim communities. So many move their search online.

Among the many dating sites and apps geared toward Muslims is Salaam Swipe, launched by British Columbian Khalil Jessa in August, 2016.

“There was a major need for this within the Muslim community,” said Jessa, 28, who agreed that gender segregation can make it difficult to find a partner. “It’s harder for somebody who is Muslim to meet somebody else who is Muslim in a serendipitous way. … This is a way to use technology to expand our network.”

He said Salaam Swipe provides a “middle ground” for young Muslims who want to seek relationships in a way that aligns with their values – one that also gives them a chance to meet people from outside their immediate communities. The app lets users identify their level of religiosity, as well as their sect, and filter matches based on the same parameters.

It also offers a feature called Incognito Mode, which allows users to hide from friends and family. “A lot of Muslims are inherently more private,” Jessa said. “Everyone is looking, but nobody wants to be seen looking.”

Other apps include Minder, modelled after the popular dating app Tinder, as well as muzmatch, which was launched by Londoner Shahzad Younas in 2015 after he quit his job as an investment banker.

“For a lot of people, the existing methods just weren’t working,” Younas said. He believes it’s ultimately positive that Western dating culture has resulted in more relationships between different ethnicities and cultures, but he wanted to provide an option for those who were determined to marry within their faith.

Muzmatch leads new users through a 15-question survey to determine how devout they are – to ensure they are matched with someone with a similar lifestyle and beliefs. It’s the only Muslim dating app to offer a “chaperone” option, which allows a designated third party to access the possible couple’s communications.

In addition, the app places great emphasis on privacy and security. Phone numbers and e-mail addresses are verified. Users must snap a picture of themselves on the spot so the selfie can be verified against profile photos. Users can also choose to keep their pictures hidden until they are comfortable sharing them.

Of course, not all young Muslims follow the traditional courtship rules that apps such as muzmatch and Salaam Swipe try to emulate. At one point, Smith-Elnaggar was on two dating websites – one for Muslims and one with no religious affiliation. She found that when courtship moves online, many of Islam’s traditions and standards can fall by the wayside.

“It’s kind of unfortunate that I have yet to meet a Muslim guy who … held by those standards,” she said of her experiences. Though she made it obvious in her profile that she wasn’t “fooling around,” Smith-Elnaggar found that even Muslim men were still expecting a kiss on the first date or were pressuring her to be alone together.

Making things more frustrating, she said, is that basic conversations about sex, relationships and marriage are lacking in many Muslim communities. In her family, the rules were simple: “Be platonic.” Still, she said she feels lucky that she could talk to her parents about relationships and sex at all, even if they were predictable at times.

Young Muslims growing up in North America often feel unable to talk frankly about such subjects, especially publicly or with their families. Many people contacted by The Globe and Mail wanted to be able to talk about dating but were wary of having their names published.

Ottawa student Nishat Khan, 22, said her parents never explicitly told her she couldn’t date – but the expectation that she wouldn’t was obvious.

As she got older, their rules about sex and dating made less sense to her, and the lack of conversation didn’t help. The Pakistani-Canadian found herself questioning her religious traditions. She still identifies as a Muslim – but in a more spiritual sense. She participates in Eid celebrations after Ramadan and spends time at a summer camp for Muslim youth. But when it comes to dating, Khan does not usually follow Muslim rules.

“I thought it was haram to have a crush on a boy for the longest time,” said Khan, using the Arabic word for “forbidden.” But when she found herself liking someone, she said “it felt natural,” so she began to think about dating in a different way.

“The reason I don’t feel bad about it, I don’t feel guilty, is because I know that it’s not wrong,” she said. “It’s just a feeling I have … I can feel when I’m doing something wrong.”

And yes, television and movies influenced some of her views. “It really normalized the idea of North American dating culture,” she said. “It looks like a good thing, the way they present it.”

Khan now has a boyfriend, whose family is from Saudi Arabia. The two met during university and dated in secret for almost a year before her parents found out. “It was a huge fight,” she said. “I always wanted to tell them about it, just because I wanted to share it with them. It’s such a big part of my life.”

Now that her family is warming up to the situation, Khan says she feels more pressure – obviously, her parents want it to lead to marriage. She says her father was more understanding than her mother. “It’s the sex thing,” she said. “She looks at me differently.” And while she understands where her parents are coming from, their reaction still hurt.

Toronto-based helpline Naseeha aims to help Muslim youth across North America untangle subjects they may not be able to broach with their parents. The organization handles calls about mental health, spirituality, sex, abuse and relationships, and its goal is to address and normalize these often stigmatized topics while maintaining a Muslim perspective.

This includes issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims, who often face difficulties exploring gender and sexuality. Since many Muslim courtship traditions are built on the assumption of heterosexuality, they may find themselves wondering whether Islam has a place for them.

Ify Okoye, a nurse, student and writer in Baltimore, Md., converted to Islam at 18. In a way, this spiritual decision pushed her deeper into the closet after spending her childhood and adolescence questioning her sexuality but feeling unable to talk about it.

“I knew I was queer since I was a kid,” Okoye said. “Nigerian culture is not pro-gay … so that was something I couldn’t talk about.”

When she converted, she stayed closeted for a while, trying to find her place in this new community but also feeling uncomfortable with the way queerness was addressed all around her. “It was highly stigmatized,” she said. “There are these ideas of what a man is and what a woman is … so I went along with it.” She went as far as being engaged to a man on two separate occasions.

Okoye came out in 2012, in part through an essay in the anthology Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, which she originally published under a pseudonym before using her real name in the second edition.

To her dismay, she found that the community she had grown close to over almost 10 years began to distance itself from her. The event that really initiated the separation was the Facebook announcement of her marriage in 2014 to a well-known Muslim woman from the same community.

“People I thought were friends just stopped talking to me,” Okoye said. “People tried to counsel us, to help us see the error of our ways … and that led to us being ostracized from the community.”

She began going to retreats for queer Muslims. Eventually, she found a community where she didn’t need to worry about keeping her sexuality a secret.

Smith-Elnaggar also says it was a book that helped her to not feel alone: Randa Abdel-Fattah’s novel Does My Head Look Big in This?, which recounts the struggles of a 16-year-old girl who starts wearing a hijab full-time while dealing with things such as school, friends and first crushes.

She is seeing someone now, but she doesn’t like to call him her boyfriend – to her, that word is associated with dating. They go on group or chaperoned dates and occasionally meet up alone.

Through Abdel-Fattah’s book, Smith-Elnaggar learned that other Muslims had worries similar to hers. “I loved seeing this protagonist who was in doubt but still faithful,” she said. “I feel like Islam is a religion that allows you to have doubts and questions.”

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