Thousands of young people across the UAE have turned the internet into a matchmaker in the hope of finding a spouse.
Hoping to click with a stranger
Fawad Dar gazes forlornly at dozens of profiles of women on the computer screen before him. Alheyah says she is "looking for the one", Sweethearted29 is "ready for love" and Beautiful101 says, with simple optimism, "the search ends here".
Fawad sighs. His search for a future wife is far from over. "I have e-mailed 426 girls and I have not met the right one yet," he says. "Either they rejected me or I rejected them. But I am still hopeful." The 28-year-old call centre manager from Abu Dhabi is on a mission: to find someone to spend the rest of his life with as soon as possible. To reach his goal, he has become one of thousands of young men and women in the UAE who are taking the initiative themselves by signing up to Muslim matrimonial websites.
In a society where ordinary dating websites are banned, the popularity of marital websites has exploded into a phenomenon. Most Muslim communities frown on free mingling between the sexes and dating is forbidden. But where marriages were once arranged by parents, family friends or community-based matchmakers, sometimes with little interaction between the couple before their wedding day, an increasing number of those wanting to wed are voting with their keyboards and picking their partners themselves.
While internet dating has long been booming in the west, Muslims are just starting to tap into the idea that technology could replace the traditional means of relying on family members or old-fashioned marriage bureaux to track down potential spouses from their countries of origin. Whether it is down to the escalating number of divorces - the UAE has one of the highest rates in the Muslim world - or the proliferation of eligible young singletons frustrated in their search for The One, dozens of websites have seen a flood of recruits from the region eager to meet a partner.
Since it began advertising its services in the UAE in April, SingleMuslim.com has already attracted 8,400 new members from the country. And the longer-established Shaadi.com says of its 14 million members, nearly 127,000 UAE-based residents - including more than 43,000 Muslims - have signed up to its promise of a "superior matchmaking service". The websites allow users to tailor their search to narrow down candidates according to looks, mother tongue, caste or religious sect and even adherence to halal restrictions.
Pakistan-born Fawad tried the traditional route first, allowing his parents to introduce him to prospective wives, but says it soon became apparent his family had different ideas about a suitable match. He joined SingleMuslim two months ago and now spends up to two hours a day scouring the website for a prospective candidate but says he is still looking: "I got replies from about 200 and asked for pictures of about 20 girls but rejected quite a few on the basis of their photos.
"There were a few of them up to what I was looking for but they were not interested. More than 75 per cent of girls are looking for a guy who does not have a beard. My preference is religious girls and I am looking for someone European whose family is from the Punjab or Kashmir so she will be able to mix better with my family. "One was up to the mark. We are still communicating but I am not sure if it will work as the way we think about religion is different.
"My parents want me to get married to someone in Pakistan but I want a wife from Europe who can understand me better, drive a car and be independent. "Pakistani girls are shy and don't like to go out alone. Even though I have not met my match yet, there are a lot of single professionals here away from their families and I am positive I will find someone." For Saqib, 38, a British-born engineer of Pakistani origin, now living in Dubai, the search has ended. He joined the website after his disastrous first marriage arranged by his parents when he was 19 years old ended in divorce.
Within days of signing up in June, he spotted Amber, 29, a convert to Islam. After a brief flurry of e-mails, he proposed at their second meeting and bought a Dh6,000 (US$1,600) engagement ring on their third. Saqib, whose name has been changed, said: "For me, this is my first love marriage. It is like a dream. Because of the way my first marriage ended, my parents were perfectly happy for me to find someone of my own accord.
"I live in Dubai and do not have a big social network. The Muslim community here is more reserved and conservative and people usually go back to their home countries to marry. "I liked Amber from the first second I saw her online - she was just perfect. Then when we met, I was taken by her passion for Islam. "We felt very strongly about each other so on the second day I said: 'Why don't we just get married?' It was the best decision of my life."
But for single women joining matrimonial websites, there is the added contention of getting approval from conservative parents, who may frown on the idea of their daughters taking it upon themselves to search for a husband. The numbers signing up to Muslim matrimonial websites are still heavily weighted toward men with an average of at least two to every woman while many female users refrain from using photos on their profiles, preferring to make contact with anyone interested before sending an image.
Adeem Younis, the founder of UK-based SingleMuslim, which has 370,000 members worldwide, believes he has the answer: involving the whole family in the decision-making process. "The site is family-inclusive, which means parents can register to look on behalf of their children, as well as uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters," he says. "In some cases, there are families who do not know. The only resistance we have met is from people who do not understand what the internet is for."
With more young men and women moving away from their home towns to study or pursue their careers, the traditional set-up of a local community where you could be living next door to your future spouse is no longer working, he says. "There has been a shift in what people are looking for in a marriage partner," he says. "Back in the old days, you might have been expected to marry someone from your country of origin but that can lead to a conflict of cultures. People have different expectations now and plans for their lives.
"There are a lot of people who are searching and desperate to get married but they do not have the same network of family and friends anymore." That certainly seems to be the case in the UAE, which has the highest number of new members signing up to SingleMuslim of any Middle Eastern country while it is the fourth highest-ranking in the world after the UK, the US and Pakistan. On average, 45 men and women join every day, accounting for 10 per cent of new clients worldwide. Most are aged between 22 and 27 with men outnumbering women three to one, even though women get to sign up for free.
Gunjan Sinha, of Shaadi.com, where 34 per cent of members in the UAE are Muslim, says: "Marriage is now more of a personal choice with just the immediate family involved in the process. The concept of joint families is slowly eroding and we are seeing the rise of nuclear families as people move away from their home towns in search of a better career. "In the absence of a strong social network to fall back on, people are moving to other forms of connecting and communication. The internet takes away the geographical and spatial boundaries and limitations that traditional matchmaking suffers from, so one can meet one's prospective life partner in Mumbai while sitting in Seattle."
Not everyone is a happy surfer, however. Nabila Usman, 23, who runs a consultancy firm in Dubai, signed up to several Muslim marriage websites but deleted her profile after being bombarded with inappropriate messages from men. "I was getting five messages a day. One guy in particular kept demanding I send a photo, then told me not to waste his time when I refused," she says. "Another girl I know was about to get married to someone she met online, then found out he had been married before and lied about his nationality."
Mr Younis says any unwanted harassment can be avoided by reporting offenders to the website's managers, who have a zero tolerance policy and will ban them: "The website is strictly for people who want to get married. We recommend vetting a person's credentials by going to meet their family and visiting their local mosque to get references." Ms Sinha adds: "Shaadi.com is a serious website meant for people who genuinely want to look for a match."
Safety issues aside, some marriage experts in the region still have their reservations about the validity of internet sites in finding a life partner. Widad Samawi, director of the Tawasel centre for training and family in Abu Dhabi, co-ordinated the National Campaign for Social Cohesion in March after it emerged the UAE has one of the highest rates of divorce in the Muslim world. One in four marriages breaks down with more than 40 per cent of those involving couples in their 20s.
"These websites could work if they are within the right framework with restrictions which take into consideration religious and cultural views," she says. "But there could be many people who are not genuine and pretending to be something they are not. Some men could be contacting 10 ladies or more - how do you know if he is serious? "There is a danger that people could be misled. Marriage is the most important project in our lives and should be studied carefully before taking that step."
Alexandra Tribe, a divorce lawyer with Al Midfa legal consultancy, urges a similar note of caution: "The most important aspect is cultural suitability, and that is not necessarily something you can learn from a website." firstname.lastname@example.org