In the run up to Valentine’s Day I was asked to talk on the rather unromantic topic of ‘the challenges to Muslim marriage’ at the City Circle’s annual Valentine’s Day talk. The event – aimed at mostly second and third generation Muslim single men and women – explored the challenges of ‘halal dating’ and getting married in a lucrative and increasingly digitised British Muslim marriage market’. What impact do these new forms of digital intimacies have for religiously minded Muslims with relatively little little to no relationship experience?
For many Muslims, marriage remains a key personal goal – frequently spoken of in terms of fulfilling ‘half the deen’ (faith). However, the breakdown or loss of familial networks that parents once relied on when searching for matrimonial matches for their children – the old ‘arranged marriage’ format – has resulted in a devolution of this responsibility to children leading many second and third generation Muslims to increasingly rely on online forums instead.
Rapid commercialisation over the past 20 or so years has seen a huge rise in the number of online Muslim matrimonial sites, organised events, introduction services, Muslim ‘marriage apps’ and coaching services. At the same time, British Muslims, have become increasingly professionalised, with Muslim women in particular taking advantage of higher education – and outperforming Muslim men in terms of high education participation rates (Khattab and Modood, 2017).
Talks about ‘the Muslim marriage crisis’ are always popular as professionals in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s ponder over why they can’t find someone to marry, despite the ever increasing range of Muslim matrimonial services on offer. I worry about them; many will be successful in their professional careers and here, they are skilful navigators of the cultural and religious landscapes they inhabit with their various layers and vernaculars. Yet they are vulnerable when it comes to personal relationships and finding life partners. ‘Where can we go to meet people for marriage?’ asks one young woman. A young man worries about the ‘halal’ status of online communication. To the non-Muslim eye, the Muslim marriage scene must seem bewildering; matrimonial events cater for every ethnicity, age category, employment and marital status. One thing remains common though – the collective embarrassment of ‘having to attend’ such events, a public admission of needing help in meeting ‘The One’. Others though hide behind the anonymity of the internet, afraid to engage in personal meetings, and afraid of experiencing rejection after going to a matrimonial event and not be inquired after.
They are a product of the ‘Checklist era’ – they have high expectations and want high levels of compatibility; they are seeking their soul mates but looking for algorithms to speed up the process while avoiding too much pre-marital emotional investment. This is also the era of Instagram – where images of beautiful, perfect Muslim couples meeting on Instagram are idealised. How do those who don’t meet up to the high standards set by the Young Beautiful Muslims even compete? This is a ‘marriage market’ of supply and demand and there is a surplus of highly educated women, especially those in their late 30’s and 40’s. This simply encourages men to continue to look for younger women, because they can. Yet this is also the generation where divorce rates among British Muslims are increasing and close to the non-Muslim white population[i]. What is going on here? Who are the divorcing Muslims?
The ‘digitisation of marriage’ with its emphasis on instant communication, means they are even more fixated on the need for an ‘instant click’ instead of investing time getting to know someone – investing in the ‘slow burner’ – but even this requires careful negotiation of what is considered an appropriate, ‘halal time frame’ for getting to know someone well enough without it crossing into the margins of what is consider ‘haram’ (forbidden) for time spent talking to the opposite sex.
The audience are looking for affirmation. They seek reassurance that they are not the only ones experiencing the pain and humiliation of still being single and are hoping for useful tips and strategies to increase their success in finding a spouse. I decide to base my talk partly on my research and partly personal advice as someone now designated as an ‘Auntie figure’ on the marriage circuit. The talk is mostly good humoured as I remind women that ‘baldies can be hotties’ when highlighting the ridiculousness of some of the criteria on ‘checklists’.
At the end, a number of women approach me to thank me for my contributions and for my personal reflections, but the one that stood out was the woman who burst into tears; something I had said touched a nerve. I was truly humbled but also relieved at being considered ‘past it’ in this new era of postmodern romance.
Khattab, N. and Modood, T. (2017, ‘Accounting for British Muslim’s educational attainment: gender differences and the impact of expectations’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 1-18, 11 April.
[i] Muslim Council of Britain (2015), ‘British Muslims in Numbers’; Office of National Statistics (2013), ‘What percentage of marriages end in divorce?’
 The City Circle is a UK registered charity established in 1999 and led by young British Muslim professionals in London. It aims to empower and stimulate debate at inter and intra community levels on a range of social issues such as politics, the environment, health, the arts, education, and welfare through regular Friday evening talks in central London.