In most rom-com films, there’s a common theme: the protagonist seeks out love, has a few hiccups along the way then Mr Right finally comes along. Looking for love is universal. So why then is there a misconception that Muslim women don't want the same things?
In an era when Muslim women are perceived to be sexless or disempowered, it’s no wonder that some people doubt that we might desire love or be in charge of our own sexuality. But if anything, love, and the search for it, doesn’t have a religion. As a Muslim woman myself, I’m just as entitled to it as you are – and that’s exactly what the first episode of Channel 4’s Extremely British Muslims series aims to make.
All The Single Muslims follows the lives of several young Muslims as they search for a partner. And what a great time it’s come at, too – it’s never been more pressing to present a more humane side to British Muslim womanhood, from being broken-hearted to wondering if you really will find The One.
Women have long been entitled to love and sex in Islam – and let’s not forget that it’s actually OK to divorce your husband if they can’t sexually satisfy us. But it has become hard for us to be included in conversations about dating and sex. Positive depictions of Islam in Britain are far and few between, with most tending to revolve around alienation, terrorism and extremism – and they’re certainly not sex-positive.
According to Shereen El Feki, author of Sex And The Citadel, Muslims have a “long history of celebrating love and sexuality” – so why have we come to the point that Muslims are seen as anti-love and anti-sex? “Conservatives in the Arab, and wider Islamic world wrap up love and sex in restrictive interpretations and use them as tools of social and political control,” she explains. “Our challenge is to rediscover the freedom and, frankly, joy, with which our ancestors celebrated love and sexuality, and find our own way to discuss issues without shame or fear.”
Instagram, dating apps such as Minder (the Muslim equivalent to Tinder) and Muslim match-making sites have all given Muslims the autonomy to pursue love
Navigating the tightrope between dating and being a Muslim in Britain today is a fine line – we want romance, we want intimacy but for many, it’s increasingly incompatible considering stringent rules about sex before marriage. This conflict with reconciling faith and dating as a young woman today is explored by 24-year-old Bella in the Channel 4 show. She chooses to go through Birmingham Central Mosque’s marriage bureau to find a husband but simultaneously pines for a romance reminiscent of a rom-com with romantic dates, kisses and weekends away to Paris.
Grappling between sexual desires and God is a conundrum I know all too well, the struggle being the backdrop to my dating history for as long as I can remember. As someone who identifies as a liberal Muslim, I’ve been seeing my boyfriend for a year and before that, I was a Tinder devotee. I’m more than aware that these two sides aren’t exactly compatible so admittedly, it has always come hand-in-hand with a side helping of guilt.
And if that isn’t enough to contend with, bridging the gap between our 21st-century lives and the expectations of an older generation is another hurdle Muslim women face. Contrary to myths that we’re arranged suitors since we were born, it’s not simply enough to love and marry someone solely because they identify as the same faith. In tonight’s episode, we also meet Nayera who says it would be “very, very difficult for me to marry someone who isn’t British or at least Western because that’s a fundamental part of who I am”. A married friend of mine agrees. While she says that finding love has been natural, she concedes it isn’t without responsibilities. “As a British Muslim, dating isn’t easy when you have people of the same faith looking at you when you are seen having a laugh with the opposite sex. Even so, I don’t think love has to be difficult. It’s people’s culture and expectations that make things harder than it has to be.”
It's no surprise then that the quest for a love that suits both women and is in accordance with Muslim rules is increasingly taking part in the online sphere. Instagram, dating apps such as Minder (the Muslim equivalent to Tinder) and Muslim match-making sites have all given Muslims the autonomy to pursue love.
And while Birmingham Central Mosque’s marriage bureau may seem an unlikely, or even outdated, place to facilitate modern meet-ups, it’s actually not vastly different from venturing to a bar or even a blind date. Meeting with a potential match, introducing yourself to a possible “candidate” and being watched by family members – these experiences are not solely limited to Muslim women alone. Similarly, Nayera’s refusal to play the housewife role is a universal problem faced by women the world over, grappling with the unequal division of chores.
Yes, Muslim women experience a specific set of circumstances when seeking out and building relationships, but as All The Single Muslims shows us, the desire to love and be loved is fundamental to us all.