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nytimes: It’s Muslim Boy Meets Girl

..but Don’t Call It Dating?


So, this article made it to the front page of the NYTimes. Thoughts? If you can’t login we’ve posted the text for you here:

It’s Muslim Boy Meets Girl, but Don’t Call It Dating


CHICAGO — So here’s the thing about speed dating for Muslims.

James Estrin/The New York Times

Many American Muslims — or at least those bent on maintaining certain conservative traditions — equate anything labeled “dating” with hellfire, no matter how short a time is involved. Hence the wildly popular speed dating sessions at the largest annual Muslim conference in North America were given an entirely more respectable label. They were called the “matrimonial banquet.”

“If we called it speed dating, it will end up with real dating,” said Shamshad Hussain, one of the organizers, grimacing.

Both the banquet earlier this month and various related seminars underscored the difficulty that some American Muslim families face in grappling with an issue on which many prefer not to assimilate. One seminar, called “Dating,” promised attendees helpful hints for “Muslim families struggling to save their children from it.”

The couple of hundred people attending the dating seminar burst out laughing when Imam Muhamed Magid of the Adams Center, a collective of seven mosques in Virginia, summed up the basic instructions that Muslim American parents give their adolescent children, particularly males: “Don’t talk to the Muslim girls, ever, but you are going to marry them. As for the non-Muslim girls, talk to them, but don’t ever bring one home.”

“These kids grew up in America, where the social norm is that it is O.K. to date, that it is O.K. to have sex before marriage,” Imam Magid said in an interview. “So the kids are caught between the ideal of their parents and the openness of the culture on this issue.”

The questions raised at the seminar reflected just how pained many American Muslims are by the subject. One middle-aged man wondered if there was anything he could do now that his 32-year-old son had declared his intention of marrying a (shudder) Roman Catholic. A young man asked what might be considered going too far when courting a Muslim woman.

Panelists warned that even seemingly innocuous e-mail exchanges or online dating could topple one off the Islamic path if one lacked vigilance. “All of these are traps of the Devil to pull us in and we have no idea we are even going that way,” said Ameena Jandali, the moderator of the dating seminar.

Hence the need to come up with acceptable alternatives in North America, particularly for families from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, where there is a long tradition of arranged marriages.

One panelist, Yasmeen Qadri, suggested that Muslim mothers across the continent band together in an organization called “Mothers Against Dating,” modeled on Mothers Against Drunk Driving. If the term “arranged marriage” is too distasteful to the next generation, she said, then perhaps the practice could be Americanized simply by renaming it “assisted marriage,” just like assisted living for the elderly.

“In the United States we can play with words however we want, but we are not trying to set aside our cultural values,” said Mrs. Qadri, a professor of education.

Basically, for conservative Muslims, dating is a euphemism for premarital sex. Anyone who partakes risks being considered morally louche, with their marriage prospects dimming accordingly, particularly young women.

Mrs. Qadri and other panelists see a kind of hybrid version emerging in the United States, where the young do choose their own mates, but the parents are at least partly involved in the process in something like half the cases.

Having the families involved can help reduce the divorce rate, Imam Majid said, citing a recent informal study that indicated that one third of Muslim marriages in the United States end in divorce. It was still far too high, he noted, but lower than the overall American average. Intermarriages outside Islam occur, but remain relatively rare, he said.

Scores of parents showed up at the marriage banquet to chaperone their children. Many had gone through arranged marriages — meeting the bride or groom chosen by their parents sometimes as late as their wedding day and hoping for the best. They recognize that the tradition is untenable in the United States, but still want to influence the process.

The banquet is considered one preferable alternative to going online, although that too is becoming more common. The event was unquestionably one of the big draws at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention, which attracted thousands of Muslims to Chicago over Labor Day weekend, with many participants bemoaning the relatively small pool of eligible candidates even in large cities.

James Estrin/The New York Times

At a “matrimonial banquet,” single Muslim American men spent seven minutes at each table, including the one at which Alia Abbas sat before moving on.

There were two banquets, with a maximum 150 men and 150 women participating each day for $55 apiece. They sat 10 per table and the men rotated every seven minutes.

At the end there was an hourlong social hour that allowed participants time to collect e-mail addresses and telephone numbers over a pasta dinner with sodas. (Given the Muslim ban on alcohol, no one could soothe jumpy nerves with a drink.) Organizers said many of the women still asked men to approach their families first. Some families accept that the couple can then meet in public, some do not.

A few years ago the organizers were forced to establish a limit of one parent per participant and bar them from the tables until the social hour because so many interfered. Parents are now corralled along one edge of the reception hall, where they alternate between craning their necks to see who their adult children are meeting or horse-trading bios, photographs and telephone numbers among themselves.

Talking to the mothers — and participants with a parent usually take a mother — is like surveying members of the varsity suddenly confined to the bleachers.

“To know someone for seven minutes is not enough,” scoffed Awila Siddique, 46, convinced she was making better contacts via the other mothers.

Mrs. Siddique said her shy, 20-year-old daughter spent the hours leading up to the banquet crying that her father was forcing her to do something weird. “Back home in Pakistan, the families meet first,’’ she said. “You are not marrying the guy only, but his whole family.”

Samia Abbas, 59 and originally from Alexandria, Egypt, bustled out to the tables as soon as social hour was called to see whom her daughter Alia, 29, had met.

“I’m her mother so of course I’m looking for her husband,” said Mrs. Abbas, ticking off the qualities she was looking for, including a good heart, handsome, as highly educated as her daughter and a good Muslim.

Did he have to be Egyptian?

“She’s desperate for anyone!” laughed Alia, a vivacious technology manager for a New York firm, noting that the “Made in Egypt” stipulation had long since been cast overboard.

“Her cousin who is younger has babies now!” exclaimed the mother, dialing relatives on her cellphone to handicap potential candidates.

For doubters, organizers produced a success story, a strikingly good-looking pair of Chicago doctors who met at the banquet two years ago. Organizers boast of at least 25 marriages over the past six years.

Fatima Alim, 50, was disappointed when her son Suehaib, a 26-year-old pharmacist, did not meet anyone special on the first day. They had flown up from Houston especially for the event, and she figured chances were 50-50 that he would find a bride.

When she arrived in Texas as a 23-year-old in an arranged marriage, Mrs. Alim envied the girls around her, enthralled by their discussions about all the fun they were having with their boyfriends, she said, even if she was eventually shocked to learn how quickly they moved from one to the next and how easily they divorced. Still, she was determined that her children would chose their own spouses.

“We want a good, moderate Muslim girl, not a very, very modern girl,” she said. “The family values are the one thing I like better back home. Divorces are high here because of the corruption, the intermingling with other men and other women.”

For his part, Mr. Alim was resisting the strong suggestion from his parents that they switch tactics and start looking for a nice girl back in Pakistan. Many of the participants reject that approach, describing themselves as too Americanized — plus the visas required are far harder to obtain in the post-Sept. 11 world.

Mr. Alim said he still believed what he had been taught as a child, that sex outside marriage was among the gravest sins, but he wants to marry a fellow American Muslim no matter how hard she is to find.

“I think I can hold out a couple more years,” he said in his soft Texas drawl with a boyish smile. “The sooner the better, but I think I can wait. By 30, hopefully, even if that is kind of late.”


September 19, 2006 - Posted by | Relationships


  1. This article makes us sound like aliens. *sigh*

    Comment by sophie | September 24, 2006 | Reply

  2. I agree with sophie – this article is an embarrassment. I wish the journalist would have interviewed normal Muslims as well. When are the uber-conservative ISNA types going to realize that meeting someone casually and getting to know them before making a major life decision is okay and should even be encouraged?

    Comment by nsk | September 27, 2006 | Reply

  3. I totally agree with nsk… gosh! lets start the dating culture among muslims… keep halal but call it dating so that way when you are “talking” to a guy/girl for hours everyday over IM (or phone) or hanging out a lot at school/work you know if there is any mutual interest or if you are “just friends” i hate these confusing relationship scenarios that young muslims find thenselves in only to later discover that the other person is just being “friendly”…

    what people need to understand is that dating is nothing but modern day courtship… when two people who like each other go out socially and interact its a date… and its important to call it a date cuz that way both people know what’s going on… cuz its different from lets say when you meet up with a friend for lunch or dinner or movies… and if you are both God conscious and make it a point to keep it halal i.e. try to not get into dangerous zone(s) (a date in a room at the Hyatt for example) then you are most likely not going to end up in any sticky situations… yes it maybe hard but i know people who have dated and managed to avoid all that “evil” stuff…

    Comment by Sola | September 27, 2006 | Reply

  4. Well I agree..what the heck… i was asked out for dinner and amovie and then for other social events by guys whom i know had of course and interest on me…and well not necessarily me on them…but it was a date..we did not kiss.. or improperly touch… so what? it was still two people out on date to better know is other…even if it was in public… and not much time to talk privately… yeah and definately keep in @ the Hyatt Lobby…or Hilton… cuz once u take those elevator must probably u r up 2 no good! 😉

    Comment by linda_aisha | September 27, 2006 | Reply

  5. “I wish the journalist would have interviewed normal muslims as well” Ouch. While I agree that the views held by those that were interviewed are not representative of the greater muslim Ummah, I think it’s a tab bit judgemental to imply that they are not normal.

    Comment by newworldman | September 28, 2006 | Reply

  6. hey newworldman… yeah, I agree it may seem judgy… but by “normal” I meant the norm or general majority of young American Muslims and not a tiny faction of our community who treat marriage like it can be arranged over a two minute conversation and a cup of chai. Aunties who think that online dating is synonymous with the devil’s work are not representative of the norm and are out of touch with today’s society.

    While moderate Muslims often distance themselves from political extremism in Islam, we have a harder time publically criticising Muslims with culturally conservative view points, Meanwhile, moderate Muslims are constantly judged by their conservative counterparts. It’s important to have a moderate voice for Islam – especially considering what’s happening in the world.

    Comment by nsk | September 28, 2006 | Reply

  7. ISNA was formed as a SOUTH ASIAN Muslim social club. People, its a DESI thing to be so ridiculous about marriage and so crazy at the matrimonial dinner. The journalist actually knew their stuff by interviewing the Egyption woman–i’m guessing part of the .01% of Arabs that participate at the overwhelmingly Desi affair. Anyway, I hate that Islam is continually held responsible for our CULTURAL idiosyncracies.

    Comment by Fatima | September 28, 2006 | Reply

  8. I agree wholeheartedly with nsk’s comment. Just because you don’t wear a hijab, don’t find the 10 minute chat with a cup of chai scenario sufficient for picking a spouse, don’t wear your religion on your sleeve even though you practice it sincerely, don’t think all jews, christians and hindus are out to get us, don’t have a literal interpretation to everything in the Holy Qur’an, don’t think that talking to a member of the opposite sex constitutes a scandalous relationship, dont begin or finish every single sentence with alhamdulillah, mashallah, jazakallah, subhanallah or bismillah, dont limit my friendships to fellow muslims……doesnt make us lesser Muslims. I can still be a good muslim girl.

    Comment by Saira | October 2, 2006 | Reply

  9. Saira is a good muslim but int her own eyes…. To cross the limits of Allah is up to u but dont force me to think that ur a good muslim… when one will die then one cant blame others ….. FOR U UR RELIGION FOR ME MY RELEGION.

    Comment by usman | October 26, 2006 | Reply

  10. I don get it – how is dating CROSSING ALLAH’S LIMITS? u can date AND still avoid haram stuff! I have a lot of non-muslims friends n wen i hang out wid dem i do keep in mind my limits as a muslim n dey have respect in me for it. I completely agree wis Saira…u don have 2 show off dat ur an ideal muslim…if u want to, dat’s upto u, but don say to others “ur not a proper muslim” bcoz in the end only Allah knows dat….ofcourse we have limits as muslims, but not EVERYTHING is sinful…wat really matters is wat’s in ur heart n conscience…

    Comment by Sirat | November 8, 2006 | Reply

  11. Well, I for one wouldnt mind a semi-arranged marriage. I am 21, and i just dont see myself running around and searching for a needle in a haystack, because that is what i would be doing if i searched for the ‘perfect’ guy. Now dont get me wrong, I wouldnt just marry anyone. But if the guy has a good backround and an agreeable personality, why on earth not? It sounds quite nice to say, marriage is a life decision and so u need to find the absolute right person. But look around at the high divorce rates and rocky marriages and the nasty effects this has on society . Alot of the people who date conventionally dont in fact find the right person. Alot who do stay married, do so by making compromises, just as you would in an arranged marriage. And so i doubt we should judge people, when the alternative is just as flawed.

    Comment by Nabz | November 22, 2006 | Reply

  12. People I know are happy in all types of marriages: arranged, semi-arranged, dating, blah blah blah. I think that’s kind of a misnomer to call it “Western dating”, b/c not all Christians (most of US) have casual rels. I didn’t know ISNA was mostly for the desi crowd; my dad has friends who are involved in it (they seem pretty moderate). I don’t think like them, BUT don’t consider them as extreme. America is full of sub-groups and sub-sub-groups. Even in the (smallish) upper middle class Bangladeshi-American community I have seem SO many different career and partner choices!

    Comment by Emma | February 8, 2007 | Reply

  13. Salaam alleikum-
    I am a revert to islam, grew up in the midwest US Christian in a fairly religious christian family, dating etc. and I think the whole American dating thing is way out of control. I could have *so benefited from living in a muslim family, in the folds of the muslim community, and it’s more conservative values. The problem with American culture, particularly that of dating for young people, is that American teenagers have absolutely no social role to play at all. There is nowhere for them to legitimately “hang out” (college students have bars), so many teenagers are left with driving around in their cars. The potential for isolation with a guy and and girl is wide open, and it’s very very difficult for a 17-year old boy to hold back raging teenage hormones!

    I dont’ want to completely 100% arrange my kids’ marriage, but I *do want my husband and I to play a significant part in helping our children (when they’re older) to select a life partner (my hubby and I are both American reverts to islam, nobody is anything but 100% culturally American originally).

    I plan to raise my daughters within the fold of Islam, and to have “halaal”-type courtship for them, ie they are never allowed to be alone with the guy, or my son with a girl for that matter. There are SO MANY terrible things that can happen to our children out there!

    Comment by Nur Jemal | April 9, 2007 | Reply

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