Hamsa* is in love. The 17-year-old Gymnasium student, who came to Berlin from Syria as a refugee five years ago, dresses flawlessly – her hijab always matches her clothes, her make-up and nails are impeccable. Her parents are not particularly religious, but they find traditions and modesty extremely important: naturally, they were concerned about the effect that “Berlin freedom” would have on their four kids. Hamsa did have a rebellious phase, wearing miniskirts and refusing to wear the headscarf, but she has returned to her family’s values. While she had previously hoped to become a doctor, she now wants to be a dental hygienist, since it’s a more suitable profession for a woman. Last year, she started attending a Quran school.
About five months ago, one of her classmates introduced Hamsa to her older brother, 25-year-old Mohammed. Hamsa immediately told her parents that she would like to date him. “He has dreamy eyes and a very nice smile!” she giggles. Her parents – who are not only in an arranged marriage but are also second cousins, something fairly common in Muslim families but only after running blood tests to make sure the children wouldn’t be negatively affected – have met Mohammed and approved of the two young lovebirds getting to know each other; they do not mind the age gap.
“He is a decent man,” says Hamsa’s father, Nessim*, while his wife Nadira* nods on. “He works at a car repair shop and he is currently looking for an apartment for himself. We have met his family since and we all agreed to proceed further. We were really not forcing that she would have to marry someone we introduce to her. Maybe if we were back home it would be different because we would know more about the families around us, but here in Germany we don’t know that many people and we can’t tell who would be suitable for our daughter.”
Hamsa and Mohammed are allowed to meet in public with no chaperone around – something strictly religious families would not allow – because her family says they trust them. In private, Hamsa admits that they have already gone further than what would be halal, but nothing serious. “We hold hands often as we are walking, and our cheeks have touched a couple of times too,” she says, blushing but confident. “We even kissed once. But I don’t think it’s doing any harm to anyone. We are in Berlin, it’s normal here!” Hamsa will turn 18 this summer and, if everything goes according to plan, she and Mohammed will get married soon afterwards.
We even kissed once. But I don’t think it’s doing any harm to anyone. We are in Berlin, it’s normal here!
For Muslims in Berlin, the world of dating is gradually changing. Feminist activism and the rise of dating apps have brought about a degree of liberalisation. Yet single Muslims must nevertheless learn to navigate between traditional mores – often including family pressure towards arranged marriages – and their own desires, set against the backdrop of Berlin’s highly open sex-and-love mainstream.
According to Seyran Ateş, a Turkish-German lawyer, activist and Muslim feminist, many young Muslims who come to Berlin begin to change their worldview and doubt traditional beliefs. “It’s not only through being in Germany but also all around the world with globalisation and the internet and social media,” she explains. “Desires, wishes, dreams are being awakened and strengthened when people learn that they are in fact possible. And living in Berlin, one of the hippest cities of the world, shows that every form of lifestyle is possible – and nobody stands alone with their thoughts, and nobody has to feel like they are betraying their traditions.”
Permission to date
To the elders of the Muslim community, even just the word “dating” seems impure. They associate it with the Western world of inappropriate behaviour, premarital sex and adultery, everything that’s haram (forbidden in Islam). As a result, when it comes to the modern Muslim dating world, younger generations often refer to their meetings as “halal dating” – meaning that there is nothing inappropriate going on, just some innocent getting-to-know-you on the road to eventual marriage.
Damla, a 64-year-old Turkish mother of five and grandmother of nine, explains her ground rules: “No touching or kissing; no private, un-chaperoned meetings; no inappropriate text messages; the families need to be involved at every step while the two young people are getting to know each other.”
Damla and her husband Sertac came to Germany almost 40 years ago when he got a construction job at a railway company. They vowed to maintain their traditions and strict rules in their Berlin lives, and they have expected the same from their family as well. All of their children’s marriages were arranged, at a very young age, with other families from their community. “We are a religious family and we have many cousins who also moved here at the same time as we did,” Damla says. “We all visited the same mosque and managed to build up a wonderful community around us and our children. My husband was looking out for the best matches for our children. We know them the best, after all – we know who they’d be happy with!”
In Germany’s Muslim communities, arranged marriages are still fairly common. The matches are usually set up by the families of the bride and groom based on compatibility in status, finance and values. This way, a marriage is more likely to last than when it is based on young love and lust only – or so they say. In reality, however, more and more young Muslims are looking for a way out of these old traditions, and there are now several organisations offering help to runaway brides.
No touching or kissing; no un-chaperoned meetings; no inappropriate text messages; the families need to be involved at every step while the two young people are getting to know each other.
Many such fugitives from arranged marriages turn to the Ibn-Ruschd-Goethe Mosque in Moabit, billed as Germany’s first liberal mosque. It was founded by Seyran Ateş and opened in June 2017. “There are a lot of young women coming to us with this problem,” she explains, “and often they are already in such a marriage, looking for a way to free themselves from it.” These cases are common and are not restricted to Berlin. “We just recently had a case from Hamburg where a young woman needed our assistance,” she says, “but we get several inquiries online too, because the women couldn’t travel due to the pandemic.” It’s an issue close to Ateş’ heart: she left her family at the age of 17 because they wanted her to enter an arranged marriage (years later, she has reconciled with them).
With no such thing as civil marriage in Islamic culture, and therefore no way to get a civil divorce, the liberal faith leader set up a system to end Muslim marriages in a way that’s accepted by the community. Legally, women can go to a safe house or to a home for underage girls to escape their families and marriages, she says. “But for their spiritual peace of mind – and for their clan and family – they would like written proof that they’ve been to a religious Islamic leader who declared the ‘divorce’.” So Ateş set up a system: “We can provide such certificates as a religious organisation with the signature of our imam, Mohamed El-Kateb. We specifically chose him in order to have a piece of paper with the name of a man who is an imam from Egypt and would be recognised within a patriarchal family.”
Ateş argues that change has to come from within the system – a system that she believes is outdated and harmful. In order for things to change, she adds, people have to come out of hiding. “A lot of the dating has to happen in secret. They are travelling to different districts in the city to avoid meeting anyone they know. It’s like in West Side Story! I keep repeating that everyone should watch West Side Story to understand how it is for young Muslim women and men to date.”
Hot Muslims in your area
Rather than leaving the decision to their parents, people are increasingly turning to a higher power to select a match: and that’s not necessarily Allah; it’s algorithms. Here and all over the world, dating apps created specifically for Muslims are becoming more and more popular: the top three are Muslima, Salams and muzmatch. UK-based muzmatch currently has over four million users from 190 countries; Germany is its fifth biggest market, with over 250,000 registered. According to muzmatch, 100,000 weddings have occurred thanks to their services to date.
“The dating apps show what a huge desire there is among the Muslim youth to make friends, to have sex lives, to change,” Ateş says. This is a trend that she has observed among students: “It exists in universities where young Muslims might agree to marry temporarily so that they can have sex,” she says. “They believe that they have to be ‘legal’ in front of God in order to have sex and so they set up a time frame – next semester or until the summer holidays or until the end of their degree when they have to move to a different city to continue studying – and they get married and they have a lot of sex.”
Perhaps this is a far cry from the commitment many student couples are willing to make, but if you’re young and Muslim, it could be the only way to give your relationship legitimacy, even if it isn’t entirely honest. After all, the goal isn’t “till death do us part”, with a divorce planned as soon as the lovers go their separate ways. “Most parents have no idea about the temporariness of it,” Ateş notes.
For Khaled, a 34-year-old Lebanese chef, Muslim dating apps have been a godsend. He is from a religious family and while he no longer prays multiple times a day or visits a mosque regularly, he still says Islamic values are important to him. Matchmaking efforts by the parents were unsuccessful because they kept setting him up with women he had “nothing in common with”. Meanwhile, his tight work schedule didn’t leave him a lot of free time to socialise.
“I use several dating apps,” Khaled says. “Muslima is interesting because you can meet people from all over the world, they advertise that love doesn’t have to be limited to your own country. But I have no desire to leave Berlin so I would rather look for women in my area,” he says. “I am also on muzmatch, which is a lot more marriage-focused than just simple dating, following all the rules a traditional match would.” He has chatted with a few women but only dated one: “a less religious girl, for a month, who was nice but she made it clear that she would want a lot more of my time and attention than I can offer right now.”
Khaled is looking for more than a hand to hold or a peck on the cheek. He welcomes the changing dating scene around him, including the fact that more and more liberated Muslim women are not afraid to date and even have sex with partners outside of marriage. “I never really thought it made sense to marry someone you barely know and have never touched before. What about the chemistry?”
No nudes, please!
But muzmatch is not at all designed for casual hook-ups, Sara Shah, a representative for the app, insists, stressing that it helps Muslims to find partners for life. “We don’t like to compare ourselves with the mainstream dating apps out there,” she says. “We were founded on the belief that it is difficult for Muslims to meet and get married – our aim is to make it easier for people in often-ignored communities to find life partners. The ultimate goal is marriage!”
The company, founded by Shahzad Younas in 2011, is very popular and has even earned the approval of more conservative Muslims because of its strong privacy settings, including an option allowing the member to blur their image for greater safety. The profiles have an emphasis on religion and any issues can be reported to the app’s 10-member, all-female “Community Team”. “For our more religious members, there is an option to have a chaperone (wali) present in their chat,” Shah says, touting muzmatch as “the only faith-based app to offer this feature”. She continues: “We are the first app to introduce a haram detector, a feature blocking the sharing of inappropriate images between members. Keeping things halal is our slogan and we stick to these values, and reinforce that message throughout all of our features.”
muzmatch experienced a significant increase in user activity, such as log-ins and matches, once life went into lockdown. Over a two-week period in March 2020, downloads of the app globally surged by 45 percent. But for Shah, the app’s success is about a long-term power shift rather than just a pandemic fad. “It’s really important to state that we are empowering people, particularly women, in the marriage decision-making process and letting them take the lead in who they choose for their life partner.”
Even with all those features, many Muslim families still don’t want to leave too much up to chance. And the idea of getting physical with a potential partner before fully committing is anathema to matriarchs like Damla. After all, she says, “Once the marriage is done, they will have enough privacy.”
* Names changed