Qiran.com, arablounge.com, onlinearabia.net, misyar.com - and counting. Matchmaking Web sites for Muslims and Arabs are blooming, and every day new members, men and women who live or used to live in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and other corners of the Middle East place their destiny in cyberspace, looking for the on-line love which could potentially grow into something more.
Just a decade ago, cyber-dating and matchmaking sites were virtually unheard of in conservative Arab and Muslim societies, where most marriages were arranged by parents, often with the help of a khatba, an old woman who would act as a mediator in a sex-segregated world. Today it seems the khatba has difficult time competing with modern technology which has swept the Middle East into a chatroom, SMS and on-line dating mania.
While gathering material on the Web for this article, I was twice approached on Skype by Saudi guys in their mid-20s who were trying their luck and sending random messages to thousands of girls all over the world. One of them, who introduced himself as Ali, was equipped with a Web-cam and was anxiously looking for an on-line interaction with me. After a few minutes of chatting, I found out he was registered on most of the match-making Web sites I was looking at, in hundreds of chatrooms and dedicated at least four hours a day to on-line conversations - with girls, of course.
Ali told me that since meeting girls "just for fun" is impossible in Riyadh, he has to settle for on-line interaction with the fair sex. He stressed that he didn't exclude the possibility of marrying someone he met on-line, but that he was currently only looking for entertainment.
"As a matter of fact, I prefer marrying someone outside of the kingdom, since then both the dowry demands and the wedding would be less expensive," he explained.
Hunting for girls' telephone numbers or e-mails, Ali also uses Bluetooth technology, which allows him to exchange details with any curious girl whose elegant black silk abaya, a loose strand of shiny hair or just a silhouette looks especially appealing to him.
In a country where forced marriages were only recently abolished and women still can't drive or travel without a male relative as a guardian, Internet and cellular technology have really broken the boundaries.
This revolution hasn't escaped the eyes of the religious establishment, which sees these Web sites as an another attempt of the West to corrupt Muslim society. Numerous fatwas (religious edicts) were published against matchmaking Web sites, chatting with the opposite sex and any on-line interaction whatsoever. The fatwas were quite clear - modern technology is fine when used for the righteous deeds, such as Islamic counseling on-line or promoting Islam, but surely not for sinful getting together of unmarried Muslims!
Ahmed from the UK decided to use islamonline.com to ask Dr. Sano Koutoub Mustapha, professor of jurisprudence at the International Islamic University in Malaysia, whether it's permitted to open up a Muslim matrimonial Web site.
The answer he received was: "If you can ensure that the sites are not going to be used for dating, then there should be no problem of having them. I doubt the ability to do so. Therefore, you should try to find other means of providing addresses to the people who are serious in searching for partners. As for using the sites for conversing, this should not be allowed at all. It has to be blocked because it is going to lead to dating."
Amr Khaled, one of the most popular preachers in the Arabic-speaking world, also recommends that his audience stay away from on-line chatting and dating "to avoid the broken heart and violation of the Islamic moral code."
DESPITE THE fatwas, however, disturbing questions regarding sexuality are being asked on the Web. One arablounge.com user, calling himself "Verycurious," dared touch on one of the most sensitive taboos in Islam in a letter to cyber-counselor Dr. Bousa (Dr. Kiss): "Is there no room for same-sex dating? Wouldn't all be better being able to know that they can express love to another person no matter what another thinks as long as they are productive people in the community?"
(In Egypt a man could be arrested and in Saudi Arabia even killed if accused of homosexual tendencies.)
Dr. Bousa answered: "Dear Gay Friend or Gay-Friendly Friend!
"Yes! I agree. I do believe that there should be room for same-sex dating. Whether we want to admit it or not, there are gay people (and I don't mean happy) in all cultures, all religions, all countries. Researchers continue to study homosexuality and bisexuality and sexuality in an attempt to understand their roots. Irrelevant for your point, but my point is that more tolerance breeds more tolerance! It truly should not matter what you do in the privacy of your bedroom as long as you are a contributing member of society who does not harm other people. Live and let live. Absolutely! Perhaps in the near future all personals Web sites will be 'gay-friendly.'"
Another Web site user, 22-year-old Malik from the US, suspected that his girlfriend wasn't a virgin before she met him. Dr. Bousa provided him with quite an unexpected reply: "Bottom line: You obviously both agreed to pre-marital sex. So, at this point neither of you are virgins, nor will you ever be again. Stop fixating on this now irrelevant detail. Enjoy your sexual journey with each other, be respectful, mutually agree to whatever adventures you try out in the bedroom, and use protection and birth control. If either of you should decide to sleep with someone else, be honest about it and be careful... you don't want to deal with telling your partner that you gave them herpes or something like that!"
On many Web sites, girls are posting their photos in rather revealing clothes, often stressing that they are here just for fun, not looking for a husband. Deemah2000, a 24-year-old Egyptian, describes herself as a "liberal Muslim" and is looking for "a loving and understanding man to go out with, to love and understand each other." Another woman, "sexyeyes," 29, a divorcee from Iraq, says she isn't interested in changing her personal status, so no marriage proposals will be answered.
The onlinearabia.net site also offers a separate section for the "adult community," which poses an intriguing question to the users: "Do you have someone to have sex with?"
Other Mideast-based Web sites are less daring and more traditional than the American-based arabiclounge.com. The Saudi-based almisyar.com received 8,000 applications within its first three months of existence, according to the London-based Sharq al-Awsat, which says the site is already responsible for nine weddings in Saudi Arabia and abroad. Only registered users can look at profiles, which rarely include photos. If there is a click or a match, communication is established between the potential groom and the bride's guardians and a religiously lawful meeting is set up for them. The site claims to follow religious tradition to perfection, to avoid any accusations of indecency.
The only problem is that the site promotes a form of marriage, misyar, which is considered un-Islamic by many Muslims. In misyar, the wife gives up her religious rights, including the right to have her husband live with her in the same house and provide her with necessary expenses. In short, the woman gives up the right to have an independent home. The husband may come to see her at her parents' home at whatever time he chooses, or at an agreed time, explains Aisha Dahiru Atta, a Nigerian educator who strongly opposes the new fashion, which, in her opinion, humiliates women and robs them of their rights as prescribed by the Koran. In Saudi Arabia, where polygamy is legal, weddings are expensive and the divorce rate is as high as 30 percent to 35%, misyar is very popular.
Using advanced technology doesn't necessarily means you are on the path to modernization. More and more personal ads placed on the Internet by women suggest they don't mind becoming a second, a third or a forth wife, as long as they get married. Often it is sophisticated college graduates who are using the Internet to find a nice, rich husband - even if he is already married. One of the reasons is changing marriage patterns among educated Arab and Muslim women, who postpone marriage for the sake of education and career and tend to have more say in choosing a life partner than before.
What's an educated single woman who lives in Cairo, Algiers or Abu Dhabi to do to escape spinsterhood? Become a part of a polygamous family, says Zahrat al-Haleej, a women's magazine published in the Gulf, which interviewed a dozen unmarried women and experts in Gulf countries and abroad. Many of these women are placing personal ads on matchmaking Web sites and magazines, stressing that "personal status" of the potential groom is not important.
During the time it took to write this article, a few hundred men and women from different corners of the Islamic world joined various on-line dating services and matchmaking Web sites. Thousands of others chatted with each other while sitting in Internet cafes. Tens of thousands of SMSes were sent and answered. For now, these men and women will continue sending letters and text messages, trying to find each other while waiting impatiently for the next technological miracle.
Dying for love in Baghdad
Love, romance, dating and marriage are never easy. But for some people, for example living in Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan, having a relationship is almost "mission impossible." Before the war in Iraq there were poverty, shortage of supplies, conservative society and another war. Today Iraqi lovers have to overcome not only the trivial everyday difficulties, such as "why is she always late" or "does he think I'm cute" but physical, geographical and theological difficulties.
Men and women who live just a few miles away from each other, in different parts of Baghdad, are afraid to be caught in the "wrong" neighborhood, the interfaith romance and marriages have become almost impossible and going out at night is simply out of the question. The rapid Islamization of the country which followed the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime doesn't make it any easier for the young people to meet each other, even in universities, many of which recently became segregated.
So what are boys and girls to do if they want to interact with each other, with matrimonial or any other intentions? They log on to a chat-room or a dating Web site and talk for hours on-line, fantasizing about the day when going out and seeing each other will actually come true.
Another popular way is SMSing. The cellphone operators report a real SMS fever which has taken over Baghdad, Basra, Ramadi and Najaf, the cities that are more often perceived as places of bloodshed and terrorist activity than of love. In celebrating Valentine's Day this year, Iraqi lovers showed true courage, since by going out to buy a rose or a teddy bear they risk being close to an explosion, or being targeted by various Islamist groups who consider Valentine's Day to be pagan and un-Islamic. In other words - in Iraq you'd better really be in love if you consider going out on a date, and if not - you can always settle for on-line flirting...