Getting Married – British Muslim Style
by Dr Fauzia Ahmad, Mizan Raja and Dr Mustafa Omar
Marriage remains a significant and aspirational feature for British Muslims and is frequently referred to as ‘half the deen’ (faith). However, getting married and staying married are one of the biggest personal dilemmas facing second and third generation British Muslims. How and where to look for a spouse are no longer the sole preserve of parents and family networks with hundreds of matrimonial agencies offering their services through online services or planned events. Younger British Muslims, who make up nearly 45% of the British Muslim population according to the most recent Census data, are upwardly mobile, and have high expectations for prospective partners.
The British, and international, Muslim matrimonial scene has undergone a period of rapid commercialisation with a noted shift from parental introductions to individualised online Muslim matrimonial sites, organised events, and now Tinder-like mobile applications. Here, we discuss how a pioneering community-based organisation has responded to some of the challenges British Muslims face when trying to get married.
For religiously minded Muslims, both the shift to digitally-based communication directly between potential spouses and face-to-face meetings additionally, requires an ideological re-framing of what constitutes a halal and therefore Islamically sanctioned form of contact between unmarried men and women, as well as a re-evaluation of the role of family and culture.Muslim Marriage Events
Muslim Marriage Events was established 13 years ago as part of Islamic Circles, a community-based project in London that focused on organising weekly study groups addressing a range of topics related to Islam. The marriage service was a response to facilitate what was a noticeably obvious and urgent need for the creation of a ‘halal space’ where young like-minded Muslims could meet for the purposes of marriage. Mosques were not fulfilling this need and families were limited in their social networks. Muslim Marriage Events emerged in 2002 and has since mushroomed into one of the largest Muslim matrimonial events services in Europe, with approximately 50,000 clients in an international database. The majority of our clients are British born second and third generation Muslims of varying ethnicities and statuses. We hold between 4-6 events each month accommodating on average 80 people, as well as a number of larger free events geared for around 500 people in partnership with a charity in order to support their fundraising activities. Thousands of marriages have taken place since the inception of the service.
The basic format for the events is as follows. All participants are required to complete a profile form with basic biographical information as well as space for them to add what they hope to offer a potential spouse and what they are looking for. Each individual is assigned a numbered badge to enable clear identification. In order to create an environment that is consistent with Islamic principles, the format of our events is carefully managed to minimise unnecessary ‘free-mixing’ while ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to be introduced. While some Muslim marriage events have chosen to replicate Western styles of ‘speed-dating’ based on one-to-one meetings lasting 2-3 minutes, we have developed an alternative method based on a group rotation that allows for all participants to meet within initial small groups where, with the help of a group facilitator, participants are encouraged to introduce themselves and offer responses to a series of ice-breaker questions. These questions were initially suggested by ‘UlamÄ and tended to focus on serious issues concerning marriage expectations. However, in practice it was found that many individuals were shy to engage in the serious nature of the group discussions and appeared more relaxed if we inserted some light-hearted questions. After introductions in small groups, the women remain seated while men are asked to move onto the next group and continue introductions and rotations until all participants have been introduced. People are encouraged to make note of anyone they are interested in speaking to further. The second part of the event focuses on facilitating one-to-one meetings between interested parties where they are free to exchange contact details if they choose to. Mahrams are strongly encouraged to attend, though interestingly, the majority of participants appear to attend events unaccompanied.
Observing British Muslim marrying preferences and practices not only highlights important issues around Muslim identities and how these relate to ethnicity, but also reveals much about the impact of Western post-modernity on the lives of young Muslims. For instance, despite expectations that the role of ethnicity when choosing matrimonial partners would decrease with an increase in an Islamic identity, especially in the post 9/11 and 7/7 eras, we have seen that ethnicity still remains a significant factor in marital choice with many young people wishing to choose partners from similar cultural backgrounds. We therefore cater for Muslims from Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Somali and Arab backgrounds, which make up the majority of Britain’s Muslim communities. Events are also held for those wishing or open to marrying Muslim reverts. Demography, professional status and religious inclination are often significant factors and some of our events cater specifically for those who pertain to a particular age range or prefer to identify as ‘professional’ or ‘practicing’.
However, there are some interesting, if not depressing dynamics that are significant to note, particularly in relation to Muslim women. As a community-led organisation, we have to recognise and respond to the ways our communities are developing and some of the challenges people face in meeting suitable partners.
Divorce is becoming an increasing reality for many with some estimates suggesting that divorce rates among Muslims (based on the numbers of lone parent households, see Muslim Council of Britain, 2015) are reaching similar levels to that of the wider UK population (around 42% at present, Office of National Statistics, 2013). To help address this we hold regular events focusing on those who may be divorced or widowed. Similarly, marrying ages, especially amongst women, are increasing, so to address this dynamic we hold events geared towards those over 30. A number of our clients are female doctors who face particular problems with regards to finding time to meet potential partners. Despite the high status accorded to those working in the medical profession, many women doctors find that in reality, few men (and their families) are willing to accept their demanding workloads, or that their parents insist on their only marrying others within the profession. This has resulted in an unusually high number of unmarried female doctors.
As part of a concerted effort to stimulate debate and reflection on some of these challenges, we have held topical discussions with guest speakers on a range of issues surrounding marriage and gender roles, together with marriage workshops aimed primarily at couples. An online matrimonial service was launched in 2013 to supplement the existing events, and provide a safe and secure space for like-minded Muslims who are seeking marriage.Muslim Marriage App
As well as pioneering a contemporary format for the creation of halal spaces for Muslims to meet and an online service, we recently developed a Muslim Marriage App for use at events, which operates on a similar principle to the Tinder app, allowing criteria-based searching for partners. We recognise that this is a commercial response to the many ways in which technology has become embedded in our everyday lives. Other organisations providing similar services have now started to develop their own mobile Muslim marriage apps.Muslim Women, Relationships and Marriage
In 2011 we were joined by the sociologist Dr Fauzia Ahmad, who was a research fellow between 2010- 2011 at the Aga Khan Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations based in London. She has been looking at how second and third generation British Muslim men and women are re-conceptualising marriage and has since become an active part of the team. Her research adds some interesting context to what has been witnessed at events, and provides us with much needed research on experiences of the marriage process and on some of the self-defeating patterns exhibited by both men and women when looking for a spouse.
The research also challenges particular stereotypes about Muslim women, agency and relationships, and marriage. Some common stereotypes of Muslim marriages present them as ‘forced marriages’, often to uneducated first cousins from villages ‘back home’, or link them with growing ‘Islamism’ among young Muslims. At the other end of the spectrum, some media and academic articles would argue that higher education has an overall secularising effect on Muslim women causing them to reject their religion and culture for Westernised lifestyles – drawing on common stereotypes of Muslim women leading secret ‘double lives’. Instead, Fauzia’s research has shown the opposite – religious identities for second and third generation Muslim women are enhanced by their higher education experiences. These findings have been supported by several other independent studies.
While the possession of a degree is viewed as an ‘insurance policy’ against precarious job markets, it has also been viewed by many Muslim women and their families as a necessity in order to attract suitably educated and professional matrimonial partners, and to ensure that women are able to support themselves should future difficulties arise in marriage or financial circumstances (Ahmad, 2001 and 2006).
Contrary to expectations, many British Muslim women are experiencing difficulties in attracting suitable matrimonial partners expressing concerns around their own perceived lack of desirability, concerns over increased ages while studying and then working, being ‘over-qualified’ and high achieving thus ‘pricing themselves out of the marriage market’, negotiating and contending with ‘male egos’, the lack of emotional maturity among Muslim men, and questioning the efficacy and quality of existing and emerging matrimonial networks (Ahmad, 2012).
These concerns have been compounded by the perceived tendencies among some Muslim men of either choosing to marry outside their religion and culture, or relying on parental matches with partners from their country of origin, and for expressing preferences for younger women or those who may be less career oriented. As a result, Muslim women often complain about a lack of suitably educated and professionally employed men on matrimonial websites and at the various matrimonial events that are now held across the UK, Europe and North America.
Marrying ages among educated Muslim women in Britain (and internationally) are increasing, and while this is sometimes attributed to a deliberate desire to delay or eschew marriage in order to further careers, Fauzia’s research suggests that their single status is the result of a more complex interplay of factors and not necessarily an active choice. Some commentators have described the rise in the numbers of single, professional Muslim women, as the “Muslim spinster crisis” (Mohammed, The Guardian, 2012), or more generally as the ‘myth of the happy celibate’ (Imtoual and Hussein, 2009), referring to the very possible reality that some women may not marry at all. Given the significance of marriage and family among Muslim communities, there are considerable emotional consequences experienced by Muslim women associated with perceptions of ‘rejection’ and ‘failure’, increased age, spinsterhood and potential childlessness, and this is one of the areas that is currently being researched.
Some community activists have suggested that difficulties finding suitable Muslim male suitors are leading some women to consider becoming ‘second wives’. This has naturally attracted considerable media interest with numerous hyped up stories about the growth of polygamy among British Muslims. Some have claimed that as many as 20,000 Muslim marriages in the UK are polygamous (Stewart, The Daily Telegraph, 2014), though it is difficult to verify such claims. From time to time we do receive requests from both men and women for polygamous marriages, and while these are not legally recognised in the UK, as long as both parties are consenting, we try to facilitate such unions where possible and appropriate. Here again, some of the personal stories behind why some British born Muslims are choosing polygamous marriages confound many of the stereotypes the media present around ‘Shariah-compliant’ marriages; namely, that these are reflective of growing extremism among British Muslims and a rejection of ‘British values’. Our experience is that in reality, personal circumstances are often far more significant.
A key research question, therefore, is why, despite the wide choice of online matrimonial services and events, are British Muslim men and women finding it so difficult to meet suitable matrimonial partners?
Where parents and extended family networks once played key roles in matrimonial matters, the loss or weakening of these networks, coupled with a growing professionalisation and individualisation among second and third generation British Muslims, and the rapid growth and commercialisation of online Muslim matrimonial sites and events, have led to changing concepts of what contemporary Muslim relationships represent, and a need to revise taken-for-granted tropes such as ‘arranged marriages’ often described in academic accounts of Muslim families. Many parents recognise the limitations of their own networks and assume that the education and professional status of their children mean that they are better equipped to find their own partners and will meet potential partners either at university or work.
Rapid social change, marked by high educational and employment aspirations has led to high expectations when choosing a life partner. As a result, younger Muslims are becoming increasingly individualised in their matrimonial choices and marital relationships. Rather than assist in marriage, greater options and greater choice have instead led to a higher level of criteria-based searching, which in turn, leads to greater indecision and confusion. Although we now employ the Muslim Marriage App at our events, it has raised a number of pertinent questions around how professional Muslims select potential partners and how this may be encouraging an individualised ‘checklist mentality’ that prolongs rather than assists marital searching.
The internet brings its own set of problems. Some, fearful of face-to-face events and the potential for ‘rejection’ or not being chosen, ‘hide’ behind the anonymity gained by online searching and begin to form attachments through emails and phone conversations without meeting, only to be met with disappointment if a meeting does take place due to misrepresentations made by the other party. Women in particular have been subject to inappropriate comments from men as well as being misled by married men pretending to be single.
Many religiously-minded young Muslims are not encouraged to socialise with members of the opposite sex, yet are expected to make significant decisions on their life partner based on limited meetings, and often without the support or advice of a parent or married relative or friend. Without adequate pre-marital support, young Muslims are reliant on romanticised notions of what relationships and marriage entail. Consequently a checklist mentality becomes a priority when choosing a partner and this is often unrealistic or based purely on superficial characteristics.
Findings also suggest that men and women also seem to approach marriage with differing priorities. Muslim women are more likely to be aware of the boundaries between religion and culture, which translates into greater autonomy when choosing matrimonial partners, and a greater awareness of their marital rights and responsibilities. Employment brings financial independence, which adds to their confidence in asserting their rights. However, Muslim men in comparison, remain relatively uninformed of their responsibilities beyond the role of breadwinner and cultural expectations. While most attending Muslim marriage events will all agree that a partner who is strong in their ÄªmÄn is a key priority, there remain significant differences between men and women’s expectations. In the words of one female participant, “Women are looking for companions while men are looking for wives”.
The research has clearly highlighted an urgent need for extra support services such as pre-marital coaching for single Muslims looking to get married, and several respondents have spoken of a desire for a return in some ways, to the more personalised marriage services that were historically offered by ‘matchmakers’ or ‘Aunties’ as those from South Asian backgrounds would call them. Preliminary findings have been disseminated at a number of academic and community events, with the latter firmly focused on aiming to feed back the research conclusions in order to encourage Muslims looking to get married to think carefully about how they go about choosing a spouse. The research has also raised a number of significant and pressing questions that require further investigation. However, at present we are limited by a lack of resources and are currently seeking funding to continue this important work.References
Ahmad, F (2001) ‘Modern Traditions? British Muslim Women and Academic Achievement’, Gender and Education, Vol. 13, No. 2: 137-152.
Ahmad, F (2012) ‘Graduating towards marriage? — Attitudes towards marriage and relationships among university educated British Muslim women’, Culture and Religion, Vol. 13: 193-210.
Ahmad, F (2006), Modern Traditions? British Muslim women, higher education and identities. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Bristol, UK.
Beck, U., and E. Beck-Gernsheim, 1995. The normal chaos of love. Cambridge Polity Press.
Imtoual, A., and S. Hussein (2009) ‘Challenging the myth of the happy celibate: Muslim women negotiating contemporary relationships’. Contemporary Islam, 3, no. 1: 25-39.
Mohammed, S (2012) ‘Why British Muslim women struggle to find a marriage partner’, The Guardian, 16 January.
Muslim Council of Britain (2015), British Muslims in Numbers
Office of National Statistics (2013), What percentage of marriages end in divorce?
Stewart, R (2014) ‘The Men with Many Wives: the British Muslims who practise polygamy’, The Telegraph, 24 September.
Dr Fauzia Ahmad is a sociologist specialising in Muslim communities in Britain and British Muslim women’s identities, representations and experiences of higher education, employment and social welfare.. Her publications can be viewed: https://bristol.academia.edu/FauziaAhmad
Mizan Raja is Co-Director and founder of Islamic Circles and is one of the main hosts of the MuslimMarriageEvents.com service.Dr Mustafa Omar is Co-Director and founder of Islamic Circles. He is also Director of IMASE [International Muslim Association of Scientists and Engineers].