“Lots of men I met were more interested in casual relationships than marriage and commitment. Some of them were even married and were looking for second wives,” says Maha*, 33, who divorced her husband three years after arriving in Australia.
The mother of a ten-year-old boy, Maha explains how the search for a suitable partner after divorce has been a "rough ride".
“The main problem I faced was the lack of commitment. Most men didn’t want to get married officially,” she tells SBS Arabic24.
“They all preferred an informal Islamic ceremony.”
According to the 2016 census, around 200,000 people in Australia speak Arabic at home and the majority of Australians from Middle Eastern backgrounds are aged under 35.
According to Maha, there is a preference among this cohort, particularly first-generation immigrants, to marry from within their own small communities.
But the availability of prospective partners who meet particular criteria can be a challenge.
A PhD candidate, Maha believes technology makes it easier to meet potential partners who might be living in different states, but she says it comes with its own set of challenges.
Sometimes people are not honest about their situation and whether they’re already in a relationship or not.
Ahmed*, a 50-year-old Egyptian immigrant who teaches at a vocational training institute, has suspicions about digital matchmaking.
He says the absence of extended networks of family and friends further complicates an already difficult task for Arab immigrants.
“Back in our countries of origin, families play a big role in introducing potential partners to each other and in ensuring that men are not only seeking flirtatious interactions.
“Technology compensates for the lack of chances for proper interaction between men and women within the community but it is hard to find out people’s true intentions.”
Maha is still looking for her ‘mr right’ mainly through social apps but says she's happy to remain single if she does not find a suitable partner.
Some luckier than others
When Huda*, 33, entered Australia on a Woman in Danger (204) visa, she was not sure how life would be like for her as a widow with a child.
The move from a refugee camp in Syria to Australia was life-changing, but she still felt lonely in her new home, which motivated her to look for a partner.
It was by mere chance that she came across the link to a matchmaking Facebook group for Arab Australians.
“My main concern when I tried to find a partner on the group was that men might be looking for flirting rather than marriage.”
Huda was lucky that her experience was one that ends with a happy ever after.
“The group administrators connected me to a Lebanese guy who was four years my senior. The fact that he was a divorcee with three kids didn’t affect my decision because I had a kid of my own.”
Marriage is a sensitive topic in any Arab context, and the issue can be surrounded by stereotypes and taboos.
Social stigmas can discourage some people from looking for suitable partners in the physical form, let alone publicising it on social media.
Unlike Huda, Noha* was in a much more privileged position.
She arrived in Australia on a student visa to complete her master’s degree. But she felt as insecure as Huda about finding a romantic partner because of the cultural stereotypes around the appropriate marriage age for women.
As a never-married Arab woman in her mid-30s, she was not sure where to start or what to do. That’s when Lobna*, her friend who lives overseas, stepped in.
“I just typed a few keywords into the search box, and I immediately found the matchmaking group,” she says, describing how she created a profile for her friend and started looking for potential partners.
I didn’t want her to be alone in Australia and she was too shy to look for someone because of the cultural stigmas. Men are always expected to take the first step.
Lobna’s efforts eventually paid off, and she managed to convince her friend to meet with a couple of men who had profiles on the group.
“The first three attempts were a disappointment. But the last time was a success. They clicked really quickly and they got married a little bit more than a month ago.”
But Noha never told her family that she met her husband through a matchmaking Facebook group.
'Racism' within the community
Differences in age, ethnic background, religion, or religious sect can pose serious challenges to marriage prospects.
Nada *, the administrator of the Facebook group through which Huda and Noha met their now husbands, says that there is a "high level of racism" within the community.
“Lots of parents do not allow their kids to marry partners from different nationalities,” she says, explaining how certain groups, such as Egyptians, are not viewed positively by the other Arab communities because of what they perceive as “different customs and traditions”.
Nada, who runs a group that caters to Sunni Muslims, explains how some Arabic-speaking Australians consider marrying from outside the community.
People ask us if we know any Muslim converts from any other nationalities who are looking for prospective partners.
Maha says that the experiences she has gone through have changed her views on marriage compatibility.
“At the beginning, I was fixated on marrying an Egyptian. But now I’m open to meet people from other nationalities. Also, the job or education level of a potential partner are not big issues for me as they used to be.”
While first-generation Arab immigrants use modern tools to look for traditional criteria for "acceptable" partners, the eyes of the younger generations look beyond the boundaries of the growing but small community.
Caught between the conservatism of their parents and the liberalism of the wider society, many find themselves carrying a heavier burden than their peers.
When Ahmed’s 22-year-old son came to him saying he was in love with his university colleague, he found himself face to face with a dilemma.
“It was either to let it become a boyfriend-girlfriend kind of relationship or encourage him to marry her,” he says.
It's illegal in Australia for a man to have two wives. However, it is common for some Muslim men to marry a woman by completing the official documentation while marrying another woman in an Islamic ceremony without it being recognised officially.
Thus, in some cases, informal Islamic marriages can offer a loophole for practices such as polygamy, or a cover for the desire to avoid a long-term commitment.
But in this case, Ahmed perceived it as an acceptable middle ground between the values he still carries today and the modern lifestyle his son wants to lead.
"My son got married in an Islamic ceremony. He and his wife are going to do the official paperwork later,” says the father of three.
But the limited pool of potential partners within the community still seems to be a concern for him.
“The fact that my son got married to a woman from outside the community means that a woman from the community will not find a partner.”
*Not their real names.