(WOMENSENEWS)--Yasmin El Jamal, a 20-year-old New Yorker, knows her friend Haneen Ahmad from Washington state through Facebook, the social networking site.
Although they talk on the phone, the two have never met. What brought them together was a Facebook group for people interested in the kuffiya, a traditional Palestinian scarf.
Although she and her parents think it's fine to meet a friend this way, neither El Jamal nor her parents think the Internet is the place for a Muslim woman to meet a suitor.
"I don't think talking to a person online and looking at random people's pictures is the right way to find a husband or a wife," says El Jamal. "A lot of people are doing it behind their parents' backs and getting in a lot of trouble. I know a lot of girls who ended up having premarital sex."
Even though El Jamal lives in the United States, she expects her route to marriage will follow the customs of her Palestinian family and many traditional Muslims: Young people meet at college or weddings and if attraction kicks in, an eligible suitor goes to the woman's home to meet her and the family in a supervised setting.
"The fiance cannot sit alone with the female, cannot step outside alone with her," said Kifah Mustapha from the Mosque Foundation in Chicago, which functions as a prayer hall and community center that offers free marital counseling.
In other words, no going along to the movies or restaurants, nothing resembling American-style dating rituals.
El Jamal, however, may soon find her friends have a different viewpoint. A growing online matchmaking movement has Muslim women elbowing aside courtship traditions from their computer keyboards.
Making the First Move
Instead of sitting at home and fielding candidates from family and friends, women are visiting Internet dating sites, where they post profiles about themselves and, if they choose, make the first move by actively searching for men and initiating online conversations.
Many of the sites also offer forums for discussion where women can mull over dating, sex and marriage.
Said Amin, CEO of NicheClick Media--the Irvine, Calif., company that owns Arablounge.com--says Muslim parents worry that online matchmaking sites are eroding their influence. "That's not how they were raised and it takes away their control over how you meet and where you meet and when you meet."
The Mosque Foundation's Mustapha said online matchmaking can be helpful in small communities where it's difficult for friends and families to generate a social life for young Muslims. "If the method of communication is pure--not beyond what Islam accepts--technology in that perspective can be used widely and usefully."
But online matchmaking--where communication is usually unsupervised--could induce young people to overstep Islamic boundaries, said Mustapha. "They could start dating, which is unacceptable in Islam."
Noura, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy, turned to online matchmaking after her parents introduced her to one too many men who seemed to suit them more than her.
Seeking Mr. Middle Ground
A 28-year-old lawyer in the Northeast, Noura wanted someone U.S.-born, with ties to his Arab culture, but not completely liberal or completely conservative. "Somewhere in the middle," she said.
After a couple of years, she found him on Arablounge.com and later this year she's getting married to him, a 34-year-old who works in information technology.
Noura says her parents knew she was looking online, but when she told them she'd found someone right for her, they said, "That's nice, but don't tell anybody."
The problem with the traditional way for Noura was the systematic checklist used by her family and friends to send men her way: Age, occupation and location were the key factors. But this litmus test did not take into account personality.
Noura made the first move online with the man who would become her fiance. They went out a few times on their own for a couple of weeks, with her parents' knowledge, and once they decided they were right for each other the families got involved and made it official.
At first Noura hesitated about telling friends how she met her fiance, but after she began to give a truthful account she was surprised by how many said they'd met their mates the same way. "They're embarrassed to say it out loud, but when they do they realize so many others are the same," she says.
Some sites, such as Arablounge.com, which has 275,000 members including Arab Muslims and Christians, cater to ethnic communities. Others, like Muslima.com and Naseeb.com, are for Muslims of all ethnicities.
Sites With Sensitivity
Dating sites for Muslim users also take cultural sensitivities into account. How important is it that your children grow up speaking Arabic? What solution do you propose for the Arab-Israeli conflict?
A lot of users also have their own questions about what is and isn't acceptable when it comes to matchmaking.
Shiva Ghaed, a therapist-columnist on Arablounge.com, says she routinely fields questions that range from reproductive anatomy to rejection. "Nothing surprises me," she said. "As a therapist I've seen and talked about everything."
Ghaed, whose father is Iranian, says she grew up in a traditional home where relationships were not discussed. "The mentality is 'If we're not having sex, then why ask questions about it?'" she said. "If we don't talk about it that doesn't solve the problem."
Ghaed says she gets letters from women worried about not being virgins. They fear this will be an embarrassment to the family and an issue when it comes to marriage. Some are worried if they decide to arrange meetings with potential mates from online--and possibly date--they will butt heads with their families. Others wonder about dating outside of their nationality or religion.
Whether or not a woman uses the site with parental consent and involvement often depends on the family's adherence to tradition. "I think it'd be great if parents could be part of the process," Ghaed said.
Laleh Bakhtiar, a Muslim clinical psychologist in Chicago, has worked with young women to help them reconcile traditions and contemporary lifestyles. She says there is a stigma against online matchmaking, but it will eventually fade as more people use the sites. "The next generation, for sure, they'll be proud that this is how they met."
Hanady Kader is a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
This story, part of our New Writers Program, was funded by the McCormick Tribune Foundation.
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