How does one meet their future partner in the UAE? If you’re of Middle Eastern or Asian descent, you can expect elaborate set-ups engineered by your parents, grandparents or aunts and uncles, where you meet entire prospective families, rather than only suitors.
Or perhaps you meet more organically, through mutual friends – at a wedding, birthday party or dinner. However, with residents avoiding unnecessary gatherings due to Covid-19 and with social-distancing requirements in place, finding a spouse through traditional means has become a challenge, which is why many are turning to matrimonial apps.
Matrimonial apps for Muslims
“My dating channels are now restricted to apps,” says Canadian-Pakistani Jay Sheikh (name changed upon request), who was born and raised in Dubai. “With limited social gatherings and mandatory masking, it’s almost impossible to have a non-muffled, spontaneous conversation.”
Muzmatch, Minder, Veil and Hawaya are some matrimonial apps on the market for Muslims, and they can filter member searches according to criteria such as religious sect, culture, prayer regularity and lifestyle choices. Muzmatch takes it a step further, with the option to have a wali (chaperone) present in the chats. It is also the first app to introduce a haram detector – a feature that blocks the sharing of inappropriate images.
These apps are specifically designed for Muslims seeking compatible spouses, rather than for casual dating, and their popularity has boomed over the past few months.
Pandemic has triggered the need to connect
The pandemic, say the founders of the apps, has triggered the need to connect. "It has given many Muslims more focus and a push to start the journey of looking for a lifelong partner," says Olid Uddin, co-founder of Veil, which launched in the UAE last year. Shahzad Younas, founder and chief executive of Muzmatch, agrees: "The pandemic has been a catalyst in pushing Muslims to find 'the one'. We have noticed there has been a re-evaluation of priorities and wanting to settle down sooner, rather than later."
Sameh Saleh, chief executive and co-founder of Hawaya, says the situation has led to a sense of isolation and loneliness. "People are feeling an increased need for connection as face-to-face time with friends and even strangers is limited." Hawaya launched in the GCC in May and was among the region's top three most downloaded apps until August. Meanwhile, Veil has recorded an increase of about 22 per cent in UAE users over the past few months, while Muzmatch saw a 45 per cent rise in global downloads in March, with a 51 per cent increase in UAE members logging on in that month.
Making the move from online to in-person
Apps may work well for early introductions and conversations, but eventually, face-to-face meetings help in moving a relationship forward. "Just about anyone can strike up a conversation or be charming from behind a phone screen, but the in-person meeting is where you get a feel of what the vibe is truly like," says Indian resident and dating-app-user Omair Zahid from Dubai. "My endgame is to find a compatible partner to marry."
With residents being advised against socialising with friends and family, let alone strangers, they’ve been chatting online instead. “The idea of going to meet somebody in this situation is difficult,” says Faisal Qasim (name changed upon request), who is Pakistani and lives between London and Dubai. “Do you meet outside? In a restaurant? What should the decorum be? Yet, speaking to someone for months online can get weird.”
Some female app users have told Sheikh that they prefer chatting digitally until they’re comfortable with the idea of meeting strangers during the pandemic. “I have elderly, high-risk parents, so I understand their hesitation,” he says. “Out of respect for health concerns and social gathering guidelines, I usually wave before and after a date.”
Maria Alami (name changed upon request), a British-Moroccan living in Dubai, has also found that there is now a longer time lag in planning a first date. “I’m a lot more cautious about meeting someone in person because I’m not sure how seriously they take social distancing,” she says. “Greeting them can also get super-awkward, so I normally just fist bump them and sanitise after.”
Face masks make initial meetings even more unconventional. “Masks kill the vibe for sure,” says Qasim. “It is very awkward to meet someone for the first time with a mask on – you can’t capture their initial expression when they first see you,” says Pakistani Alizey Ahmad (name changed upon request), who resides in the UAE.
The pitfalls of online courtship
Online courtship can be a double-edged sword.
Even if a match makes it to a real-life date, the relationship may fail to progress due to a number of factors. Ahmad is wary of speaking to strangers who may be deceptive. During the pandemic, she matched with a male user on Minder who “ticked all the boxes of a good prospect”, and the two eventually involved their parents and began preliminary wedding preparations, but she was then “completely ghosted”.
Even on apps dedicated to Muslims seeking marriage, she warns, it’s difficult to ascertain the intentions and motives of fellow users.
Qasim says while apps allow you to meet somebody new and go outside your own social circle, “the challenge, in particular with being South Asian, is that sometimes you may meet someone on a dating app, but the reality is that your families may be from completely different backgrounds. Aside from the personal connection, the rest of the things may not match”.
For Zahid, meanwhile, apps that connect one to a pool of endless candidates can become overwhelming and confusing.
Moving away from the cultural construct of marriage
Overall, though, there is no denying the efficacy of matrimonial apps in finding a soulmate, given that traditional dating is one of the casualties of Covid-19. Convenience, choice and instant connectivity aside, they also provide a degree of autonomy, giving users a chance to find love away from the eyes of well-intentioned but often meddling elders.
"Muslim dating apps have made life a tad easier. I can take my time to know the person independently and without any family pressure," says Ahmad. "Apps remove the whole formal rishta [traditional family proposal] process and are much more relaxed."
Alami says: "Dating apps definitely give you a lot more freedom and peace in terms of finding your own person. They have been a lot more useful during the pandemic – before, you were limited to only a few people; now you have ample choice."