As a single Pakistani woman on the cusp of turning 23, whenever I talk to my relatives during family gatherings—which, due to the the 10,000+ kilometres between us, tend to be weddings—they excitedly inquire when I will amble down the proverbial aisle myself. However, I’m also a practicing Muslim. For anyone not in the know, this means that I’m not as free to pursue romantic relationships outside of marriage as my non-Muslim peers because Islam forbids emotional and physical intimacy before or outside of marriage (the idea being that intimacy requires trust and responsibility, two qualities marriage ideally entails).
While many practicing Muslims do date (without physical intimacy) in what is commonly referred to as “halal dating”—sometimes with but often without the knowledge of their parents—it’s not something that I’ve previously been interested in. Plus, while my parents have never *explicitly* forbidden me from forming close friendships with men or dating them, they have made disparaging remarks about other girls who had or who seemed like they had, demonstrating to me that boys are akin to weed: Although it’s technically legal to engage with them, disapproval and coercion to quit would await me should I do it. So, I haven’t.
But ever since I entered my twenties, my parents have been hinting for me to either present them with a marital prospect or consent to attend marriage meetings—resembling those shown on Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking—with suitors of their choice. So, with nothing but time thanks to the pandemic, I figured that now was as great a time as any to try my luck in love the way all great romances start: through a dating app.
If you thought online dating in general was hard, try dating on an app as a Muslim woman. Despite the fact that some traditional dating apps allow users to filter matches by religion, they only provide you with a limited number of characters in your bio and an even fewer number of filters. Which really isn’t enough, considering Islam has nearly 1.8 billion followers spread over the globe. And with no central voice to dictate practices, the intersection of culture and politics with religion makes being Muslim a multifaceted experience with multiple layers. Even Muslims who have grown up in similar circumstances may have different attitudes when it comes to their diet, prayer, fasting and community engagement, and they may navigate social issues such as gender roles and expectations, racism and varying degrees of LGBTQ acceptance differently.
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These are BIG topics, and it’s important to me that I find a romantic partner who has a similar outlook on these issues because they influence my entire lifestyle. However, this type of compatibility is hard to accomplish with traditional matchmaking, which prioritizes things like a partner’s employment status, income and family background. Perhaps this is why there has been a recent boom in dating apps geared specifically towards Muslims. Since 2015, Minder, BeyondChai, Eshq, Salaam Swipe, Hawaya and MuzMatch have launched to fill the Muslim void in the dating app market that previously was solely occupied by SingleMuslim.
With so many options, where to begin? Well, for the sake of journalism (as well as my dating life), I decided to try out a few, signing up for Hawaya, MuzMatch and Hinge for comparison. And it was an eye-opening experience, to say the least.
Founded as Harmonica in 2017 by a group of Egyptian entrepreneurs, Hawaya—which labels itself as a “Serious Dating & Marriage App for Muslims”—initially catered to a local Egyptian demographic—where it found huge popularity. In July 2020, Hawaya debuted in Canada, and currently has more than 1 million worldwide downloads combined on the Google Play Store and the App Store.
Through what felt like a thousand taps, Hawaya solicited my name, gender, age, location and career field. It obviously inquired about my religion and sect (Sunni Muslim); despite the app being marketed as a Muslim dating app, there were options for other religions. Hawaya also wanted to know my relationship status (never married), how many children I have (none), whether I’m willing to travel abroad for or after marriage (yes) and how soon into a relationship I plan to get married (after one to two years of dating). In addition to these, my profile included the option to list my hometown, ethnicity, height, body-type and whether I smoke, as well as my education level, field of study, university and interests.
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Despite amassing so much information about me and my matches, Hawaya had a limited set of free filters and even more limited matches that met the filters of age (21–29), location (within 200 km of Mississauga, Ont.) and sect (Sunni) that it suggested for me. My matches quickly became non-Sunni and then non-Muslim men near my hometown, before evolving into Sunni Muslims in the U.S. and Europe, then non-Sunni and non-Muslim men in the U.S. and Europe, until I was greeted with profiles that were entirely in languages I don’t speak. Because I didn’t want to subject these men or myself to the Duolingo owl’s guilt trips, I swiped away from their profiles.
In addition, Hawaya also only provided two options for gender and no options to list my sexuality or what sexuality and gender I prefer. If I chose to upgrade to the app’s Premium version—$39.99 for one month, $89.99 for three and $109.99 for six months—it would allow me to filter my matches by relationship status, ethnicity, height, body type, career field, education level and even university, but still not gender nor sexuality, invalidating the existence of LGBTQ Muslims and excluding them from using the app.
Hawaya also didn’t provide any options to signal whether I’m a practicing Muslim (i.e. if and how often I pray and fast or if I consume non-halal meat, pork and/or alcohol) and whether I prefer my partner to be practicing. Had Hawaya provided these options, I could have avoided one very awkward conversation with a match who neither prayed nor fasted and ate non-halal meat, all huge deal breakers for me. The conversation led me to un-match with not just him, but also with Hawaya altogether, and turn to MuzMatch instead.
The brainchild of a Muslim-American entrepreneur that launched in North America in 2015, MuzMatch claims to be “the best free Muslim marriage app,” on the market, having facilitated 60,000 marriages so far—so, a pretty good track record.
Like Hawaya, MuzMatch inquired about my age, gender, location, education and ethnic background, relationship status and religion. But unlike Hawaya, the app also asked me how religious I am (very), whether I’m a revert or convert (neither), how often I pray (usually), how I dress (I wear a hijab) and whether I only eat halal food (yes), smoke (no) or drink (also no). MuzMatch also displayed my matches’ responses to these questions so I could filter through them manually for free, or automatically after paying a subscription fee.
Having these parameters presented right off the bat helped immensely while filtering through the flood of likes I received on the app. However, MuzMatch still didn’t have any options to list one’s political views, which have become increasingly important due to, well, everything going on. As a result, I had many impassioned exchanges with matches who didn’t agree with my political views (I am pro-BLM, pro-choice and an LGBTQ ally) that ultimately ended with us un-matching.
To avoid further draining debates, I decided to try a more conventional app and downloaded Hinge in hopes of finding someone with similar political views as me.
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The recently redesigned Hinge is open to everybody rather than catering exclusively to a Muslim market like Hawaya and MuzMatch. Hinge allows users to get to know matches “through their unique answers to prompts, and personal information like religion, height and politics” and promises to “quickly learn your type” and only introduce you “to the best people for you.”
As a result, Hinge didn’t delve into details regarding my ethnocultural or religious identity and practices, though it did ask me whether I drink alcohol, smoke weed or do drugs (no to all three). Hinge offers many options for gender identity and allows users to pick whether they’re interested in men, women or both. Hinge also allows users to list their political views, but it only has four options (Liberal, Conservative, Moderate or Other), which were pretty limiting considering Liberals often disagree on many issues ranging from freeing Palestine to fracking.
Hinge gives users the choice to not disclose their religious and political beliefs or not make them visible on their profile. It also makes filtering by political views exclusive to paying members. So, while I appreciated that it at least had this option, unless I paid $39.99 for one month, $79.99 for three or $119.99 and for six, I could only filter matches by their religion. And even then, I was often still left guessing how religious they were and where they leaned politically because they had hidden some or all of this information from their profile.
Despite the low number of matches I received and the long time I took to swipe left or right on them, I ran out of likes within ten minutes of using the app. (In comparison: Hawaya and MuzMatch had limits on how many profiles I could like, but allowed me to spend much longer browsing before I reached them.) And when I began a conversation with someone, I still had to go through the whole cumbersome choreography of gauging their religious and political views that had led me to abandon Hawaya.
I understood going into this experiment that it was highly unlikely I would come across a match with whom I could recreate, if not the Teen Choice nominated kiss from The Proposal, then at least the fun, easy banter between its lead couple. (It is, after all, not real life.) But I thought that it would be fun to connect and converse with new people. However each swipe, each suitor and each sentence I swapped with them stressed me out. I hesitated swiping left on matches, thinking that I should give them a chance because they could surprise me, and I hurried to reply to them for fear of offending them. I even held in cutting remarks when they said things like “I don’t expect you to cook everything but expect you to learn to cook everything.” I wondered whether matches found me attractive, I worried about whether I would be able to find religious and political common ground with them, and I increasingly wrestled with the thought that perhaps I wasn’t ready for commitment right now. (We are, after all, in a pandemic.)
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Ultimately, if I had to choose one, I’d say MuzMatch best lived up to its claim as the “the best free Muslim marriage app” with its array of information about matches’ religious preferences. But it could improve by adding and option for matches to list their political views. Both Hawaya and Hinge, on the other hand, lacked enough free filters pertaining to the users’ religious, cultural and sociopolitical views and practices. (If conventional apps like Hinge want to cater to a more religiously diverse demographic, they should really consider this.) If I was *really* invested in finding a partner right now, I may have considered paying in-app to see if any of these additional features made the experience better; but ultimately, I decided that it’s just not the right decision for me right now.
The sense of relief and rightness that greeted me whenever I closed these apps told me that maybe I would rather experience matchmaking on my TV screen than on my phone screen for now. Which is why I’m uninstalling all of these dating apps. I may or may not reinstall them depending on if I lock eyes with somebody across the room and fall madly in (socially distanced) love at first sight during the interim, but for now I can’t wait to free up storage on my phone and my heart.