The Muslim speed-dating scene

The latest trend in American Muslim matrimony? How about speed dating to find an arranged mate? Or something like that …

The New York Times highlights the religious and cultural issues involved when Muslim men and women — some with parents watching closely nearby — try to make a connection in a hotel ballroom. On the drink menu: hot tea or Kool-Aid.

The opening of the 2,400-word Sunday feature:

MUHAMMAD BAIG knows exactly what he wants in a son-in-law, but he is also willing to compromise.

Mr. Right would be Pakistani, though someone from India might do. Mr. Baig prefers a doctor or lawyer, yet will accept other professions. He brags about his ability to discern a United States citizen over an immigrant whose status is more precarious by the confidence in his walk. And how can Mr. Baig tell if a candidate comes from a good family — if he prays daily, does not drink, and would not marry outside Islam? Just look at how he dresses.

“I don’t like a hobo,” Mr. Baig said. Then, shrugging toward his 21-year-old daughter, a nursing student, he added, “But it’s her choice. She has to like him, too.”

As his daughter approached graduation, Mr. Baig, a Queens wholesaler whose thin black beard adorns a pudgy face, had been on the lookout, going to the mosque more often, asking more acquaintances about their unwed children. But he had had little luck, so one Sunday last fall, he sat on the perimeter of a hotel conference room in Bayside, Queens, and watched as bachelor after bachelor sat across from his daughter, a beige veil draped over her plump face, for a few minutes of stilted conversation.

Speed dating is always a bit awkward. Take away the alcohol, invite parents to watch from the sidelines, and the ritual takes on the excruciating air of a middle-school dance.

Overall, I enjoyed this piece. The writer has fun with the subject matter, and that’s imperative for a story headlined Speed-Dating, Muslim Style, right? In general, the story does a nice job of illustrating that not all Muslims believe the same thing or interact with culture in the same way.

This paragraph illustrates the diversity at the speed-dating event:

The women at Millanus events stay in the seats — stiff-backed, standard-issue seafoam-green upholstered hotel seats — while the men rotate among them. There are always more women: many Muslim men return to their ancestral villages to select a wife. On this Sunday, one bachelorette wore knee-high leather boots and purple eye shadow; another, a long, elegant white dress. Many were draped in traditional Islamic attire; about a third were veiled.

My major criticism of the story would be that it uses vague terms such as “conservative” and “liberal” and fails to fully explain what’s meant. For example, there’s this reference to critics of the event:

There has been some criticism from conservative religious leaders, who pleaded with Mr. Mohsin to use teleconferencing, so men and women would meet via video chat, not in person. One of his friends condemned his events, calling them “an American-style meat-market.”

In case you were wondering, no, the “conservative religious leaders” do not get a voice in the story. They are not identified by name. Neither is the reason why teleconferencing might be preferable to in-person chatting explained. The friend who condemned the speed dating also is not identified or given a voice. The full extent of Muslims with a problem with this approach is that single paragraph.

The story presents this picture of a “liberal” Muslim woman:

Amna, a 26-year-old graduate student in mental health who spoke on the condition her last name not be printed because she did not want people to know she had attended the event, said of her generation, “We are definitely torn between two worlds.”

“American culture, at times, clashes with Islam,” she said. “But the beauty is that as we are struggling to find our place, and we’re critically examining our parents’ cultural practices.”

For example, she says, her Muslim friends at college are now starting to meet each other, not through families, but directly. Still, she said, they always meet in public places to ensure “they don’t cross the line.”

Amna considers herself a liberal Muslim: she supports abortion rights, and same-sex marriage. But she wears a veil, which she fears deters liberal suitors.

Again, liberal is too vague to have any real meaning in this context. Is she liberal in a religious sense? A political sense?

On the opposite side, this is the portrait of a “conservative” Muslim woman:

Sadaf, a 33-year-old physician from Princeton, N.J., who also refused to have her full name published, has butterscotch skin and compact curls reminiscent of Bernadette Peters’s. “Guys at work are always hitting on me,” she said. “But they aren’t Muslims.”

Being a conservative Muslim woman with a successful career, she said, is challenging. There were two Muslim men in her medical school, and both were married. Men she meets at the mosque want wives who will stay at home, Sadaf said; the educated elite, she added, prefer Western women. “I am American and I am professional, and you get punished for that,” she said.

Again, conservative is too vague to have any real meaning in this context. Is she conservative in a religious sense? A political sense?

Finally, a religion ghost in the story stood out to me: Jamal Molsin, the event organizer, says the motto is “Muslims marry Muslims.” Yet he married an Orthodox Jew, according to the story. I would love to know more about his own religious beliefs and how the mixed marriage has affected his faith and family.

Despite my specific criticisms, it’s a fascinating story.

Be sure and read the whole thing.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    I agree, it’s an interesting article. The key feature for me was that this is one instance of an answer to the question about Islam in America:

    So I’ve created an event with both of these extremes. I’ve kept parents in the loop so they feel involved. At the same time, it’s speed dating. We’re being American.

    Her father said Millanus offers a comfortable cultural mix: more modern than socials at the mosques, where men and women rarely interact, but still in the presence of parents, and therefore, strong in Islamic values. “Love marriages break after one or two years,” he said. “But arranged marriages aren’t easy either.”

    The American melting pot has always been more of a stew pot so we have Irish-Americans, for example, who strive to keep the best part of their culture while also being Americans. I think the story did a good job of taking a look at how traditional practices from notably Pakistan, such as arranged marriages and gender separation are being dissolved while still keeping some aspects of the culture.

  • Bobby

    Good observations. Thanks, Jerry.

  • Hector

    Re: Finally, a religion ghost in the story stood out to me: Jamal Molsin, the event organizer, says the motto is “Muslims marry Muslims.” Yet he married an Orthodox Jew, according to the story

    My understanding is that according to Shariah Law, Muslim men are allowed to marry Christian or Jewish women (but not atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and the like). Muslim women on the other hand must marry Muslim men.

    Needless to say, there are many Muslims who don’t follow Shariah law in this matter, but the more strict ones do. I know a Muslim fellow in India whose wife had to convert from Hinduism to Christianity so that she could marry him.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The focus on interviewing unmarried women seems to inherently bias the piece. Does this method work? Do people find spouses in this way? If so, then why not interview people who got married as a result?

    So, is Sadaf’s position that she wants to get married to a Muslim man who values his religion but continue working as a doctor?

    What about her expectation of the man? She is allowed to say “the men expect x”, but would she marry a Muslim man who prays five times a day but is just a wholesaler like Muhammad Baig who maybe speaks broken English?

    Even beyong this, would a recent immigrant who works for Baig ever even dream of marrying a woman who has an M.D. How would it work with his own concept of manhood to have a wife who has 3 times his salary?

    How does the Muslim view on such issues works out in these matters?

    • Sam Inshassi

      All the issues you just stated have absolutely nothing to do with Islam. They have to do with latent cultural chauvinism. They are all incredibly valid, but they all refer to male-dominant social expectations, which in fact, conflict with true Islam. Islam at its core gives women many rights that were only recently given to women in the West (voting, owning property, inheriting, etc).

      So her being a doctor is not an Islamic issue (and frankly it’s mildly insulting that you would infer that). The issue that arises with Muslim marriages has little to do with Islam itself, and only really has to do with one tenet of Islam: the fact that a Muslim has to marry a Muslim (or at least, a Muslim woman has to marry a Muslim man because the religion is passed down by the man). From there, the problem is finding a fellow Muslim that has the same cultural values as you. When the article refers to “liberal” and “conservative,” it is obvious, contextually, that he is referring to the level of devotion. A “conservative” typically falls under the category of someone who prays regularly, covers themselves, and approaches everything they do with a “halal” perspective. A “liberal” is a bit more imperfect in their practice, and values a more balanced life between modern Western culture and the religious core. Granted all of this is subjective and different from person to person, but that is the gist.

      This becomes an important issue in finding a mate, and moreover it’s a flat out PROBLEM for Muslim women. See, a conservative Muslim man will either go overseas to find a mate, or just expect his woman to conform to his requirements (again this is a culture problem and not a religion thing). A liberal Muslim man will likely marry a Western girl. So all the liberal Muslim women who are looking for a matching liberal Muslim man are pretty much screwed.

      And with the still-rampant chauvinism, a 33-yr-old female doctor is doubly-screwed (moreover, because by her description, I wouldn’t classify her as conservative…Amna sounded more conservative frankly, but again, this is all subjective. I don’t judge.)

      You are smart, educated, and career-oriented. You are religious enough to want to marry another Muslim (and consequently not sin dramatically), but you are liberal enough to want a Muslim who’s a little more mellow about the rules. As this Muslim woman, you are battling in a war you just can’t win. So that’s why this article is written from the woman’s point of view. Because the man can marry whoever he wants without sinning (hence, the Jewish wife), but the woman cannot.

      So to answer your question: the “Muslim view” on this issue is that there is no issue. However, the typical Muslim MAN’S view on this issue is that he doesn’t deserve any of us anyway.

  • John Pack Lambert

    A Muslim who married a Jew is running a sight with the motto “Muslims marry Muslims”. However, is Mrs. Mohlin a Muslim now? That is a key religion question that they seem to avoid in the article.

    This is why Muslim marriage practices are inherently a different set of issues than Jewish ones. For most Jews, Jewishness is connected with birth, and how observant of Jewish law a particular Jew is is not central in marriage considerations for many.

    For Muslims, you are a Muslim because you follow the practices of Islam. Conversion to Islam is if anything easier than conversion to Christianity, conversion to Jdauism is hard and in the view of some groups nearly impossible.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I guess I should have read more of the article before commenting. It appears that Sadaf has a very narrow definition of who she will marry. Her anger at the system can be seen as reflecting her narrow definition. She wants to marry a professional devout Muslim who is not much older than her who will be happy with the idea of her continuing her career. At 33 the condition that surprises me the most is her dislike of people if they “can be uncles”.

    I have to admit I am not sure what an art director at a TV station does.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Your final comment ignores that conversion happens in Islam. It is actually unclear whether Mrs. Mohlin was or was not a Muslim at the time she gained that title. It is altogether possible she converted before marriage.

    On the other hand, this article in many ways presents a skewed view of American Islam by presenting this as a “Muslims marry Muslims” issue. At least 20% of American Muslims are African-Americans, and their views on marriage traditions and such might by very different than those had by these people.

    There is a mention to one guy from Egypt, but in general this is a story about the Pakistani-American Muslim community. Albanian Muslims, Somali Muslims and Sengalese Muslims may play into the whole issue differently. Groups of Somali refugees who have largely concentrated in sections of Minnesota and Western Massachusetts or the Yemeni community in Dearborn, Michigan would not have either a need or the resources to turn to something like this.

    This cuts to a deeper issue. Is what these people are dealing with a division between Islam and America or between Pakistani culture and American culture?

  • Sherry

    Finally, a religion ghost in the story stood out to me: Jamal Molsin, the event organizer, says the motto is “Muslims marry Muslims.” Yet he married an Orthodox Jew, according to the story. I would love to know more about his own religious beliefs and how the mixed marriage has affected his faith and family.

    I hope they have a follow-up story on Molsin and his wife.
    That would be fascinating.