Nothing Serious Please: My Misadventures in Finding Muslim Love
In a childhood where my parents were always fighting, my escapes were the idealized versions of romance I saw in movies. The years leading up to their separation were filled with my frenzied consumption of the messages I received from Moulin Rouge (love is a many splendored thing!), Rodger & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (the far superior version with Whitney Houston and the most beautiful Prince Charming there ever was), and The Little Mermaid(who fell for a man she saw once). My angst-ridden teen years were consumed with all of the YA romances I could access. I took for granted that someday I would experience that same tumultuous journey to a happy ending that my heroines had been afforded—despite the fact that I felt a certain amount of religious guilt just thinking about dating a guy I liked.
Many American Muslims have the shared experience of immigrant parents who do not approve of dating in any way, shape, or form. Though I internalized that message through the wider American Muslim narrative, the strict No Interaction With Boys policy was not one communicated to me through my parents. My mother has always been encouraging of my love life to an extreme. She never cared whether whomever I dated was Muslim or not and was frequently disappointed when I returned home late because I was out with friends and not a date. One summer she even bought a new lock for my bedroom door and joked that I could start bringing guys over as long as we were “safe.” My father, on the other hand, has never been fond of the idea of dating. After high school, though, he would turn a blind eye on my “hangouts” with guys, and after I finished graduate school, would occasionally mention proposals I got for marriage from other Yemenis because he preferred I end up with someone who shared our ethnic background.
Even with their direct and indirect encouragement to find someone, I found it difficult to go anywhere beyond friendship with the men I was interested in. In college, I fell deeply in crush with a guy I took one course with. He wasn’t (and isn’t) Muslim. Still, I didn’t want a small thing like religion to get in the way of what I knew would be a loving and lasting relationship, so I did what any other sensible, inexperienced, young Muslim woman would do. I asked him to answer “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” as part of a “social experiment” with me. Unsurprisingly, we did not fall in love, though we remain good friends. After him, I consistently fell in crush with people who were unattainable either by religion, location, or sexual orientation. My fear of commitment grew with the number of unattainable men I fell for.
Dating as a Muslim is a bewildering experience, and adulthood has not exactly panned out the way I thought it would. While in grade school, I thought that life was a strict succession of events that followed as such: go to college, meet someone, be really smart and graduate, and get married. I am now in graduate school for the second time and with zero men on the horizon.
There are as many Muslim dating practices as there are Muslims, ranging from those who do not abstain from premarital sex to those who will not look a person of the opposite sex in the eyes, much less sleep with them. Toeing the middle path is confusing, especially when online dating. I was raised Muslim, but I also chose this path for myself. I was raised with a certain set of beliefs, but I also chose to accept them. I trust scholars for their wisdom, but I also set personal limits that I am comfortable with. I know that I am comfortable with dating. However, I am not so comfortable with being sexually active before marriage. Dating While Muslim sometimes feels like an oxymoron in the American context.
Minder, the Muslim answer to Tinder, had mostly occupied the part of my brain that houses urban legends since its creation when I was in high school. One year ago it happened to cross my mind again as a wave of my friends became engaged, found love, lost love, broke up, and serial dated. I wondered what was wrong with me. How was I the only one left who had not even gone on a single date?
So I downloaded the app. I swiped right. I swiped left. I came across at least fifteen people I knew, panicked, and deleted my account before a full twenty-four hours had passed. My Portland Muslim community is a smaller one, so even though they were also on the app, I was still worried about coming off as desperate for a relationship and didn’t want it to get out that I was fooling around on a dating app. Before I deleted though, I matched with a cute guy in the Midwest who was fun to talk to and funny to boot. We added each other on Snapchat and he proceeded to sext me every time I mentioned that I was uncomfortable with commitment because he thought it would “cure” me.
His actions made me question why I was even looking for something when the thought of being in any kind of romantic relationship was liable to give me hives, strong urges to run, stress headaches, and minor anxiety attacks (at the very least). I banished all thoughts of dating until I moved to Southern California for a writing program and suddenly found myself friendless.
My friends and family have always been the most important people in my life. With them around, I never felt the need to take the quest of finding a romantic partner seriously. That changed after my move in the fall. I was feeling inadequate, lost, and lonely in my new program, and none of my close friends were around for me to confide in. About three months after I had first deleted the dating app in a fit of panic and frustration, I re-downloaded it to fill that friendless void.
When I texted one of my friends about what I felt were my growing issues, he suggested I seek therapy. Rather than seek therapy, I turned to Minder in that first month of living in California. I justified opening the app again by repeating what half of my friends back home had told me: putting myself out there and mindlessly swiping would help me get over my issues by finding out exactly what I like and don’t like in romantic partners. Conveniently, I chose to ignore what the other half of my friends said about how having such a large array of men to choose from would spoil me and further aggravate my fear of commitment.
My experiences with the men on the app ranged from good to bad to everywhere in between. One interaction that continues to baffle me was with a man who opened our text conversation by asking how religious I am. When I asked how he defined religious, he responded that he only asked because he wanted to see if I would be willing to exchange nudes. This was three texts in. After his almost admirably direct question, I noticed a trend of men turning the conversation sexual immediately following compliments on my septum piercing. Soon, I was able to detect, unmatch, and swipe left on men who were on the app for hookups and sexting so quickly that one would never guess that reflexes are my weakest suit.
I had good experiences too. There was the man who I felt an immediate kinship with because we both sport the same vegan Docs. We would send paragraphs of conversation back and forth and we seemed to be hitting it off until he went and ghosted me. Now there is radio silence between us, save for the occasional Instagram like he sends over.
One match that brought an end to my online dating experience was with a writer and amateur boxer. He was an amazing soul whom I went on an actual date with. We talked for hours in a coffee shop and then went outside for a walk on the beach and talked some more. He was great. His life was together and he knew who he was and where he wanted to be, but I couldn’t bring myself to be attracted to him. My friends had been the ones to pressure me into going on the date because we jived so well together in every other way. I told him I couldn’t fit dating into my life.
By the time I deleted Minder for the second time, I had swiped through thousands of profiles. The longer I stayed on, the more I felt guilty and uneasy about my place in the system. I was not ready for a relationship. I couldn’t help but feel like I was leading nice people on about who I was and what I wanted. While the app helped me learn more about what I like and don’t like in a potential partner, it also made me more shallow than I had ever wanted to be. I still love the idea of falling in love. All of the media I consumed as a child continues to feed the hopeless romantic within me. I know now, though, that if I find someone, it will have to be offline, so that I may get to know and grow with the person organically without hundreds of other profiles occupying my thoughts and making me run.
Mariam Saïd is a former secondary school teacher and current MFA grad student from Portland, Oregon. She’s an indecisive singer and ardent Janeite who loves, but repels, babies and cats. When she isn’t reading or writing, she can be found binge-watching new series on Netflix, thinking about going on that hike, and trying to understand the appeal of carbonated water. You can find her on Twitter @yemghani and Instagram @mariamsaidwhat