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Muslim, millennial and single: A generation struggles to find love

STOCKTON, CA -FEBRUARY 12: Osman Aslam at his workplace in Stockton, CA on February 12, 2018 (photo by Brian Flaherty for The Washington Post)
STOCKTON, CA -FEBRUARY 12: Osman Aslam at his workplace in Stockton, CA on February 12, 2018 (photo by Brian Flaherty for The Washington Post)

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Osman Aslam has tried the apps.

On Minder, he wrote he enjoys hiking, going on long drives and spending time with his family. On Muzmatch, another option for Muslim singles, he described his ideal partner as well-educated, ambitious and funny.

But Osman, a 29-year-old insurance broker, has had little luck. For one, he has never actually met anyone from these apps in person.

So on a recent winter day, armed with a pale purple dress shirt and purple tie, he flew 300 miles south from his home in Stockton, Calif., rented a car and booked a hotel room.

Now it was a Saturday night in Anaheim, and Osman and around 60 others were taking their seats beneath the crystal chandeliers of a Marriott ballroom. For many, including Osman, it was their first “matrimonial banquet.”

Every year, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), one of the country’s oldest Muslim organizations, hosts about a dozen banquets like this one in locations across the country. It is a Halal form of speed-dating, as one participant described it — a way to meet other Muslim singles in a country where most people are not Muslim, and in a manner their parents would approve.

Because practicing Muslims typically shun dating or sex before marriage, the banquets offer a possible, if imperfect, solution to what young Muslims in America say is an irksome problem: “It’s really hard to meet someone in this culture,” Osman said.

Muslims represent no more than 2 percent of the U.S. population, so finding a mate is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. Among immigrants and their children, there are also varying degrees of desire — and parental pressure — to stay true to some form of cultural heritage. To marry a fellow Pakistani American. To have a traditional Kurdish wedding.

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Add in the broader millennial crisis of choice: The screen time, the dating apps, the Hollywood expectations of “sparks” and fairy tale perfection, and the proverbial needle, the disillusioned complain, becomes something that might not actually exist.

'I keep telling her to get married'

In Osman’s view, his parents are an example of the kind of couple that “just grew to love each other.”

They were married more than 30 years ago in Pakistan, in an arrangement orchestrated by relatives to serve practical needs more than romantic ideals.

But even though they have lasted — raising three boys in northern California and climbing from the bottom rungs of the economic ladder into middle class prosperity — theirs is not the marriage Osman wants.

Osman wants to fall in love. He wants to marry his best friend. He wants that person to be a Muslim and a Pakistani American — but not a Pakistani. He wants someone like him who was born and raised in the United States to immigrant parents, someone who is “on the same page.”

“Looking for my Cinderella, I have her shoe ...” his online profiles read.

Three-quarters of American Muslims are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and in many ways Osman is emblematic of an American minority at a generational crossroads.

Osman considers himself “fairly religious.” He does not drink or smoke; he does not date — he “wouldn’t know where to begin,” he says; and he sees Islam as central to his life and identity. He has never really known his parents’ Pakistan, but he values his heritage and shares their desire to carry it on.

The more vexing question is how to harness all of these things, how to find them in another person. Practically speaking, how to find her while living in a midsize California city, working long hours that leave little opportunity to meet potential matches.

Osman’s parents think he is too picky, and they have been laying on the pressure since his older brothers got married.

He felt optimistic about this matrimonial banquet.

“Wow,” he thought, surveying the room. “I’m going to meet a lot of people.”

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The other singles had come from all over: California, Maryland, Texas and Canada. Each pairing had three minutes to talk — barely enough time to accomplish anything, Osman soon realized — but many had come carrying the same frustrations about the search.

Arham, a 26-year-old electrical engineer, had found similarly bad luck on the dating apps. Aisha, a 35-year-old interior designer, had attended two previous matrimonial banquets, but never really “clicked” with anyone.

Mishal, Sabah, Hera and Azka — all college students — were only there because their mothers had signed them up, (besides, Mishal already had a boyfriend), and they spent much of the event’s social hour talking to each other.

“Let’s take a selfie,” Hera proposed. “I’ll send this to my mom as proof we were here.”

Then there was Nishat, a 35-year-old elementary school teacher, who was only there to help her mother sign people in, although her mother would have loved to see her in the ballroom.

“I keep telling my mother that I’m too busy,” Nishat said.

“And I keep telling her to get married because we want her to have someone when we’re gone,” said her mother, Shahida Alikhan.

ISNA generally bans parents from being in the room at matrimonial banquets precisely because of this tension.

“When they stand and watch, they make the participants uncomfortable,” said Tabasum Ahmad, ISNA’s matrimonials coordinator.

One Palestinian-American couple had driven six hours from the San Francisco Bay area to deliver their 33-year-old son and 30-year-old daughter into that Anaheim ballroom of hope. When a young woman showed up late and brushed elbows with the anxious parents, the father said, “I could save you time — you could marry my son!”

“He’s an engineer!” his wife added, as the woman hurried inside.

'Single for the rest of my life'

It is not that everyone is trying to appease their parents in the search for Mr. or Ms. Right, nor does everyone go about it the same way.

“There is no consensus in the community at all about what is appropriate dating,” said Colin Christopher, a married 33-year-old who works for ISNA. “Some people are super conservative, and they only hang out with a potential suitor with their parents around. Other people just have to check the box for Muslim.”

Nishat recently came to the conclusion that being Muslim is not an absolute requirement for her future partner. The most important things — according to the “Ideal Husband” list she keeps on her phone — are that he is respectful and kind, not “a racist, sexist or homophobe.”

The proliferation of online matchmaking apps and social media has made some of these things easier. Not only can you search for basic criteria (Osman lists himself as a “Foodie” and “Travel Lover,” who stands 5-foot-9 and loves sports), profiles also provide spaces to list things like family origin, languages spoken, degree of religiosity, sect and lifestyle (does not eat Halal, for example), as well as “ideal marital timing.”

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Unlike Minder’s secular cousin Tinder — with its reputation for casual sex and dating, all within a 10 mile radius — Minder and the other Muslim-oriented apps also allow users to set their search radius as encompassing multiple countries (say, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and United Arab Emirates), or even the entire planet — and many do.

Yasmin Elhady, a Washington area lawyer who moonlights as a matchmaker and comedian, produces online videos to counsel her peers on things like the importance of character and the false promises of “a swipe left, swipe right culture.” She worries about the limitations of such tools.

The desire to marry Muslim, to marry within a specific culture, and to appease one’s parents is colliding with the screen age, the quest for perfect love and the reality of the diaspora, to produce unrealistic expectations, she says.

“Our norm setting has been destroyed by the diaspora, by the geographic spread out, and because of, I think, a culture that we’re trying to negotiate to be both Muslim and American,” she said.

Osman recognizes this. He sometimes wonders if his parents are right: if he is too picky; if he should just go to Pakistan to find a bride.

When the matrimonial banquet was over, he and a few dozen others drifted out into the hallway with little to show for their efforts. It had all happened so fast, an overwhelming blur.

Osman felt dismayed.

“I think I’m just going to be single for the rest of my life,” he complained to a sympathetic group of his peers that had lingered to commiserate long after the chaperons and event organizers had gone home.

They realized none of them had taken notes. None of them had met any obvious matches. And none would have good news for their parents when they got home.

Aisha told the group about the guy at the banquet whom she had already matched with online — and who expressed irritation that she never messaged back. Arham told the group about the woman who said he looked like a “baby.” Mavesh, a 25-year-old accountant, told how she had called her father, and he immediately asked if she met someone.

“Yeah, Dad, I met someone, and I’m out with him right now!” she joked.

Now they were all laughing. It felt good to trade stories. At least they got some new friends out of this, someone pointed out.

Eventually they all parted ways. The next day, Osman flew back to Stockton. His parents told him again how picky he is and how much they worry. He wondered whether he should give the next matrimonial banquet, in Chicago, a shot. Maybe there would be more people his age, he thought. Maybe they would get more than three minutes.

“It just seems like the older I get, the harder it’s gonna be,” he said.