With Valentine’s Day coming up, I have found myself wondering about relationships, dating and marriage. As a woman that has been in a long distance relationship for numerous years, big heart-shaped balloons, teddy bears and red roses are not part of my life. However, after joining grad school I noticed that I am not the only woman who bitterly relies on Skype and numerous apps to communicate with my significant other. I was recently shocked to know that not only are many of my female classmates in long-distance relationships, but also my Muslim friends who are either “seeing” someone online or married to guys who are abroad.
A CAAP project by Sylvia Fuerbringer at Athabasca University shows that long-distance relationships are becoming more common. In the US the number has increased from one million couples in long-distance relationships in 1993 to 2.4 million by 2001. These numbers increased between 2000 and 2005 by 30%. In Canada 8% of the population over 20 years of age was involved in long-distance relationships by 2004. In other words, whether one is married or “seeing” someone, it is becoming “normal” to send kisses over a webcam.
Although there is no data available on the number of Muslims that are in long-distance relationships, one can see the hype in online trends. These days there are posts sharing stories about long-distance love, tips on how to handle long-distance Muslim marriages, tips on how to remain positive in a long-distance relationship or recommendations to engage in katb al-kitab (celibate marriage).
Long-distance relationships are often the result of our realities these days. In my case grad school and work have been the reason along with the fact that we live in a world that over appreciates borders and makes it hard for inter-state couples to be together. However, the difficulties of daily life are not always the only reason. Some people are drawn to the internet in the search for a mate when the options at home are not very good. Matchmaking in Muslim communities is quite complicated. With many over-educated women who are looking for “something more,” Sheikhs and matchmakers are not always the best option. As an example, a fellow convert looking for marriage after completing a medical degree was told by our local sheikh that if her expectations continued to be high, she would never get married. My friend was looking for a financially established Muslim man, who would encourage her career and would be willing to share the childrearing responsibilities. After that experience, she joined a dating site.
Whereas I have seen some fellow converts meet the men of their dreams through dating sites, I have also seen the challenges that come along with meeting someone who is a “true” match.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to review various Muslim marriage sites and I performed an analysis on how the sites work. While I have my reservations about online-matchmaking and the people who run these sites, new alternatives are appearing. For instance, last December I had the opportunity to interview three members of the team behind Hipster Shaadi. This site is unique in that it encourages young Muslims looking for relationships to set up realistic profiles in the hopes that they will meet someone who really shares the same interests.
Hipster Shaadi differs from other sites in that they target a young population without “pushing” a particular idea of what it means to be in an “Islamic relationship.” While many Muslims have reservations about “dating,” and what it entails, I think that having a site that does not define “dating” or “relationship” is useful for a number of reasons. First, it allows each of us to define what is acceptable and what is not according to our own practices. Next, it does not get entangled into an endless philosophical discussion on permissibility or lack thereof in terms of meeting potential spouses.
In our interview, founding member Humaira Mubeen said about the site: “In our site people can be themselves. The site encourages them to be very honest and to answer open-ended questions because our site is about being open-ended.” Thus, when one signs in into the site, there are no boxes, no categorization and no questions about hijabs, niqabs or long beards. If you think a potential mate has to accept you, your hijab and your cat, you can totally specify that! But it is your choice.
Another thing that I thought it was really cool about their concept is the fact that the founders are young, they include two women and two men, and they are single. Hassan Shaikley, another team member says, “We understand what is like looking for someone and trying to find a place where you can be yourself.” The focus of this site is young people who want to find truly compatible significant others. Hence, Shereen Nourollahi, from Hipster Shaadi, concluded the interview with advice for young Muslims looking for marriage: “Be yourself and express exactly who you are. Do not pretend in any respect. If you are not honest to yourself and the person you are connecting with, what kind of relationship is that?”
Finding options like Hipster Shaadi make me feel a bit more positive about the future of Muslim relationships considering the current trends. If we are more likely now to engage in long-distance relationships and look online for love, it is important that we have spaces where we are not judged or categorized. In the meantime, I am still waiting for some other free apps (not banned in Middle Eastern countries) to ease the long-distance relationship experience. I think many would agree that any tools to ease this process will be much appreciated.