Halal dating in the U.S.

When I was in middle school, I attended the wedding of a family friend’s son. The event seemed overwhelming, with Pakistani-Americans like my family–dads who were doctors and moms dressed in glittery, gaudy Pakistani dress. The groom was a Pakistani doctor, but his bride was not. She was white and non-Muslim. The fabric of her Pakistani wedding dress was a rich orange color that made her skin seem even whiter and her hair even more red. She complained about how itchy her blouse was. My sister noted later to me that she had it on inside out, so all the embroidery was on the inside, scratching her skin. But problems with her bridal outfit intrigued me less than the fact that she was a white woman marrying a man of Pakistani descent. How did these two meet, I wanted to ask my sister. Did their parents arrange their marriage?

They had probably met at work and dated each other. I couldn’t admit this to my teenage self because I knew that Muslims did not date. We had arranged marriages, just like my mom and dad did.

Except that wasn’t–and isn’t–true of all American Muslims. Our adaptation of Islamic practice continues to evolve, as Muslim youth come up with their own unique approaches to Islam in American life. Dating is one of those issues where many conflicting values intersect. No premarital sex is allowed in Islam. Fine. Therefore, no dating is allowed on the premise that dating inevitably leads to premarital sex. So are we ready to arrange the marriages of all our young people, as is done in some Islamic countries?

Um, well, not really. In Islamic countries, parents have the support of the community in finding spouses for their children. Word of mouth, relatives, and a social schedule and circuit make arranging marriages easier. In the United States, parents are more alone and isolated from these networks.

Further, most Muslims are pushing their daughters to academic and career achievement. For immigrant Muslims, the opportunities for their daughters are hard to resist. For indigenous, mostly African-American, Muslims, the civil rights era gave their children greater access to educational institutions previously closed to them. A trade-off has been made, though–the more educated the daughter, the less comfortable a parent feels arranging her marriage. My parents could have locked me up at home and picked my husband for me. But then how could I have gone to college? In fact, the very same parents who had marriages arranged for them–including African-American converts whose marriages were arranged by their local community, as well as Arab and Asian immigrants from cultures that practice arranged marriages–are now reluctant to do the same for their own children.

So how are young American Muslims supposed to meet and marry each other, especially when Islamic religious or cultural events are often segregated by gender? Young American Muslims have come up with creative solutions to dating–and they fall into roughly three categories. The first group are “Strict Muslims” who date halal (in an Islamically permissible style). The second group I call “Eid Muslims,” because many are not strict in practice and attend mosques only on holidays. While technically they are dating haram (unlawfully in Islam), without chaperones, they’re keeping physical intimacy to a minimum and parental involvement at a maximum. The third group dates “Sex and the City”-style (definitely haram), openly and freely leading a non-Islamic lifestyle, having premarital sex sometimes in a series of monogamous relationships.

This “Sex and the City” group consists mostly of Muslim men who date non-Muslim women. These non-Muslim women sometimes convert to Islam and marry their Muslim boyfriends. But some are unceremoniously dumped when a halal marriage is arranged by the man’s parents. The woman’s family is naturally upset at how she has been treated, resulting in a misconception that Muslim men treat women poorly. Ironically, the “Sex and the City” Muslim man can date freely without risking his standing in the community, while a Muslim woman with the same dating pattern would not only gain a bad reputation but risk losing a good arranged marriage proposal. This double standard and poor treatment of women is not endorsed by Islam but by a general patriarchy that pervades many world cultures, including America.

Upon getting serious with a woman they’re dating, though, some of these “Sex and the City” men suddenly reassert their strict Wahhabi upbringing. They insist that their girlfriends, with whom they once openly had sex, will now have to wear a cover and stay at home, and that their dating relationship was haram. A friend of mine who had such an experience broke off the engagement with the Muslim man but retained her commitment to Islam. She said many of her friends were surprised that she didn’t return to the party-girl lifestyle once her Muslim fianc