Muslim American women explore new paths to romance via technology.
“Looking for dulhan,” one reads.
“Seeking the same halal/haram ratio like me.” Another proclaims.
“Iaminterested” all in one go.
Each profile leads with a one-liner, some spanning a simple greeting and others downright cheesy. Some just list a phone number, others describe their desires in five-word detail.
Ayesha flips through the app, laughing out loud, but swiping left, left, left. Over the course of our friendship, we have spent many hours like this, app-swiping a communal, collegial activity—a space to uncover, or rather, discover a process we had never really explored before, and perhaps one of the more shrouded-in-darkness parts of diasporic desi Muslim life: dating.
“Growing up, we never talked about dating. As a concept, it didn’t exist,” she says, slowing down on the last words. Ayesha is a Pakistani American woman in her late 20s, identifies as Muslim and is living and practicing in North America. Although she unexpectedly met someone on the Muslim dating app, Minder, she had spent many years prior exploring the many strands of romantic connection.
Her story goes: she joined Minder for a single hour on a lazy summer day, driven by boredom and the apparent lack of romantic prospects in the city she was living in. During that hour, she talked to one person. Although they lived in different states at the time, this man would end up becoming her husband. Despite meeting on the app, she often omits this detail from their love story. The reason?
“Desi shame culture.”
“In high school, I was a mashallah bachi. I didn’t do anything,” she says matter-of-factly.
“My parents told me that I’m friends with someone, and then I get married. There wasn’t really any in-between. Or we just didn’t talk about these things. Sure, you’d do them though,” Ayesha says.
Dating, a still-taboo word in many non-elite, diasporic desi Muslim communities, is commonly associated with Western notions of intimacy, primarily pre-marital sex, which is considered forbidden in Islam. As a result, in the past, many romantic connections were initiated and facilitated by family or trusted community members and usually were outcome-driven: for the purpose of marriage.
For some women in the diaspora, this process often carried additional pressure; as many were first generation, the need to represent and uphold the morality of their communities—and thus, homeland—felt more urgent and perhaps, necessary.
In 2019, as technology has shifted patterns in behavior, it has also centered more power on the individual—what was previously ordained to the matchmaking auntie, is now filtered through screens in the form of a dating app. And in this process, notions of intimacy and connection are also expanding—or at least the language surrounding them broadening to encompass different ways to be, and connect.
The Muslim Dating App
Minder is one of the most well-established Muslim dating apps. Self-described as “the place for awesome Muslims to meet”, it was founded in 2015 and boasts over 350,000 users with over 100,000 matches made.
Alongside the usual host of features of a dating app—swiping, profile pictures, cheesy captions—Minder has a unique set of features designed specifically for its intended audience.
Firstly, there is no geolocation technology. Instead of sorting matches by proximity, the app allows you to explore potential connections from all over the world. If dating is a numbers game, and the population on the platform is already in the minority, then the assumption is that distance is not as big a constraint if it means exposure to more potential options.
Another feature of the app is that you are able to list your religiosity — from “not practicing” to “somewhat practicing” to “very religious” — that is used as a gauge to understand the role of faith in a potential matches’ life. But for some, this criteria has its limitations.
“How do I express my religiosity on a spectrum? I guess I’m not religious. I don’t pray five times a day. But I do believe deeply in God and spirituality and do fast and do give to charity. I don’t know how to put that on a scale of not religious to very religious. There’s not enough dimension to explain that,” twenty-something Rabia says.
As a Pakistani American Muslim woman, Rabia identifies as someone outside the bounds of cultural norms, yet also recognizes the limitations of this binary.
“‘Our language mostly consisted of one word: haraam,’ Sana says when asked about how her family spoke of dating growing up. The word still holds so much.”
“Even though I’m not fully practicing Islam, it will always be a part of my life—the prayers that I memorized, those are the prayers that come to my lips in difficult times. There are ways I show adherence, even though it may not be typical.”
Alongside stating your level of religiosity, you are also able to specify your family origin and “flavor”, meaning the Islamic denomination you identify with—Sunni, Shia or other. You can also state whether you drink, eat only halal meat and your ideal marital timing, spanning “don’t plan to”, to “within 1 year”, to “5+years”, giving potential matches an indication of what you’re looking for, and how soon you are looking for it.
“I guess what the Muslim dating app does is force you to be a bit more upfront. Because the default expectation is marriage. So if it’s anything else, you better be clear about it,” Rabia says.
Relative to other dating apps, where ambiguity reigns central, there is some relief in that knowing—or articulating.
The Muslim Dating Filter
For some desi women in the diaspora, dating another Muslim can come as a relief, and for others, it can spark feelings of judgment and shame.
“I was fine with non-desis, but not a non-Muslim. I set that boundary for myself because I didn’t want to have to explain everything in my most intimate relationship. But, this preference didn’t necessarily mean I wanted to get married to the first guy I met,” Ayesha admits.
For Ayesha, choosing to use Minder was less about finding a spouse, and more about finding comfort and safety with someone who would understand where she was coming from. For Rabia, she was initially drawn to the app for something, perhaps, simpler.
“Just the experience of talking to men was valuable to me. I have so few men in my life, and those that I could even imagine interacting with romantically. There was so much shame even being alone in the same room as one,” says Rabia.
In some ways, then, the private, safe space of an app is revolutionary.
Sana, an Indian American Muslim woman in her early forties, is also appreciative of the privacy, but for different reasons. Having gone down the conventional route of expectation—marrying a Muslim man of a similar background in her thirties—and then, many years later and single again, she found herself asking, what comes after?
“We carry such a burden of privacy in our communities. I didn’t think as someone at this point of my life—with at least half of it over—I would be worrying about what people thought of me. The technology has allowed me to quietly explore in a way that is really safe and discreet. I’m super grateful for that,” says Sana.
“‘I have so few men in my life, and those that I could even imagine interacting with romantically. There
was so much shame even being alone in the same room as one.'”
“I had a beautiful marriage with an incredible Muslim man who got me in most of my complexities. But, I’m not sure if I’d use a Muslim dating app at this stage. I’m not convinced that there are enough Muslim men in my generation who are open-minded enough, or looking for the same thing as I am. I don’t want to get married again. I’m going to have to just say that.”
As she first began to explore the online dating scene, she was confronted with her own barriers.
“My aversion (to apps) was so profound because of all the shame I had internalized around dating. My initial rationale was that I was just researching and potentially making platonic friends. But after a while I realized, I’ve spent so much time making major life choices with one eye on trying to please my family and my community,” she says, pausing.
“I don’t want to do it anymore. I want to allow myself to be curious, to be playful, to learn about ways of being in the world that I never thought were possible, cautiously and pragmatically of course. I don’t want other people’s voices in my head telling me what I can, or can’t do.”
As more desi Muslim women from diasporic communities actively try and create the lives they want—where ownership and empowerment is not only about the choices they are making, but precisely those they are choosing not to make—many still struggle.
“Of course I want to be with a Muslim. It would be so much easier—for me, for my parents, for everything,” Rabia reflects.
“But my women friends and I are looking for something particular—we want love, we want partnership, we want to have our jobs, we don’t want to be housewives. There are some Muslim men who just want that. To take care of the home, someone pretty,” Rabia says.
“How do you filter for that?”
The Muslim Dating Lexicon
“Our language mostly consisted of one word: haraam,” Sana says when asked about how her family spoke of dating growing up. The word still holds so much.
“The biggest struggle in all of this is language. Or the lack of it.” Ayesha affirms. As a writer, she is conscious of the importance of language in shaping norms and behaviors.
What these apps are actively creating, then, is conversation. As more Muslims navigate this new territory, they are forced to confront and give labels to their experiences. Through the lens of technology, they are made to clarify and question—what they are looking for, what they want and how they want to present themselves.
Yet, some still feel the judgment from all sides.
“From the more ‘Western’, openly sexually liberated people who judge you for being a prude or think you are judging them, to the Muslims who think you may be sinfully opposing what your religion says—it’s rough.” Ayesha says, feeling caught between two realities—both of which she feels connected to, and identifies with.
“There’s a huge part of me that believes if I exist, as a Muslim woman who is living outside of cultural norms, then there must be men too. It’s just statistics. I’m not a unicorn. There are so many people out there like me, we struggle to find one another. So, I think maybe the app could be a place to meet someone like that too,” Rabia shares.
“But, how? I don’t know.”
For Sana, the possibility in itself holds hope—another chance, a new beginning, a place to try, and try again.
“Online dating has opened up a new world, which is ultimately the most exciting thing—when your imagination explodes, when possibility suddenly becomes apparent to you, regardless of what path you walk down.”
As Muslim women of the desi diaspora create their own vernacular around dating, apps are helping to create more transparency and communication about the process of romantic love, whether the outcome is marriage or something else.
By creating space, the rules can be broken, remade, reclaimed. And in this way, new possibilities can be imagined and connections made—those that are cross-cultural, ethnic and sometimes even religious—bringing with them a whole new set of assumptions and beliefs to confront and work through.
Despite the universal struggle inherent in this process, and the role of dating apps remaining to be seen, the space to grapple with words, intentions, and love, for now, is more than enough.