Shaymaa Ali was running out of time. She was unmarried and in her late 20s, an age where it’s pitiful, if not shameful, to be single in Egypt. As a research librarian brought up in a traditional Muslim family, Ali was caught between two ways of life. The “Western” way of meeting a partner — through mixing with the opposite sex and dating — was frowned upon in her country, and the time-honored route of a family-arranged marriage was not delivering results.

In the decade since leaving university, she had endured more than 30 awkward encounters with potential husbands she usually met in her parents’ living room in Alexandria. “After ten minutes, everyone would be looking at both of us to make a decision,” Ali recalls. “And then the boy would ask, Do you work? Can you leave work? And I would think, Why are you meeting me? You came knowing that I worked.” 

For her parents, a “suitable match” meant a man “from a good family” with a car or an apartment. But being better educated and more independent than the women of her mother’s generation, Ali had always hoped to find a different kind of relationship. She was also all too aware of Egypt’s soaring divorce rate, which today sees nearly 40% of marriages ending within five years. “My mother and I used to argue,” she reflects. “She didn’t get it. But as time moves on, you also get scared: What if I turned 31 or 32 without getting married? I might never be a mother.”

These were the post–Arab Spring years, and an economic recession was making it harder for young people to find jobs and start families. Then, in 2014, Ali began writing on her Facebook page about her experiences as a single woman. One post described how her mother reacted to her winning an award by asking why she still wasn’t married. Another explained her decision to “no longer wait around for a groom” and instead use the money she had saved for marriage to travel.

Soon, she had more than 50,000 followers. Every week, women messaged her to share familiar tales of unsuitable suitors and unbearable family pressures.

This was around the time that dating apps like Tinder and Bumble were being introduced in the Middle East and North Africa. While dating is not culturally approved of in Egypt, it does happen, usually covertly and with the intention of finding a life partner. Casual, low-commitment dating is strongly discouraged. And since Western apps have a reputation for exactly that, many men on them seemed to be looking for only hookups.

Why, asked Ali in a passionate post, wasn’t there a platform that could enable Egyptian men and women serious about marriage to learn more about each other before they met? Or to figure out whether they should even meet in the first place?

Her post caught the eye of Sameh Saleh, a young Egyptian tech entrepreneur who was working to set up Hawaya (formerly known as Harmonica), a mobile matchmaking app. With 141 million smartphone users in the Middle East — 72% of them under 34, and many struggling to find life partners — Saleh thought he had spotted a gap in the market. But given the dubious reputation of Tinder in Egypt, he knew the challenge would be attracting female users who might not feel comfortable using such platforms. By recruiting Ali, he was hoping to find a solution.

Today, three years after launch and a rebrand, Hawaya is reported to have 1 million installs and 25 employees. At first glance, it looks like any Western dating app, with the typical questions about age, marital status, and location. But look more carefully, and its targeted user comes into focus. “We’re not asking you to cover yourself,” guidelines explain, but images are required to be “classy and appropriate.” And in the space allotted for bios, users are urged to “keep it clean.”

Hawaya’s strategy is to embed Muslim cultural values into its design. Its minimum age was raised from 18 to 21, to ensure that people were serious about marriage. To adhere to traditional Muslim attitudes around modesty, Hawaya gives female users the option of hiding their photos until they feel comfortable revealing them to a match. There is also a “Guardian Angel” feature that allows a family member to “chaperone” and oversee conversations. The message in all of this, says Ali, is that “our users respect our traditions and culture.”

Hawaya’s business model relies on “premium” subscriptions, which offer features like daily instant matches and read-message receipts for around $12 a month. But it also received a significant infusion of funds and technical expertise in 2019, when it was acquired for an undisclosed amount by Dallas-based Match Group, owners of Tinder and OkCupid. This past Valentine’s Day, Hawaya was relaunched in five different languages: Arabic, German, Turkish, Bahasa Indonesia, and English.

For single Muslims in still-conservative societies, apps like Hawaya represent a new form of courtship. On its website, Hawaya faults the traditional arranged marriage system for forcing many young Muslims “to choose a life partner in an unhealthy set-up” and presents itself as a “scientific, safe, and culturally accepted” alternative. The effects of this shift are significant and not limited to its users. Marwa, a 30-year-old woman living in Cairo, says that you find all kinds of people on Tinder in Egypt today, including religious men and women in hijabs. She believes that the growing popularity of Muslim matchmaking apps is generally making “dating culture more acceptable in Egypt.”

Photo by Johann Rousselot/laif/Redux

Lebanese entrepreneur Cedric Maalouf co-founded AlKhattaba in 2014, after his attempt to create a matchmaking platform for the entire Middle East and North Africa fell apart. “Users wanted something more culturally specific,” he reflects. “What I didn’t realize was that questions or features which worked for, say, young Lebanese, just didn’t work in Morocco.” When pressed for an example, he pauses. “We used to have a question about smoking the hookah pipe,” he says. “Until we learned that, in some countries, that could have a sexual connotation.” 

When that first project stalled out, Maalouf and his team decided to slow down and focus exclusively on the country where they had the best traffic.

Ironically, that turned out to be Saudi Arabia.

Despite the fact that the country is governed by a theocracy that keeps a close watch on the internet — and which has banned mingling between single, unrelated people of the opposite sex — the kingdom still presented a lucrative market. A new generation was coming of age and, like young people everywhere, they craved choice. As in Egypt, the country’s divorce rate had also been exploding in recent years, and many people were desperate to remarry. Fast-forward to six years after launch, and Maalouf claims to have more than 300,000 active monthly users. Only men pay for subscriptions.

Visitors are welcomed to AlKhattaba — the Saudi term for a female matchmaker — by an illustration of a smiling woman in traditional Arabic dress with a hint of red lipstick. Before users can sign up, they must agree to terms stipulating that they are seeking marriage in accordance with Islamic law. Then, they fill out a detailed 60-question test, devised with the help of a marriage counselor and religious clerics. In addition to matters of height, hobbies, and leisure activities, the test addresses Saudi-specific concerns. Several questions seek to identify a user’s religious leanings and tribal affiliation. Another asks whether they would prefer their first child to be a boy or girl.

When it comes to what kind of relationship a user is looking for, options include what Saudis call a misyar — a controversial form of often-temporary marriage that permits sexual relations between couples who live separately. (According to Maalouf, while misyars have become popular in Saudi Arabia in recent years, barely 1% of users select that option.) There is also a box for polygamous marriage. “It helps us make sure not to match an already married man looking for a second wife with a woman who wouldn’t accept being a second wife,” Maalouf clarifies.

Managing these concerns is a balancing act and one that requires being culturally attuned. For example, when AlKhattaba discovered that matches were falling apart because of parental opposition, the matchmaking algorithm was tweaked to include the elder generation’s preferences. Now a parent’s expectations for their adult child’s potential partner can be factored into results. Similarly, when Maalouf noticed that users wanted more detailed information about the hijab, questions were introduced asking women what type of headdress they wore and asking men to specify how covered up they wanted a potential spouse to be.

In a country with draconian “decency laws,” one of AlKhattaba’s biggest challenges is staying on the right side of the authorities. To prevent any missteps, Maalouf has implemented rigorous vetting procedures. Algorithms scan a user’s introductory conversations for “contentious” words or subjects, which are usually related to money or sex. An enforcement team is on call 24 hours a day. Any users breaching the app’s strict decency rules are immediately banned from the site.

Professional matchmakers have thought a lot about what it means for users to move beyond the traditional ways of finding a life partner. And in the specialized world of “Muslim matchmaking,” the questions are even more complex. Can these apps really take into account the messy complexities of attraction and love, especially when cultural and religious pressures are involved? Will they improve on the old methods? And how equipped are young Muslims to build a relationship via a matchmaking app, especially when they often have minimal experience with the opposite sex?

Some of the strategies are fairly straightforward. Many platforms, for instance, now include advice about how to navigate the unfamiliar emotional terrain of modern dating. On AlKhattaba, users are instructed to study a person’s profile before trying to start a conversation and are warned not to exchange contact information too early with matches they don’t yet know.

In other cases, the issues are more serious. At Hawaya, one of Shaymaa Ali’s biggest worries is how to protect women who met their husbands on the app. “Egyptian men are still old-fashioned,” she says, “and it troubles me that some men who met their wives through Hawaya might use their wife’s previous conversations with other men on the site against them.”

Photo courtesy of Muzmatch

One of the earliest entrants to the online Muslim matchmaking scene is the United Kingdom–based app Muzmatch. It has over 3 million users in 190 countries and claims to have been responsible for more than 60,000 weddings. Unlike many of its competitors, which use cultural or local references in their branding, Muzmatch has always explicitly targeted users, most of whom are in the United States, Canada, and the U.K., strictly on the basis of religion. Upon joining, users are asked in the name of God to swear an oath that they will use the app “properly.” And when they find their first match, they are sent a gentle reminder to “keep things halal.”

However, that’s about as religious as Muzmatch gets. The company’s headquarters in the heart of trendy East London feels like a classic Silicon Valley startup, and its CEO and founder, Shahzad Younas, sports a trim hipster beard and stylish sneakers. That’s all aligned with the aim of the company, which is to give expression to a modern Muslim identity. He says the current generation holds less-rigid cultural values and is more cosmopolitan than their parents. As Muzmatch developed, Shahzad tells me, he began to experiment with ways of using the site to help younger Muslims to move beyond inherited prejudices.

In the early days of the app, for instance, users were able to stipulate that they wanted to be matched with potential partners of only the same ethnicity. But the data revealed something different. While users were asking to be matched with people just like them, they were actually clicking on profiles of people from different ethnic backgrounds. “It made me realize how limited our users were being,” Shahzad says. “And given that, in Islam, caste and ethnicity do not exist — or, at least, they shouldn’t — we decided to make some changes.”

Filters went out, replaced by what the site called “preferences.” And through a new section called “Explore,” users were presented with profiles of people from different backgrounds. “It was a way of gently encouraging users to come out of their comfort zones and drop their parents’ cultural baggage,” he says.

One such success story is Saffiya, a devout Muslim woman living in London. Saffiya was 22 years old when she signed onto Muzmatch. In her preferences, she stated that she was looking for a man who was religious, highly educated, family orientated — and a Somali, like her. “But when I received profiles of potential matches, I couldn’t help thinking there was always something missing from the men I saw,” she says. “So, one day, I decided to ‘explore’ and see what happened. And up came Abdul, a Gambian-French Muslim. We got talking, and we hit it off. Of course, my mother was not thrilled when I told her about Abdul. She wanted a Somali. But after seeing how suited we were and that our faith united us, she came around.”

While some users complain that matchmaking apps can make them feel as if they’re negotiating a deal, Shahzad notes that, in the past, marriages were actual transactions. Every step of the process was controlled by parents, who handled the selection of partners, the family introductions, and letting down rejected suitors. Apps, he says, have relieved them of a significant burden. “If you ask the elders, they will say the biggest problem in their community is finding someone for their child to marry and then keeping that marriage going,” he says. “For years, they were at a loss. Today, they are just grateful that there is something finally out there to help them.”

Muslim matchmaking apps are in an exciting position. They are for-profit businesses trying to “disrupt” age-old traditions of matchmaking and arranged marriages. Because they operate in societies that are often finding their own way between modernization and tradition, they can easily end up on the wrong side of the equation. A platform’s success or failure depends on its understanding a younger generation’s evolving attitudes toward sex and relationships without alienating an older generation conflicted about change.

In the past, matchmaking apps were criticized for encouraging promiscuity — for threatening the whole edifice of family, on which Muslim culture is based. But their recent efforts to integrate tradition and technology have made them more acceptable. That is, as long as they are used only for the purpose of marriage. It would still take a brave mullah to advertise a matchmaking app in their mosque.

For young single Muslims, times are changing fast. Empowering a new generation with technology that gives them more autonomy from their families has led to an enormous shift in attitudes toward romance and relationships across the Muslim world. Women are taking greater agency in choosing their partners. Young people are convincing their parents that it’s morally acceptable to experiment with new ways of finding that partner. And while Western-style dating apps remain firmly taboo for most Muslims, it may be only a matter of time before they’re accepted.