Hidden Profile Pics and “Guardian Angels”

Considering there are some 1.8 billion Muslims on this planet, it shouldn’t be surprising that Muslims have joined the world of online dating. For many Muslims living in the West, online dating has been mainstream for at least a decade and there are plenty of places to learn and read more about the best dating sites and apps for Muslim singles.  

Perhaps more interesting is a look at how is online dating is evolving in more conservative places, countries where Islam is the predominant religion. 

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, at approximately 225 million, and with such numbers comes diversity. One recent trend is pushing the opposite of dating. A movement called Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran espouses getting married before a single date. “Dating only wastes time, energy and money for a moment’s pleasure,” Indonesian writer and movement supporter La Ode Munafar told the Voice of America in 2017. “It’s not for serious relationships or building a house,” he added.  

For every Indonesian deciding on dating without courtship, however, there are many more headed to a list of dating sites specifically for Muslims in Indonesia, which look nearly identical to any Western dating site.  

Things in more conservative Muslim nations are slightly different. People who refer to the “Middle East” often lump together nations with widely different cultural traditions, but let’s take Egypt as an example. The Arab Republic of Egypt, with over 100 million inhabitants, can safely be called a “conservative Muslim” nation. Islam is the state religion and Islam is endorsed by Egyptian law. As many as 90 percent of Egyptians follow Sunni Islam. In decades past, a matchmaker was sought out to pair young couples and dating is general discouraged.  

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Hidden Profile Pics and “Guardian Angels” 2

Enter Sameh Saleh, a young Egyptian tech entrepreneur who in 2017 decided there could be online dating that conformed to conservative Islamic values. Her app reminds users to keep things pure, or ‘Halal,’ but leaves the choice to cover your face in any way up to the user. Creatively, for female users, the app has an option that allows them to hide their photos completely. If the woman becomes comfortable enough with the match she is communicating with, she can choose to reveal her pics. Another interesting option is called a “guardian angel.” These angels are generally family members who oversee conversations, acting as online chaperones.    

Saudi Arabia may have lifted the ban on women drivers, but that liberalization was very specific and does not extend to other areas of life. Laws in the Saudi kingdom are strict; immodest dress and public displays of affection are banned, and women must cover their heads. Gender-mixing is a serious taboo.  

Despite some of the world’s harshest laws related to interpersonal relationships, there are dating apps in Saudi Arabia. Those looking for online love, however, are heavily censored and policed. When signing up, a user must stipulate that they are seeking marriage “in accordance with Islamic law.” Then comes 60 questions that include everything from one’s height to whether they would prefer a boy or a girl as their first child. Clearly, this form of online dating is not reflective of the way most Muslim singles seek out a likeminded partner, but does demonstrate that even in arguably the world’s most conservative nation, the idea of finding a match via an algorithm has taken root.   

As noted, the Middle East is not a monolith. One dating app based out of Lebanon attempted a one-size-fits-all approach, targeting nations from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia. The company soon folded. Lebanese entrepreneur Cedric Maalouf explained that the region simply has too much variation. A question on his app asking if one “smoked a hookah pipe” turned out be offensive to some in places where that phrase has a sexual connotation. 

Beyond the so-called “Arab world,” online dating for Muslims has gotten very liberal indeed. One site uses a sliding scale to determine religiosity, with ranges from “very religious” to “not practicing.” This liberal app which allows a user to say they aren’t all that interested in marriage and that they are “barely religious” nonetheless retains an Islamic identity. Like the site in Egypt, those uncomfortable with directly communicating with a stranger online can set up a version of a “guardian angel” or chaperone who will monitor all messages. There’s even a Muslim version of the recently popular “women make the first move” app.  

With so much diversity of beliefs and traditions spread out across the 1.8 billion Muslim people living in every nation on earth, online dating for Muslim singles offer a plethora of options. True, they can be very different from secular dating sites, but other times the only difference seems to be that the site uses the words “Muslim singles.”  

The word “Muslim” encompasses a wide range of identities, all of which are evolving in the digital age. One person may check the “ultra-conservative” box, another may opt for “not practicing,” but both are looking for match online.      

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