When 18-year-old Nermeen Ileiwat first began college, she could not wait to get into a relationship — maybe even get engaged before graduation. But after one year, the rising sophomore realized she had no idea what she wanted out of life and was in no position to get into a relationship.
That decision didn’t last long. Only a few months after, Ileiwat met someone at a party, and their friendship quickly turned into something more.
However, dating was not that simple for the now 21-year-olds who are Muslim. They have religious restrictions that limit physical contact in premarital relationships. They chose to focus more on developing their emotional intimacy, with the occasional hug or kiss. Out of respect for their religious beliefs, Ileiwat and her boyfriend decided not to engage in any advanced sexual activity until they’re married.
For young couples like them, the idea of dating is common, and it means balancing their religious views with their desire for emotional intimacy. But the term “dating” still invites an offensive suggestion for many Muslims, especially older ones, irrespective of how innocent the relationship may be. Dating is still linked to its Western origins, which implies underlying expectations of sexual interactions — if not an outright premarital sexual relationship — which Islamic texts prohibit.
But Islam does not forbid love.
Ismail Menk, a renowned Islamic scholar, argues in one of his lectures that love, within boundaries and with expectations of marriage, is an accepted fact of life and religion — if done the right way. This “right way,” he says, is by involving the families from an early stage.
Before the rise of a Western cultural influence, finding a spouse was a task almost solely assigned to parents or relatives. But young Muslims have now taken it upon themselves to find their partners, relying on their own version of dating to do so. Older Muslims continue to reject dating because they worry that a Western world will also create Western expectations of premarital sex in these relationships.
Adam Hodges, a former sociolinguistics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, argues there is an added layer of culture and context to the term “dating” that is often overlooked. “We use language to give meaning to the world around us. So the way that we label events or phenomena, such as dating, is definitely going to provide a certain perspective on what that means for us,” he says. Therefore, taking on the dating vernacular to describe their relationship and labeling their significant other as “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” does put some couples at risk of falling into the physical expectations that come with dating, Hodges says. But, he adds, these fears can be allayed because “the most important connotation that is borrowed is the ability to choose your own mate,” which is also the main precept of dating in the West.
One way that some young Muslim couples are rebutting the idea of dating being offensive is by terming it “halal dating.” Halal refers to something permissible within Islam. By adding the permissibility factor, some young couples argue, they are removing the idea that anything haram, or prohibited, such as premarital sex, is happening in the relationship.
On the other hand, some young couples believe there should be no stigma attached to dating and, therefore, reject the idea of calling it halal. “My justification is that we are dating with the intention of one day being married and, I guess, that’s what makes it OK,” Ileiwat says.
Khalil Jessa, founder of Salaam Swipe, a dating app that caters to young Muslims, also believes that the negative associations attached to dating depend on the particular society. “This conception that dating necessarily implies physical touching is an assumption that people are making. When they take the word dating, they’re adding this connotation to it, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. It’s up to each individual and each couple to choose how they wish to interact with one another,” Jessa argues.
Getting to know someone and making the informed decision to marry them is not an alien concept in Islamic societies. Abdullah Al-Arian, a history professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, says that the idea of courtship has been present in Muslim societies for centuries but was subdued in colonial times. When the British and the rest of Europe colonized much of the world, they also placed social restrictions on sexual interactions between unmarried couples, Arian says. These social restrictions also took hold in certain Islamic societies, with religious restrictions on sex leading some to go as far as segregating the genders as much as possible, including in schools, universities and even at social gatherings.
These practices began to disintegrate as women started entering the workforce, demanding their rights for universal education and pursuing higher education, Arian says. Segregating because of religious dogma became harder. And so, as the genders mixed, dating relationships also took root in some societies. This, he says, further facilitated the imitation of Western relationships.
Changing ideas about modernity, widespread urbanization and the West’s cultural hegemony influenced something as intimate and personal as relationships, Arian says. But the most influential factor is globalization. “We’ve seen the full impact of globalization … in pop culture, in particular. Western cultural productions: music, film, television shows,” he says. These “shared experiences,” as he calls them, have given birth to third-culture kids. These multicultural generations are growing up with a “very different moral compass that is rooted in a number of influences; and not just the local, but the global as well,” Arian says.
Before social media and the prevalence of pop culture, it was a lot easier to enforce whatever ideologies you wanted your child to follow. But as globalization increased, this changed. Young people became increasingly exposed to the rest of the world. Today, their ideologies and values no longer find a basis in what their priest or imam preaches but in what social media and pop culture influencers might be saying and doing.
Then there’s the limitless online world.
Dating apps and websites that cater to young Muslims looking for meaningful long-term relationships are easy to find. Muzmatch, a dating app launched two years ago, has 135,000 people signed up. Other apps, like Salaam Swipe and Minder, report high success rates for young Muslims who previously had a hard time finding a partner.
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These apps allow people to filter their searches based on level of religiosity, the kind of relationship they’re looking for and other aspects such as whether the woman wears a headscarf and the man sports a beard.
While the men behind these apps launched them with the hope of giving young Muslims a positive platform to interact on, they say there are still many in their societies that oppose the idea of young couples interacting.
Haroon Mokhtarzada, founder of Minder, says that a lot of this disapproval stems more from the fear of people in their communities gossiping than it does from the actual interaction the couples have. “There’s this general concern that people are going to talk. So I don’t think it’s the parents who are worried for themselves because they don’t want their daughter talking to a guy or whatever, as much as it’s them worrying about their family name and people talking and becoming part of a gossip mill,” he says.
To combat this, Shahzad Younas, founder of Muzmatch, incorporated various privacy settings within the app, allowing people to hide their pictures until the match gets more serious and even allowing a guardian to have access to the chat to ensure it remains halal.
But no app setting can stop the gossip mill.
Like many Muslim women, Ileiwat has chosen not to wear the hijab, but that has not saved her from glares and stares if she’s out in public with her boyfriend. Because of the prohibition on premarital sex, older Muslims often frown upon any visible interaction between unmarried young people, no matter how innocent. This can sometimes lead to assumptions that two individuals of the opposite sex who are just hanging out have an inappropriate premarital relationship. “I think a lot of older people are under the assumption that all premarital communication between the opposite gender equates sex. Which is ridiculous, but it makes for a juicy story,” Ileiwat says, adding that even some of her younger married friends are subject to the gossip mill.
But the fear of gossip and the older generation’s fear of sexual relations between young men and women have made the concept of dating more intriguing for younger Muslims. Using the word dating to describe relationships has resulted in a schism between older and younger generations. Hodges says children pick up the popular vernacular from peers, leading to a barrier between what children say and how parents understand it. Because of this miscommunication, many couples instead use words like “togetherness” and “an understanding” as synonyms when talking to their parents about their relationships.
Hodges refers to this gap as “that ocean between England and America,” where words might be the same, but the way they are perceived is vastly different. Mia, a 20-year-old Ethiopian-American college student who has shied away from having sex with her boyfriend of almost a year, can attest to this. “The idea of dating, to my mom, is basically haram. I like to use the word ‘talking’ or ‘getting to know.’ A lot of people in the Muslim community don’t like to use words like ‘girlfriend,’ ‘boyfriend,’ or ‘dating.’ They prefer to use things like ‘understanding,’ or ‘growing together,’ ” she says. But words, especially those borrowed from other places, soon take on the cultural contexts in which they are used. “Dating” has only recently seeped into young Muslims’ everyday vernacular, so it may be a while before it takes on the local contexts within which it is used.
“If people realize that dating is simply a normal thing that has been around for centuries everywhere, that you don’t need to learn it from movies, then people start to see it as something independent of physical [acts]. Physical relations are simply a choice,” says Taimur Ali, a senior at Georgetown University’s Qatar campus.
The current generation “really wants to have the [dating] experience without having the full extent of the experience,” Arian says. But perhaps, he suggests, young Muslims need to develop something for themselves that is “more rooted in our own moral sensibilities.”
Neha Rashid is an NPR intern and journalism student at Northwestern University’s Qatar campus. Follow her @neharashid_.