Muslims in the US: Tentative steps at speed-dating
Take away the alcohol, invite parents and the ritual takes on the air of a middle-school dance
“I don’t like a hobo,” Baig said. Then, shrugging toward his 21-year-old daughter, a nursing student, he added, “But it’s her choice. She has to like him, too.”
As his daughter approached graduation, Baig, a Queens’ wholesaler whose thin black beard adorns a pudgy face, had been on the lookout, going to the mosque more often, asking more acquaintances about their unwed children. But he had had little luck, so one Sunday last fall, he sat on the perimeter of a hotel conference room in Bayside, Queens, and watched as bachelor after bachelor sat across from his daughter, a beige veil draped over her plump face, for a few minutes of stilted conversation.
Speed dating is always a bit awkward. Take away the alcohol, invite parents to watch from the sidelines, and the ritual takes on the excruciating air of a middle-school dance. Now raise the stakes: Baig was one of many at the Bayside event who said that if a match was made, marriage could follow within a month.
That’s Millanus, the ultimate oxymoron: Islamic matrimony speed dating. It is a twice-yearly conclave started in 2007 by a Pakistani-American financial adviser from Long Island who was tired of being asked by Muslim clients if he knew anyone suitable for their children. Some 75 participants, including people from as far away as Seattle, Ottawa and Texas, paid $120 in advance — $150 at the door — for the most recent event, which included a few dozen five-minute ‘dates’; a buffet of chicken curry and biryani rice coated in saffron; and a break for Adhan, a call to prayer. Family members like Baig were encouraged to observe the encounters. To drink: hot tea or Kool-Aid.
“It’s a combination of East and West,” said the organiser, Jamal Mohsin. “Back in Pakistan, everything is arranged. Here, on the other extreme, individuals pick everything and parents, who raised you, aren’t involved. So I’ve created an event with both of these extremes. I’ve kept parents in the loop so they feel involved. At the same time, it’s speed dating. We’re being American.”
The women at Millanus events stay in the seats — stiff-backed, standard-issue seafoam-green upholstered hotel seats — while the men rotate among them. There are always more women: many Muslim men return to their ancestral villages to select a wife. On this Sunday, one bachelorette wore knee-high leather boots and purple eye shadow; another, a long, elegant white dress. Many were draped in traditional Islamic attire; about a third were veiled.
These included Baig’s daughter, who declined to answer questions from — or even to give her name to — a reporter. To the men, she spoke softly and smiled rarely through what seemed like an endless series of nervous job interviews. Her father said Millanus offers a comfortable cultural mix: more modern than socials at the mosques, where men and women rarely interact, but still in the presence of parents, and therefore, strong in Islamic values. “Love marriages break after one or two years,” he said. “But arranged marriages aren’t easy either.”
Throughout the two-hour dating round, Baig meticulously inspected the crop, criticising a rotation of men for their style or walk, with particular disdain for a bald man in his 40s who wore a striped business shirt. His focus intensified on a dapper 26-year-old information technologist named Shahid Imtiaz with a chiselled jaw and black film-director glasses.
“As soon as it ends,” Baig confided, “I’m going after one man.”
Mohsin is an unlikely Islamic matchmaker. He grew up in Karachi and became a journalist, then moved to New York in 1979 to pursue a master’s degree in business administration at Iona College. He met his own wife the American way: as a 24-year-old graduate student, he took a job at an Indian boutique in the New Rochelle Mall, and a frequent customer named Marilyn caught his eye.
Like himself, Marilyn came from a family and community in the Bronx where men and women are largely separated until marriage. Hers, however, was Jewish; orthodox, in fact. They disowned her when she introduced them to her Muslim suitor. (Only over the past two years, she said, have they begun to patch things up.)
Now, Marilyn, a geriatric social worker who is 53, blends easily among the women at Millanus, wearing a blue sequined shalwar kameez, a traditional Pakistani outfit. “I don’t know what our secret is,” she said of their marriage, “but we’ve been doing it for 31 years.”
In Pakistan — and in parts of the Pakistani-American community — it is often said that you don’t marry a person, but their family. So as Mohsin’s financial-advising business grew, and with it his Rolodex of wealthy immigrants, many people began to view him as an expeditious resource to jump-start an arranged marriage. Many of his clients, Mohsin said, seemed less concerned with their financial portfolio than with their children’s prospects for finding a reputable partner. At first, Mohsin could not resist the challenge. He casually introduced a few families, but soon became overwhelmed by a steady demand of requests that made him feel like “the community’s Yellow Pages.”
Then, he read an article in ‘Newsweek’ about Jdate.com, a Jewish online dating service, which also arranges face-to-face events for singles. He did what any curious entrepreneur might: He joined.
“I get lots of messages on my profile,” he said in a deadpan tone. “But I don’t respond.”
Mohsin then surveyed the Muslim community’s matchmaking options, and was dismayed. Social events at most local mosques, including Sunday school, were segregated by gender; women and men rarely spoke face to face. Like those proposing to build an Islamic community centre near ground zero, he dreams of a secular hub where Muslims could interact in a western social setting, like the Jewish Community Centre.
For now, there is Millanus — the speed-dating events, and an accompanying website, with 1,500 members who pay $40 for 90 days and can view each other’s profiles and reach out, just as members can on JDate. The name comes from the Urdu and Hindi word for ‘get together’: millan. “The clock keeps ticking,” it says at the top of the site. “Our motto: Muslims marry Muslims.” (Baig says he knows of 26 weddings so far that stemmed from his events.)
There has been some criticism from conservative religious leaders, who pleaded with Mohsin to use teleconferencing, so men and women would meet via video chat, not in person. One of his friends condemned his events, calling them “an American-style meat-market.”
Still, the phone continues to ring. The other day it was the mother of an unmarried Pakistani doctor living in Arkansas. The mother does not use the internet, but heard about Mohsin in the community. Her daughter, she said, does not meet Muslim men. They want to attend the next Millanus, scheduled for March 20.
International Herald Tribune