The pandemic has reshaped Americans’ social and romantic lives. Dating, in particular, has become even more complicated. For Gen-Z and millennial Muslim women, that complication is exacerbated as they try to balance religion, culture and gender.
Dating for Muslims can be very different from Western practices. Within Islam, a halal, or permissible, way of dating means getting parents or a third party involved early on; abstaining from casual dates, hookups and sex; and talking about marriage right off the bat. Many American Muslims say it’s difficult to accommodate these two distinct identities. It’s even more difficult for LGBTQ Muslims, whose dating lives are considered taboo in the Muslim community. (In recent years, liberal Muslims have been trying to normalize this.)
For many Muslim women, going on dates in public spaces and having parents supervise them — or going on dates in secret — was the norm before the pandemic. Now, they say, that’s virtually impossible.
Below, three women, all in different dating situations, tell us how they’re navigating this new normal.
Dating freely was already logistically difficult for Nihala Malik, a 25-year-old Pakistani Muslim from Canada.
Before the pandemic, Malik says her parents, whom she lives with, would tell her, “Don’t stay out late, don’t stay up too late, don’t do this.” But now, with stay-at-home restrictions, it’s: “You can’t go out at all.”
Malik and her boyfriend had been dating in secret for a little over a year and half when the pandemic hit. Recently, they decided to tell their parents — which, for many Muslims, means starting conversations about marriage.
The couple met on Muzmatch, a Muslim dating app, and hit it off quickly. They understood each other’s level of religiosity, says Malik, but she still struggled to balance her faith while dating freely. It was difficult to live under the judgment of others in the community, she says.
Malik says going out with her boyfriend meant being subjected to the “fear of the auntie surveillance state,” which she describes as family friends being ready to report back to her parents if they saw her with a man. That fear has always impacted how secure and present she feels in the relationship, she says, a phenomenon that many Muslim women describe.
The couple had a long-distance relationship while Malik attended law school in Ottawa and her boyfriend lived in Toronto. They planned to meet back up in Toronto this summer, but the pandemic hit. They’ve continued to date long-distance, even though Malik is now living in Toronto with her parents as well.
That has forced the couple to get creative.
“I couldn’t go out for a really long time,” Malik says. “I had to be like, ‘I’m just going to do the groceries,’ and my boyfriend would come to the grocery store.”
As things open up in Toronto, Malik and her boyfriend have been meeting up at parks and malls, she says.
With protests putting a spotlight on the racism and colorism that exists across the country, more people are learning how to navigate race while dating. Muslims, too, are reckoning with the issue in their own communities.
The pandemic led Ghufran Salih to try out Muslim dating apps. The 22-year-old, who was in Syracuse, N.Y., during the stay-at-home orders, decided to join Muzmatch and another Muslim dating app called Minder. But she left each app after a week or so.
Nonreligious dating apps, such as Tinder or Hinge, are generally used to go on dates, find hookups or find a significant other. But most Muslims use religion-specific apps to find a husband or wife. Within Islam, causal sex and dating for fun are considered haram, or not permissible; marriage is the end goal. Of course, not every Muslim follows this or believes in these practices, but this is a cultural reality for many millennial Muslims.
Salih says women in the Muslim community generally don’t talk about sexuality, especially the fact that having sexual urges is natural for women. She says that during quarantine, she felt lonely; although she “didn’t want to do anything haram,” she saw the apps as a means to an end. She thought, “What if I go out and just happen to find someone and then I can get married and have sex … that’s kind of where my head space was at.”
But once she was actually on the dating apps, Salih says various factors hindered her ability to find someone during the pandemic. An internal factor, she says, was that she’d joined the app out of boredom due to self-quarantine; she wasn’t actually ready to be in a serious relationship. Although she had some great conversations, she felt she wasn’t taking it as seriously as other Muslims.
Another factor for Salih was the divide in nationality and race within the Muslim community that she saw reflected in the apps. She says she saw more South Asian and Middle Eastern Muslims on the apps than black or Sudanese Muslims like herself.
“In my experience with [Minder], preference has kind of taken over people’s minds,” Salih says. “There is a little bit of racism within the Muslim community and colorism within the Muslim community that we still haven’t talked about.”
Despite the pandemic, couples are getting married and changing their plans to make it happen. Take 27-year-old Carlos Yugar and 28-year-old Haniya Syeda, who live in Boston, as an example.
The couple had their Nikah ceremony — in which Muslim couples sign their marriage contract — in September. But they planned to wait until March to have their reception so that Yugar’s family could attend. Following Pakistani wedding customs, they had mapped out three days of festivities. But the pandemic ruined all of them.
As an interracial and culturally diverse couple, the logistics of explaining the customs of a Pakistani wedding to her in-laws had been difficult for Syeda. After their Nikah in September, Syeda realized the elaborate traditions of Pakistani weddings could be “overwhelming” for Yugar’s family.
Their Shaadi — the reception where the bride’s family hosts for the groom’s family — was going to be held in Boston. Their Valima, which is the reception from the groom’s family, was going to be held in Peru, where some of Yugar’s family lives.
A week before the festivities were to be held, concerns about the virus were growing, and both events were canceled.
Valima and Shaadi were important to Yugar, who converted to Islam about a year and half ago. He was born and raised Catholic, but never truly practiced the faith. It wasn’t until he met Syeda that his curiosity about faith and his interest in Islam grew.
Yugar hid his exploration into the religion from this family for the first eight months. When he finally told them about his conversion, he had many long conversations with them until they eventually accepted it.
His decision to marry Syeda was also hard for his family to accept. Although his mom had given the go ahead, she and others in the family weren’t 100 percent in support of the wedding when the Nikah came around, Yugar says.
But the months leading up to the Shaadi and Valima had given Yugar’s family the time to have conversations and slowly brought them to acceptance.
“I really saw it as this time of like now the families can be together,” Yugar says. “And even talking up to it, there was just a lot of excitement from my family just to finally be there. It was going to be like a cross-cultural wedding, one in Boston and one in Peru.”
That week, the couple and their families decided to combine their Rukhsati, or the “sending off” of the married couple that traditionally happens at the Shaadi, with their Dholki, a pre-wedding celebration. Syeda’s family shared videos from “all angles” with Yugar’s family while they attended via Zoom.
Although their wedding didn’t go as planned, Yugar and Syeda are happy to have been able to get married before the pandemic hit.
“What we went through together was really tough and we faced a lot of struggles really early on in our relationship and marriage — more than most couples would,” Syeda says. “But it brought us closer together and made us more sure that we wanted to spend our lives together.”
Editor’s Note: We regret that a previous version of this article misstated Salih’s sexuality.