Speed dating for Muslims embraced in Malaysia as alternative to Western-style online apps

(From left) Ms Siti Aisha, together with her parents Zabidah and Jamali, attending Halal Speed Dating, a matchmaking event in Kuala Lumpur on Oct 3, 2015.
(From left) Ms Siti Aisha, together with her parents Zabidah and Jamali, attending Halal Speed Dating, a matchmaking event in Kuala Lumpur on Oct 3, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters/AFP) - Dressed in a headscarf and full-length robe, 24 year-old Nurnadille Edlena takes notes intently as the man before her introduces himself.

The two are at Halal Speed Dating, a new matchmaking event in Kuala Lumpur that is helping Malaysian Muslims find partners in a largely conservative society where courtship is frowned upon and marriages are often arranged.

The dating service is halal, meaning permissible under Islamic law, as it is practised with an Islamic twist: Women speed daters must be chaperoned by a wali, or guardian, until she gets married and who grants her the permission to do so.

"I brought my parents as they are the best people who can guide me to find someone," said Ms Nurnadille. "I'm focusing on finding someone who can willingly accept me for who I am."

Malaysia is a largely moderate Muslim country, where Islam is the official religion and ethnic Malay Muslims make up two thirds of the 30 million people.

Many young Malaysians meet as young people do in many places, including through the dating app Tinder and on Facebook, but dating is complicated for young Muslims in Malaysia, where public displays of affection and intimacy before marriage is strictly disapproved of.

Malaysian Muslims face possible fines and jail terms for committing "khalwat", the Islamic crime of being alone with a member of the opposite sex other than a spouse or close relative.

As conservative attitudes are rising, the speed dating sessions have been embraced as an alternative to online match-making sites or apps that many Malaysian Muslims view as geared more for Western-style casual flings.

Promising an Islamic courtship in a "dignified manner," Halal Speed Dating requires that women be chaperoned and that all participants ultimately plan to wed.

Its founders say most of their clients hope to find a spouse. A client can shortlist up to three possible partners but can only negotiate marriage with one at a time, in accordance with Islamic rules.

Suitable matches don't wed immediately. But unlike Western-style speed dating, which is geared toward matching up people for later dates and courtship on their own, couples in the Islamic version are expected to seek marriage soon after both sides agree, including the parents.

"Halal Speed Dating is the anti-Tinder," co-founders Zuhri Yuhyi, 34, and Norhayati Ismail, 41, said in a release, referring to the United States-based dating app that has gained a reputation for free and easy match-making.

"Instead of casual hookups, Halal Speed Dating is about dignified and chaperoned meet-ups with the intention of marriage. In fact, we do not condone the modern dating that is commonly practiced."

They say their system can prevent what they see as the social ills of premarital sex and adultery, which they believe are fostered by apps like Tinder.

Ms Norhayati say it is not just Muslims who are interested in their system and making inquires. "I can tell people are looking for something new," she said.

"A true gentleman would seek permission from the woman's father first," said Mr Zuhri. "That has been the way for thousands of years and it's only in the last two or three generations that we have lost this beauty. But we hope to bring it back."

Mr Zuhri and his wife met at an unrelated match-making event in 2012 and now have a baby boy. But he wanted to create something more in line with Islamic principles.

He warned that popular Western-based websites such as Tinder "can lead to social ills like premarital sex, abandoned babies and extramarital affairs".

The founders have organised the event twice in Kuala Lumpur. The first time in May, when about 80 people joined, and the second time last week with 60 hopefuls.

About 2,300 people have signed up to attend a session, most of them urban professionals between the ages of 25 to 35. But capacity constraints meant only around 50 could take part, but Mr Zuhri hopes to stage a bigger event soon, with up to 500 couples.

The weekend round followed an initial instalment in May that Mr Zuhri said resulted in 14 matches that he hopes will soon end in martrimony.

During the sessions, Muslim Malay men in Western clothing banter with the women, most of them dressed in conservative Islamic long-sleeved blouses, long flowing skirts and headscarves.

Use of personal names is taboo, and participants have numbers pinned to their shirts. A few participants scribbled notes as they chatted. Cupid's work is interrupted every five minutes when Mr Zuhri jingles a hand-held bell to signal it is time for the men to switch tables.

"Alright, time to move on everybody. Let's move it, move it!" he said cheerily into a microphone.

Afterwards, organisers notify the women of any interested suitors.

"So far it's been good," said one young woman chaperoned by her brother but who, like most participants, declined to give her name.

"I think maybe there's one or two potentials, but even if it doesn't work out I get to meet new people," she said.

Several women said the difficulty finding romance by traditional match-making agencies, websites, or just by chance, had spurred them to take part.

"I have used apps to try and meet Muslim men. But the selection is not varied enough," she said.

Mr Mohamad Fauzan, 26, who helps to run his family business in Kuala Lumpur, halal speed dating provides another option in his quest to find true love. "I've done online dating and gone on blind dates, but in our religion, going halal is the better thing to do. It's better to first get the permission of the parents, but I'm open to all options," he said.

Looking out nervously from her pink headscarf, Malaysian single Siti Aisha chats with a man she has never met, but who could become her husband following their speed-dating session.

The pair talk shyly for a few minutes under the watchful eyes of Ms Siti's parents until a bell prompts the dozens of male participants to shift to a new table and a new prospective wife.

Ms Siti, a 29-year-old graphic designer, has not been in a relationship since her university days. "I'm here to find someone for marriage because I'm too busy to meet anyone and I spend all my free time with my family," she said during a break, as her parents eagerly compared notes on the male prospects.

Ms Siti's father Jamali Kamarudin said they had tried other methods including match-making via friends but "it didn't work out very well".

"This is very new and it's our first time, but hopefully it works out. We should keep an open mind," he said.