If you're a single Muslim in North America, you know the thirst is real. Well, you can finally leave the ISNA hotel lobby. (Seriously, it's past 5 a.m.) Vacate that seat at the matrimonial speed-dating table where your parents are cheering you on from the sidelines. You can stop shaking people's left hands at "networking" events. And tell your rishta aunty to give up on the biodatas of people describing their skin tone as "wheatish" or "gluten-free." This Valentine's Day, you won't have to eat your feelings in kanafeh or halwa while watching Ghazal Al Banat or Devdas.
A few enterprising Muslim millennials are offering solutions to one of our community's biggest problems: how to communicate, let alone find, other single Muslims. At least four matchmaking (yes, matchmaking, because "dating" would be too scandalous for your parents) apps designed by young Muslims, especially for Muslims, plan to launch this month and save you from a future as "cat aunty" or "creepy uncle."
Of course, you can always swipe left through Tinder until you happen upon a Muslim-sounding name and hope that person is interested in marriage and not a hookup, but chances are, you'll probably match with that guy from your local masjid and you'll spend the rest of your jumu'ah prayers lowering your gaze.
What you need is an app that lifts the pardah and widens your social circle, but only with marriage-minded Muslims.
"I HAVE GOOD MUSLIM BOY FOR YOU!" - AUNTY TROLLS
Muslim Americans have a gender relations problem, says 25-year-old Humaira Mubeen, founder of matchmaking site and forthcoming app, Ishqr.
"All our lives, from elementary through college, we're taught not to mix with the opposite gender, especially our fellow Muslims," says the DC-based Mubeen. "We're segregated at the mosque, at weddings, at other social gatherings. Then all of a sudden when we turn 25 we're expected to be married, but we don't know how to talk to each other."
We may live in the land of opportunity, but for Muslims so geographically dispersed and constantly moving across North America, options are limited, adds Khalil Jessa. He developed SalaamSwipe, a matchmaking app modeled after the location-based dating/hookup (haram alert!) app Tinder, in order to increase the breadth of his own Muslim network in Vancouver.
"The Muslim world is very diverse, but Muslim communities in North America are divided — not just on sectarian lines but also by ethnic groups," says 25-year-old Jessa. "It creates a very small network of people that you meet and interact with."
Hamid*, the founder of Crescent, which is also designed similarly to Tinder, agrees that small communities limit options for Muslims in North America.
"There are only so many weddings you can be showcased at," chuckles Hamid, who is Afghan-American.
That's emblematic of the biggest problem facing young Muslim Americans looking to get married: our romantic fates are currently in the hands of our parents, rishta aunties, or tetas.
But what's so bad about letting your mom be your marriage broker? After all, she wants what's best for you, right?
"It's awkward," says Bian Elkhatib, a 24-year-old journalist. "Our immigrant cultures are very community-centered, but we've also grown up with the very American principle of individualism."
That individualistic trait in our generation is what has us wary of anyone but ourselves having even a small part in making such a big decision for us.
"Parents severely limit our options in ways that we wouldn't — by ethnicity, for example," adds Jessa. He believes you should get mired in your own West Bank Story if you want to. (But you're on your own in keeping your families from killing each other.)
Moreover, Jessa says handing over your biodata is on par with handing over your identity. "You have no control over how you're presented." That's how you find yourself serving chai and roti that your mom actually made to a stranger whom you expected to be six inches taller.
Muslim convention-organized speed-dating solves that problem, but let's be real, it opens the door to more. Somehow, conversations don't happen as serendipitously as they would if you weren't on the hot seat with only three minutes to pitch yourself and decide if you wouldn't mind picking up the dirty socks of the person across from you for the rest of your life — all while your parents bite their nails off in the back of the room.
This naturally leads to exploration of other means of cultivating relationships, using technology, says Hamid. As we millennials increasingly live more of our lives online, embracing a sharing economy, we've let go of our inhibitions and become more open toward finding love digitally.
While there used to be a stigma of desperation attached, it's since been replaced with a different type, according to Hamid: "The implication is that there's something superficial or sexual about looking online, which is not the case. It's a better outlet to truly get to know someone without the pressures of physical standards being interjected into it daily. Without makeup, you can really get into what makes a person tick."
Of course, there are a myriad Muslim marriage websites that you can sign yourself up for, but all the founders are unsatisfied with the choices for multiple reasons. Mubeen is particularly horrified by questionnaires on sites like shaadi.com asking skin tone preferences and whether women prefer either housework or child-rearing, while Hamid and Jessa feel they're too confining.
"You can be pigeonholed—as liberal or conservative, for example—based on what site you use," says Jessa. "I would prefer individuals define themselves rather than the platform define them."
LOWER YOUR GAZE...ONTO YOUR PHONE
The power to define yourself and decide your own fate will soon be in your henna-adorned hands, darling. The new mobile matchmaking apps for Muslims promise to overcome all the obstacles on your quest to find The One—awkward gender relations, scarcity of eligible partners, meddling elders, job interview-like speed-dating, racist and sexist matrimonial websites.
TINDER FOR MUSLIMS: COMPLETE HALF YOUR DEEN IN JUST ONE SWIPE
Just as the hugely popular Tinder offered a simple solution for the general population seeking to quickly and easily meet singles in their vicinity, apps modeled after that same concept were bound to take off within the Muslim demographic.
But unlike the "casual" connotation Tinder has taken on, Hamid's Crescent app is designed with a different, more meaningful, goal: to "help modern Muslims find love." Crescent's Instagram strategy is positioning the app as the gateway to serious relationships, with messages like "I don't date. I am looking for a husband and best friend." At the same time, Hamid says the app is progressive in that it will be open to gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims looking for longterm partners.
"It can even be used for networking purposes, or just to make friends, but the primary purpose is for finding love," says Hamid. Users will have the ability to report accounts that are using the app inappropriately.
As for criticism that a Tinder-like app would emphasize physical appearance over personality, Hamid responds, "It's human nature to dig deeper into personality based upon physical attraction, the way you do when you see someone attractive in person."
Besides, Hamid says, "The photo can be anything you want it to be. We're an open platform; we encourage people to express themselves. But, human nature — we lead with our face."
Crescent's core user base is initially expected to be American, but it will launch worldwide in English. Find Crescent app on Instagram.
Khalil Jessa also encounters concerns about the halalness of his version of Muslim Tinder, Salaam Swipe, but he says it would be more accurate to compare his app to the biodata concept.
"I'm only using technology to take the biodata and put it in your hands instead of your grandmother's--the interaction is direct and your personality is defined by you--not the platform, your family, or social constructs." With Facebook-supplied data about your name, age, and education, your Salaam Swipe profile is self-submitted and social network-vetted.
If it sounds too much like a game that trivializes marriage, it's anything but, says Jessa. "At the end of the day, people will be on Salaam Swipe for a different reason than they are on Tinder," Jessa says. "Because they're already making a conscious decision to find someone of their own faith, the resulting relationships will be more meaningful."
Jessa's bigger challenge has been designing something that the huge and diverse population of Muslims would want to use. "Salaam Swipe is a platform where everyone is welcome--from hipsters to Salafis." (Wait, aren't they the same?)
You won't see anything reminiscent of those matrimonial website questionnaires on Salaam Swipe, but you will have the option to narrow your search or open yourself up to certain criteria.
"The app will have optional filters where you can pick your denomination and level of religiosity (liberal, moderate, conservative, etc.) and those of the partner you seek," says Jessa. Though he understands why ethnicity and culture are important to some people, he does not plan to include ethnic filters in Salaam Swipe's premier version.
ISHQR: THE ALTERNATIVE APP FOR ALTERNATIVE MUSLIMS
If you're still not convinced that swiping through piles of photos won't detract from a deeper connection, then Humaira Mubeen's Ishqr app is for you. There's no swiping, and no photos--until you both like each other's self-described personality characteristics and values.
"If you're a feminist looking for your bold, humble, feminist brother or a Rumi-and-granola-loving-Muslim, Ishqr is the place for you," reads Ishqr's website, evoking a vivid mental image despite the site's deliberate lack of photos.
"We are Muslim American millennials--a unique hybrid of identities, so we need a platform that allows us enough space for our multifaceted narratives," says Mubeen. That means connecting beyond a shared faith or physical attraction, and "steering the building of a relationship based on shared values and interests, which is what's most important for a successful marriage."
With usernames like TuPakistani and AllahAboutDemGainz ("Just a gym bro seeking his gym girl"), Ishqr's user-submitted profiles pique just enough curiosity to generate lighthearted conversation on a serious mission: marriage.
Mubeen is so passionate about sparking conversations on love in the Muslim American community, she's even taken Ishqr offline and on the road. She hosts pop-up mixer events around the country for single Muslims to mingle and participate in focus group discussions about Muslim dating and marriage.
Mubeen says Ishqr provides a safe space for young Muslims to ask candid questions and share experiences in order to relate to one another, instead of purporting to have all the answers. "Honestly, we don't claim to have all the answers on how to navigate Muslim dating, but it's important to be able to talk about it openly, period."
At a recent Ishqr mixer in Boston, for example, some robust and mature dialogue erupted among participants over masturbation and premarital sex--topics that are broached timidly, even in anonymous online forums.
BLISS MARRIAGE: THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
If you don't trust yourself not to use the above apps' private messaging features in a halal manner, there's the Bliss Marriage app, founded by 25-year-old Aneesa Memon. Bliss is designed for what Memon calls "moderate Muslims" (a highly subjective term, she acknowledges) who want to exercise their independence by choosing who they talk to, but who also want a guardian (wali) present as a chaperone for their conversations with the opposite sex.
Now you can court whom you want with all the awkwardness that comes along with your parents eavesdropping on your first arranged chai.
After matching with someone within a 200 mile radius, the app connects you via email -- but your wali is always carbon copied. That's right, no communication on Bliss Marriage App is private--so think twice before you send that Nizar Qabbani quote. "This ensures the app is halal, and we don't have to police anyone," says Memon.
Bliss Marriage App is now available for iOS and will launch for Android on February 13th. Don't forget to CC your wali! You can follow Bliss Marriage app on Facebook.
HALF YOUR DEEN, ENTIRELY IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND
Whether you choose to mack in your vicinity based off a visual and a minimal bio with Crescent or Salaam Swipe, or you're willing to go the distance based on a mental image after reading a quirky self-written profile with Ishqr, or you want to get serious and CC your wali on your proposal with Bliss Marriage App, you've got options, all at your fingertips. The odds are good--and, unlike at your cousin's wedding last summer--the goods aren't odd. Who knows, this Valentine's Day might be the one your family breaks out the ladoos for you.