Halal dating: the reality of finding love for young Australian Muslims

Couple walking together and embracing. Source: Getty Images

The Feed spoke to Muslim Australians about the diverse ways they date, and the misconceptions and assumptions that follow them from members their own community-- and the broader Australian community.

Dating for Muslim Australians can present a number of challenges: from navigating boundaries like pre-marital sex, assumptions about the validity of your marriage from non-Muslims, and dealing with community assumptions about you based on your sexuality.

While Muslims make up just under 3 per cent of the Australian population, it's a growing proportion, and has the youngest median age - 27 - of any religion in Australia. And as young Muslims are coming of age they are trying to balance religion, culture and dating.

All roads eventually lead back to the conversation of what represents 'halal dating' (permissible dating). It's an ever-present question, and it's one is as diverse as the over two billion Muslims around the world.

The Feed spoke to young Australian Muslims making their way in the dating world: including those meeting partners through more orthodox routes within community groups; those trying out Muslim dating apps; and others using the more conventional online dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, or Hinge.

The verdict? It's complicated.

'I'm not looking for the physical bit of it, because I'm Muslim and that prohibits you from doing that'

*Salim, 23, is based in Canberra. He's on most of the regular dating apps. He describes being on them as a waste of time because he struggles to meet women who share his intentions and what he wants out of a relationship.

"You can't find that person that understands exactly what you're looking for because there's just a difference in your culture," Salim told The Feed.

"Basically, that's what you feel like if you're looking for something serious."

Salim feels like there's a barrier between some of the women he's dated on the apps, and himself. He says the expectation that after a period of dating physical intimacy will follow has impacted him.

"I'm not looking for the physical bit of it, because I'm Muslim and that prohibits you from doing that," he said.

"So that's when you feel like it's very hard to connect in that way. You always feel there's 10 per cent or that 5 per cent is always missing."

Salim recalls inviting a woman over to his place after they'd been dating for a little while.

The two were making out on the couch, and as things started to heat up Salim pulled away. He didn't feel comfortable going against his religious beliefs - so he rejected her advances to get more intimate.

"We just stopped talking for a bit and, like, slowly stopped communicating with each other and then ultimately stopped," he said.

Salim believes that was the reason the two stopped communicating. It's something that frustrates him because, he says, given some time the two could have built something together.

"You do feel a bit hurt in a way...You feel like you're a bit disappointed and misunderstood," he said.

But Salim hasn't given up on dating, he says, just the other day he went on a first date with someone new, they spent the entire day together hanging out learning about each other.

"It was very nice like you do find something that's nice, in a way as well on [the dating apps]," he said.

Despite having boundaries in how he dates, Salim still isn't sure what he's doing represents 'halal dating'.

And for Dr Shakira Hussien, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, who specialises in Islamic studies, she thinks people like Salim represent a shift in how young Muslims are dating.

She says working out what the rules might be for halal dating is still very much a work in progress. It's a process happening to a large extent on social media.

"Young Muslims don't necessarily want to follow the same pattern of their parent's generation, but they do still want to maintain their religious identity," Dr Hussien told The Feed.

'Because of how I look he just made all these assumptions'

*Layla, 36, decided at the beginning of the year she wanted to make an effort to focus her energy on Muslim dating apps like Saalam (formerly known as Minder) and MuzMatch, oppose to conventional dating apps.

"I'd like to date ideally another Muslim person," Layla told The Feed.

Layla identifies as bisexual and pansexual - so she wanted to make it clear in her profile - to ensure there weren't any surprises coming her way when she went on dates.

She says men on these apps have told her that they couldn't date her "for real" because of her sexuality, some have sent overtly sexual messages about their penis while others have made judgements about her piercings and not wearing the hijab.

"I think some men think that because I looked that way. I'm like, immediately haram," Layla told The Feed.

Layla says MuzMatch were swift in banning and restricting the accounts of people who sent her overtly sexual messages.

But after those experiences, Layla took a break from the Muslim dating apps and logged onto Tinder. She remembers one day being 'super liked' by this Muslim man who she thought was cute and handsome.

The two hit it off immediately, and in no time went on a date. Their first date was very wholesome and "halal" as Layla puts it. But a week after their first meeting, he messaged late in the evening if he could come by, Layla said yes.

When she greeted him in the doorway she noticed he seemed different to their first date. He told her after she let him in that he had done cocaine on his way there.

"I just didn't know how to respond to that," she said.

Layla says she was still thinking about their first date, and wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. As the night went on, the two of them got a bit drunk and ended up having sex.

But as soon as it was over, Layla says, he blamed her for making him have sex with her.

"He was like in my own house basically just saying, you're haram," she said.

Layla was taken aback. 'Haram' is an Arabic word which means forbidden, or impure.

The episode left her feeling as though Muslim men could say anything to her because of the how she looks, from her piercings to how she presents with her sexuality.

"[They] feel comfortable doing things like bringing cocaine into my house and showing up unannounced," she said.

"I don't think they would do that to a woman they meant through their network. Because he met me on Tinder, because of how I look he just made all these assumptions."

Despite some of her experiences, Layla's determination to be clear about her sexuality on Muslim dating apps is a development Dr Hussein says has been happening over the last few years.

She believes there's been an increased visibility around queer Muslims who are dating, and firm in maintaining both their religious identity and gender and sexual identities.

"That's been a really major shift that we've seen just for the few years, particularly since the Orlando massacre and since the same-sex marriage plebiscite," she said.

"As traumatic as both those events were it did motivate people to say, look we've been having these conversations within these very restricted and private and invitation-only locations but we want to start addressing that far more publicly."

'I feel like a community is kind of like the root of kind of all relationships'

Often there's a perception that most Muslim marriages are either forced or arranged that the couple have no agency in the decision they make. It's a predictable stereotype Dr Shakira Hussien says is far from the norm, and gets undue attention.

This wasn't the cause for Aulia, 23, and Malick 25, who first met at a wedding in 2015. Aulia is frustrated when the validity of their relationship is brought up by some of their non-Muslim friends.

She likes to think of the first time the two met as akin to serendipity.

"It's true what they say that you get to meet your significant other at a wedding, a new love starts another love," Aulia told The Feed.

But after the wedding the two didn't really speak very much, they were just acquaintances who'd met once at a wedding. It wasn't until 2017 when Malicke was invited to an annual camp run by MYSK, a Muslim youth community organisations based in Melbourne, they met again.

"That's when we got to know each other a bit more. Because in that camp, it was very intimate, we did activities together, we learnt religion together and we kind of grew a lot of a lot closer," Aulia said.

Once the camp ended Malicke returned to Sydney and Aulia stayed in Melbourne.

They stayed in touch, and spent the next year getting to know one another's intentions, and made sure they were on the same page with their faith. They married in February this year, but feel it's only after marriage that the real dating begins.

But explaining that to their non-Muslim friends has been frustrating, Aulia says, she's gotten questions after dating Malicke for a year and a half that they were rushing things.

"They always fucking [use an] extra unnecessary phrase: 'is this arranged?'," she said.

"I never said anything about arranged marriage. I think it just reminds me that a lot of non Muslims think that the reason why we get married very quickly is because we're forced.

"But you know, what? Marriage in Islam should not be forced, and it's actually prohibited to do that."

Outside of dealing with misconceptions of their marriage, the most important element of their partnership is where it began: in community.

"[At] MYSK, we learn how to socialise, we learn how to build relationships together. And because you know, it's not just females, it's not just men, we do come together, we do mix," she said.

"We learn religion together, we learn about life together."

Aulia says being a minority in Australia means having to deal with daily challenges, and having a community to support you and engender a sense of belonging is crucial in overcoming them.

"I feel like a community is kind of like the root of all relationships," she said.

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons