Yousra, a British Muslim author, first met her husband online.
He was the fourth person she had matched with using the Muslim matrimonial app muzmatch.
A month later, they met in person, and two months after, they were married.
“Neither my husband nor I have any embarrassment when we tell people how we met. Non-Muslims find it hilarious when we tell them, but they love the name muzmatch,” Yousra, author of the upcoming debut novel Hijab and Red Lipstick, said.
But for Yousra, using the app does not mean an endorsement of Western style relationships, where marriage is not a condition for parenting or sexuality.
“My dad had explicitly forbidden boyfriends and told me over and over again ‘you cannot achieve marriage through haram methods’,” Yousra said.
Rather, Muslims like her are co-opting online platforms to find potential spouses in ‘halal’ but more modern and progressive way. They are disrupting traditional Muslim matchmaking, which has been the purview of parents, extended families, or the direct community to which one is closely affiliated. And predictably, millennials are leading this app-aided rebellion.
“People are moving away from the idea of parents and relatives arranging who they should marry and telling them what they should look for,” Salma Ibrahim, a marketing and press manager at muzmatch, said.
Muzmatch is the world’s largest Muslim dating app. It brands itself as a platform for Muslims to date and get to know each other for the purpose of marriage.
“Our overall mission is to pioneer the changes in the way Muslims meet and marry. We are a dating app that prides itself on being primarily [focused] on matrimony and marriage rather than dating for the sake of dating,” Salma explained.
When muzmatch was first released, it took them four years to get to one million users. After that, they glided into two million users within just six months.
For them, however, the number of user sign up is only a part of the story. A key success for the app is how it has helped change the conversation about Muslims and dating by actively engaging with their audience, especially to dispel concerns about its perceived incompatibility with traditional Muslim values.
“I recommend reading the blog posts and other articles on digital Muslim magazines,” Yousra advised. She said part of the stigma could be because those using dating apps suffer a lack of a support network because of the taboo behind talking about dating.
“My advice is to try and be as open as possible. If you are finding the experience challenging speak to family, friends and fellow Muslims on social media. They may have their own experiences with online dating and if you start the conversation, they too may feel able to open up to you.”
One thing that is consistently on the agenda among traditional Muslim communities is marriage, especially when it comes to young Muslim women. Issues like the right marriageable age, who is appropriate to marry and even if it’s better to date or not when trying to find a suitable spouse are often – fiercely – debated.
For many Muslims, however, the standards are not dictated by themselves and their tastes, knowledge and experience, but by their parents or the community.
Too often, Muslims at a “marriageable” age are subjected to pressure to marry not just at a specific age window, but also to a specific person; or cultural, racial or denominational group.
“Every year since I’ve hit 23 or 24, my parents have pressured me into getting married or said you should be married now, next year we’ll find you a boy,” Aliza* said.
“Now that I’m 28, I just feel the immense pressure my parents put on me when I was younger that I should be with a husband and if I’m not married there’s something wrong with me,” she added.
“People are saying ‘I am going to choose who I’m going to marry. I’m going to download an app, and this is my way of setting my own standards and taking the matter into my own hands’,” said Salma, from muzmatch.
Whereas the standards demanded by traditional matchmaking often go beyond religious ones – for many, dating and marrying outside one’s racial, linguistic, class and cultural group can be seen as controversial – but dating apps are also helping break down such barriers within the Muslim communities, according to Salma.
“The problem is even if they’re from the same culture, you may not vibe with them and you have to find someone or they have to find someone for you, it’s obviously going to take longer,” said Aliza.
Currently, almost half of matches on muzmatch are intercultural and interracial, with their success stories on Instagram garnering almost four times more likes if the couple is intercultural or interracial. But the app can also help fine tune matches within the same cultural group, when that is desired.
“The reason I decided to go on muzmatch is because I am looking for a spouse with a similar cultural background to me, which is Arab. Growing up in Northampton, where most of the population is white, makes it difficult so muzmatch gives me an open platform,” Amin, 27, said.
For him, online dating has not had much of a stigma because it’s just another means to an end: “I’ve always been open to online dating – I view it as a very similar platform to meeting somebody through a friend or having your parents introduce you to someone. It’s a very similar concept but just a different way of connecting with someone,” he said.
Muzmatch is not the only Muslim-focused dating app. Other platforms have also tried to occupy the same niche or address flaws in their rivals.
Minder, for example has a Tinder-like interface but is made for Muslims who want to “halal-date”, and Muzproposal is similar to Bumble in that the woman alone can initiate the conversation after matching. Some users even use non-Muslim specific dating apps such as Bumble but toggle a filter based on religion.
“We tested many Muslim apps and found out that there is not anything unique about them other than swiping right or left…These apps were [also] offering instant matches without the consent of the woman,” a Muzproposal representative said.
Such risks are commonplace on online dating apps, and Muslim-focused ones are no exception.
Reha, for example was ‘catfished’ by a man who managed to trick the facial recognition feature on the app and was bullied by others.
“I’ve had men tell me that I need healing or that I’m not normal because I don’t want kids. I had one wasteman try to convince me that the key to a successful marriage was polygamy [Sic],” Reha said.
Amin agreed, “Dating apps are a completely different world for men and women.”
“Women have a harder time on these apps because it is arguable that the number of options who are serious is probably not that great so the difficulty is to differentiate between the serious men and those who aren’t,” he added.
Despite the risks, muzmatch says they try to keep such encounters at bay with an all-women community management team.
They said this allows women who have complaints about inappropriate behaviour to speak to someone who can deal with their requests with a greater level of empathy.
“We have behaviour guidelines that are given to each user when they sign up so we are as transparent as possible about our code of conduct from the onset,” the team said.
But inevitably, the apps all mirror the biases and gender power imbalance of its users and this can only be policed with people themselves choosing to be decent.
“If I had a message to Muslim men, it would be: just don’t lie. What’s the point? It just ends in heartbreak,” said Yousra.