/ 5 June 2014

Modern Muslimahs: A step in Mr Right’s direction

Lending a hand: Kevin Hurwitz
Lending a hand: Kevin Hurwitz

Theoretically speaking, it shouldn’t be that difficult to catch a good Muslim man, especially considering that we live in a worldwide web. Google “Muslim matrimonial” and dozens of sites come up. 

You’ll find singlemuslim.com, which claims that it’s “the world’s leading Muslim introduction agency”, and muslima.com, which, according to its home page, has a whopping five million users. Others convey all sorts of promises to those in search of a partner in the wired world. “Matches made in heaven,” one declares. “Discover your soul mate from your own community,” says another. Those less willing to take a gamble might take these odds: “Be one of our four marriages every day.”

Collectively, these sites boast hundreds of thousands of profiles of men and women from around the world, from every conceivable Muslim sect, in every shape, size and colour imaginable. They ask questions such as “Are you a born or reverted Muslim?” and “Do you wear a hijab [headscarf] or a niqab [face veil]?” and “Do you accept polygamy?”

American and British Muslims have been quick to adapt to the online matrimony game, and they have a wide variety of websites to choose from. Locally there is just one, nikah.co.za. It was started in August by a Cape Town-based company called Go Solutions, which assists Muslim organisations in using technology to reach out to the community.

Nikah.co.za is the only South African website that provides a matchmaking service for Muslims.

According to a spokesperson from the group, it was met with criticism with some in the community questioning how legitimate it was to meet your partner online. But this changed when Mufti Ismail Menk, a widely respected Islamic scholar, gave the project his blessing.

Within a relatively short time, the website signed up nearly 700 members, and they claim that five couples who met on the site have married.

Stiff competition
South African Muslims who use the international sites are up against some seriously stiff competition. Consider: a Muslim woman here – sitting at her laptop in her bedroom at the tip of the African continent – will be competing for the attentions of, say, a London lawyer with thousands of women who are a lot closer and who have faster internet connections.

Local Muslim women who have tried the international sites have had little luck.

“A guy from Canada claimed he was in love with me and wanted to get married straight away, because his parents were putting pressure on him,” says Laila, a fortysomething, professional, single Muslim woman, who says she has resigned herself to the fact that she will never meet Mr Right.

“I was not ready after just a few months of chatting and said I needed more time. He eventually wrote and said that he couldn’t wait any longer and had become engaged to a girl that his family had found for him. He even sent me pictures of his wedding.”

Maryam, a 30-year-old health sciences graduate, says she has had mostly negative experiences on the international sites. “Most men I met were weirdos – some I might call sleazy. It was a waste of my time.”

Online match
I can vouch for that. I met one of my three husbands this way. When we first met online, he sent me long emails detailing his goals and ambitions, and I was smitten with his plans for a perfect life. What he failed to mention was that he was also deeply in love with a Hindu woman with whom marriage was a no-no. I married him anyway. But that’s a long story.

There was also a 31-year-old Frenchman of aristocratic descent (LOL!) who turned out to be a 55-year-old nobody from who knows where. When I called his bluff, he disappeared off the online matrimonial scene for weeks, before returning with a sob story about a friend who had passed away whose ashes needed to be disposed of on the island of Corsica.

So if matrimonial sites are not the way to go, what’s an educated Muslim gal to do?

The Prophet Muhammad encouraged his followers to get married. And although Islam prohibits a man and woman from being alone together in a secluded place before marriage, it doesn’t lay down hard and fast rules for how to go about finding a marriage partner.

The old-fashioned way
Back in the 1960s, my dad – who at 33 was handsome, educated and employed – simply told his cousin he wanted to marry my mum, who was 19, without ever interacting with her (they lived on the same street and he had seen her several times).

His cousin lodged a marriage proposal with my grandparents on his behalf. Mum prayed the Salaatul Istikhaarah, the prayer of guidance, and, after dreaming that the two of them were shopping for furniture together, she agreed to marry dad.

In those days, that is how most Muslim women met their match. In some cases they had a choice, in others they didn’t and were simply married off to someone deemed suitable by their families. Sometimes the unions were successful and sometimes they weren’t but, even so, most couples stuck it out because divorce was taboo.

The roles of Muslim women have changed substantially since then.

In my mother’s time, it was rare for a Muslim girl to finish school and almost unheard of for her to attend university, let alone to work. The emphasis was on learning how to cook, bake, sew and clean so that she could be the model wife, mother and daughter-in-law.

Traditional roles
But Muslim women have increasingly started to challenge these traditional roles.

“The more Muslim women reflect, we can’t fit into the place of a baby maker and domestic labourer in exchange for halaal sex,” says Ayesha, an academic in her mid-30s, who hasn’t yet met a partner although she firmly believes there’s a time and place for everything.

“The transfer simply isn’t enough; we also want to be respected for mind and professional ability within marriages.

“The South African Muslim male social consciousness isn’t uplifted enough to handle the new empowered Muslimah. And yet it does exist beyond our insular local community thinking.”

Empowered Muslimahs are far from being a new phenomenon. About 1 400 years ago, women surrounding and interacting with the Prophet were successful businesswomen, skilled in science and the arts. They were also bold enough to propose marriage.

In fact, Khadijah, the Prophet’s first wife, proposed to him even though, in his mid-20s, he was more than a decade younger than she was.

Community regression
But as Laila says, generally speaking, the Muslim community seems to have regressed in this respect.

“A woman in her 40s who has never been married before is often considered unmarriageable as her major task is usually to bear children and biologically this becomes more difficult as a woman reaches a certain age,” she says.

“Most families cannot imagine their twenty- or thirtysomething son being with an older woman. The reality that the Prophet of Islam actually married a 40-year-old lady at the age of 25 seems to not be a consideration in this contemporary context.”

In fact, there seems to be a sell-by date when a woman reaches a certain age, as Mishka, a 28-year-old Muslim journalist, has learnt.

“I’m pretty much considered to be unmarriageable in many sectors of the community. I have heard it’s going to become increasingly difficult for me to get proposals as I get older, that it gets difficult after 26, and it’s basically all over for me when I hit 30,” she says.

Mishka has never used a matrimonial site but she has let her friends introduce her to men and has been open to the traditional practice, in which a suitable “boy” is sent to view and speak to a “girl” at her parents’ home – along with his family. It has become known famously as the “samoosa run”, because the visitors are usually served tea and the famous Indian savoury.

“I have mainly had good experiences but there was one young man who kept questioning me about my teeth and height and baldness in the family; he was probably planning his children’s genes. Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed,” she says with a laugh.

“Once, the parents came to visit me without bringing their son. That was rather strange. It seemed like they were inspecting me for him, like I was a piece of meat, really.”

In a warm, cosy lounge in Durban, I chat to 50-year-old Faheema Sayed, a seasoned matchmaker who works tirelessly to make marriages happen.

While we sip hot tea, accompanied by square slices of yummy yellow cake, another matchmaker, who asked only to be identified as Auntie Hajra, joins us.

Auntie Hajra, who is 71, tells me how she unwittingly fell into her role. As a teenager, she moved to a small farm town after marriage and was asked by members of the community to help to arrange matches for young unmarried men and women. She has been doing it ever since.

It works something like this: a boy or girl, or their mother/relative/friend, calls requesting a suitable match. The matchmaker records details such as age, profession, physical description and any other significant attributes they are seeking in their potential partner.

They then go through their list of names and supply one number at a time to the boy, or the person inquiring on his behalf, who will then contact the girl.

Both matchmakers provide their services “for the pleasure of Allah”, but another matchmaker, who didn’t want to be named, told me that others can charge up to R750 to provide a “boy” with three “leads”.

Some also expect a handsome gift when a match they facilitated is solemnised, which may be proportionate to the economic status of the groom.

“So, if he’s a doctor, for example, the gift has to be gold,” she said.

Coffee date
Back in my parents’ day, the boy’s family would then contact the girl’s family and arrange a visit. And, although some families (and boys) still prefer to do this, Faheema tells me that these days they encourage the boy and girl to meet for coffee in a public place instead.

These days, Aunty Hajra also requests that a photograph of the boy and girl be WhatsApped to her husband’s or daughter’s phone, though she admittedly keeps out of the technology part of the transaction.

They both lament the fact that there aren’t enough social gatherings at which boys and girls can be introduced to each other.

“If you’re not in school, if you’re not in university, where are you going to meet someone? ” asks Sayed.

“In the old days people would meet at mainly weddings. One daadi [paternal grandmother] would make an arrangement with another daadi for her grandson to meet her granddaughter. Now invitations specify that only two persons per family can attend a wedding.

“We need more social gatherings. Mosques should organise gatherings with a social atmosphere, where people can meet within permissible limits.”

Mxit daughters-in-law
Aunty Hajra admits there are three “MXit daughters-in-law” in her extended family.

When I was studying at a strict girls-only Islamic educational institute in the late 1990s, I can remember teenage girls who came from very strict upbringings giggling about guys they were chatting with on MXit, which only requires access to a very basic handset. They would meet them in various chat rooms catering for Muslims, and use the private messaging option to get to know each other.

But few people I know use MXit these days since the advent of other social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter. It’s not easy to chat up a guy in 140 characters, but I have certainly received many unwanted advances from guys living in India via my Facebook inbox.

There’s now a younger generation of matchmakers who have incorporated the use of Facebook into their services. One of these is Saajida Chhaya, a 28-year-old accountant, who started a free service called SA Nikaah (marriage) in 2011.

Although her primary modus operandi entails a formal application and interview process (which she says has led to 38 successful matches), she also allows Facebook users looking to get married to post profiles on her wall.

Sayed thinks that the new trends in matchmaking are a good thing, as they both admit that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a Muslim woman to meet Mr Right. But they are adamant that Allah has made a partner for everyone.

“Have faith, have hope, and put your trust in Allah. It’s going to happen one day,” Sayed says.