September 8, 2012

Muslims turn to ... speed dating

The process is a little different with Islamic customs, as mothers might hover nearby.

By ANNYS SHIN The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - "Can you smell the perfume in this room?" Abdul Malik Kadir said to a guy in a gray suit standing next to him. "My sinuses are cleared."

click image to enlarge

Muslims line up for the recent speed-dating session at the annual Washington convention of the Islamic Society of North America, where one speed-dater said her favorite question was, “What is your favorite vegetable?”

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary

Kadir, 35, was sitting on a bench outside a ballroom at the Renaissance Washington hotel, surrounded by several hundred single Muslim men and women. The swelling crowd, ranging in age from 21 to 50-something, meant the evening of speed dating and socializing known as the Matrimonial Banquet was about to begin.

The banquet has been part of the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America in some form or another for more than two decades, said the group's matrimonial assistant, Tabasum Ahmad. But in recent years, the demand for such banquets has increased, and the society plans to hold them more frequently.

More Muslims are embracing them as an acceptable alternative to arranged marriages and the vagaries of 21st-century, American-style dating. Online matchmaking is also popular, but some prefer to meet in person. Both weekend banquets -- which took place Sept. 1 and 2 -- were sold out.

The guy in the suit was an electrical engineer from Atlanta named Mo Raza, 30. It was his first banquet. Kadir, who owns an insurance business in Tampa, Fla., went to one a couple of years ago and Raza was asking him how it worked.

The format at this year's convention entailed having the women sit on one side of a long rectangular table with men close to their age parked across from them.

The pairs then spent three minutes chatting, at the end of which the men moved down a seat to talk to the next woman. In the course of two hours, there were to be 27 of these three-minute rounds, along with a dinner, and then a "social hour," where they could mingle more freely.

Three minutes. The guys pondered this.

"Always ask about them," Kadir advised. "Make them feel like you're really into them."

Raza said he wanted to ask the women whether they wanted to keep working after starting a family, not so much because he had a staunch preference, but to gauge her reaction. "I want to see flexibility," he said. "Is she angry when I ask? Does she look at me like, 'You're so stupid?' If so, it's not the right person."

Kadir was not so sure about that strategy. "You might not want to ask everyone that," he said.

The real test would be meeting Raza's mother, who was standing behind him, one of many relatives and friends who accompanied some of the attendees. For traditionally minded Muslims, families are intimately involved in the selection of a mate from the start.

Such a scenario was playing out a few yards away, where Rocky, a neurosurgeon from Chicago, was being prepped by his sister and two of her friends.

"Say, 'I'm in medicine,' " she suggested. " 'Neuroscience. What do you do?' "

Rocky, a big, tall guy in a gray suit with no tie, laughed. In theory, his MD gives him an edge, Raza and Kadir lamented, doctor being the most preferred occupation among parents. There is one problem with doctors, however: It takes so long to become one. Rocky has been so engrossed in his medical training, a male friend standing next to him explained, he has had no time to meet potential spouses.

His predicament is becoming more common, said Altaf Husain, an assistant professor of social work at Howard University and an ISNA trustee. Increased mobility also takes the young away from extended families that could facilitate introductions.

"Our networks are not as strong as they once were. People are not staying in one place," Husain said. "Young Muslims tell me, 'My parents can't help me because they don't know anyone where I live.' "

(Continued on page 2)

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