A few days ago, Malaysian online news platform Malay Mail Online reported on how some married Muslim men in Malaysia are using “halal speed dating” to find a second wife. Halal Speed Dating (HSD) is a matchmaking platform for Muslims, co-founded by Malaysian couple Munirah Tunai Shamsidi and Zuhri Yuhyi. Together they run matchmaking events to help people who are “seek[ing] a spouse in a respectable manner.”
While the Malay Mail article focused on the misuse of the platform to find co-wives, the whole idea of ‘halal’ or ‘shariah-compliant’ matchmaking is newsworthy in itself. The guidelines of HSD mostly centre around the inability of Malay Muslim women to choose and marry their own spouses. Female participants to this events must come with a chaperone, whom the co-founders define to be a wali (male guardian) or mahram (non-marriageable relative). Most participants come with a parent or family member.
Both Munirah and Zuhri truly believe this is the best way to find a spouse. They met at the Marriage Corner, a seminar on marriage which is part of the annual Twins of Faith conference in Kuala Lumpur. The conference is funded and organized by the UK organisation Mercy Mission. This conference is simultaneously run in other cities such as Lahore, Pakistan and Melbourne, Australia. Minirah and Zuhri married after five months of exhanging emails and chaperoned interaction.
With the slogan “We want to change the way people fall in love, for the better,” Munirah and Zuhri hark to a romanticised version of history where men had to ask other men for permission to marry their daughters. Their FAQs page on the HSD website, says:
“Think back on how our grandparents got married. Our grandfathers were proper gentlemen. When our grandfather wanted to marry a lady, he would approach the lady’s father first.”
“Because the traditional way of dating is faster and more efficient by including the guardians and family members in the process. More importantly, it avoids fitnah, heartbreak, premarital pregnancy, premarital sex, abandoned babies and all 50 Shades of Haram. You get the picture.”
In an interview with Singaporean news channel Channel NewsAsia, Munirah says, “In Islam, yes, of course you have to involve the father actually, because the father is the lady’s guardian. So if a guy wants to get married to a lady, it’s after receiving the permission of the father. So that’s why we’d like to get the father involved as early as possible.”
However, traditional courtship and marriage practices in the Malay archipelago were much more than just getting a father’s permission. While the tradition of ‘merisik’, or asking a girl’s hand in marriage by visiting her family, did exist (and still does) among the Malays, this process usually involved entire families. Women played an active role in gathering information about the prospective bride’s manners, health, looks, household skills and religious knowledge. There was also a period of courtship for the young woman and man to ensure their compatibility, during which the woman could play ‘hard to get’ and prolonging the process.
Let’s put aside for a moment the categorisation of “fitnah, heartbreak, premarital pregnancy, premarital sex, abandoned babies” as being haram, or forbidden. Semantically speaking, premarital pregnancy and premarital sex cannot occur in a marriage. Marriage is the precondition, according to some orthodox understandings, for sex and preganancy to happen. Yet, ‘heartbreak’ or ‘abandoned babies’ can still happen in marriages; being married is not a panacea for these.
But the fixation on children as an indicator of marriage happiness seems to be a common denominator between the Malaysian husband-wife company and the Mercy Mission Marriage Corner event that brought them together. In the couple’s video testimony for the Marriage Corner, the narrative implies that having a baby is a sign of their marital success. This narrative is further reinforced by the images of a disembodied pregnant belly in a second couple’s video testimony.
Newsflash: having a baby only indicate that your reproductive organs work. There are also plenty of couples that may not be able to conceive, as well as happy couples that choose not to have children. In fact, sociological studies such as those by Boyd C. Rollins and Kenneth L. Cannon (1974) on marital satisfaction show that children reduces marital happiness, at least in the beginning. Rollings and Cannon argue,
“Marital satisfaction generally starts high, falls when children are born, reaches a low point when children are in their teenage years, and rises again when children reach adulthood.”
I don’t doubt that these three couples married for love. In the third video testimony, the man mentions that his wife is “amazing” and understands him. However, the blurring and/or omission of all three women’s faces makes the entire marriage narrative revolve around men and how they are benefiting from marriage, while rendering their wives literally invisible.
The couples also repeat the rhetoric that keeping marriage in mind, marrying for the sake of Allah, and having pure intentions will increase one’s success at finding a spouse. However, what goes unmentioned is that conferences like this one attract a certain demographic. According to Channel NewsAsia, “about 5,700 people have signed up for Halal Speed Dating, typically working professionals aged between 25 to 35 who are too busy to meet people the ‘normal’ way.”
The Muslim women and men at the HSD events are often English-speaking, university-educated (undergraduate or postgraduate) professionals in their 20s and 30s, who can afford the ticket prices of 120MYR (30USD). Having a similar socioeconomic background is a major factor in determining a couple’s compatibility.
Despite this, the HSD event does ensure that there is an equal number of women and men at each event, with similar goals in mind. For example, in the case of the married men looking for second wives at one of the HSD event mentioned in the beginning of this article, the organisers did not allow them to take part because “the female applicants did not agree to such an arrangement [of being a co-wife].” Munirah said in Malay Mail Online,
“In the application forms, some said they are married and looking for second wife. Unfortunately, none of the female applicants stated their willingness to meet married men. If there are more, we will arrange but we cannot proceed with just one applicant.”
Overall, HSD seems to be a socially-acceptable matchmaking initiative for Malaysian Muslims who want to involve their families. However, it is misleading for them to promote a certain version of Islamic courtship and marriage ethics as being ‘true’ way to meet a spouse. Finding a spouse through chaperoned dating may work for some people, but holding it up as the one and only ‘Islamic’ way to find a spouse erases other equally acceptable ways of marrying, for those who even want to in the first place.