Muslims in the UK try a western approach to matchmaking
It's an unlikely venue for romance. The generic conference centre that is hosting the latest function by Muslim Marriage Events is in gritty east London and has one of the capital's busiest arterial routes with its thunderous roar outside.
The steady stream of participants, some clad in killer heels or a three-piece business suit, are not bothered. They are here to find the man or woman they hope to spend the rest of their life with.
Welcome to the world of marriage-seeking among a growing number of modern Muslims living in the West.
With familial and community introductions declining, Muslim divorce rates rising and the desire for more say in finding one's life partner increasing, events such as this are quickly becoming popular.
In just six hours, each of the 72 men will meet each of the 72 women and all will have marriage on their mind.
The event is like a combination of musical chairs and speed dating - only with higher stakes. Every attendee gets three minutes with each participant of the opposite sex. There is nervous laughter during the rehearsal as audience members get used to brutally ditching their conversation partner when the stopwatch beeps.
Among them is the Briton Adam Sattar, 38, who is determined to capitalise on his nearly 10,000km round trip from Dubai, where he has worked as a financial adviser for the past five years. He decided to attend while on business in London because he feared his age would mean being left on the shelf.
With a luxury apartment in Dubai Marina and a jet-set lifestyle, there is one part of the jigsaw missing - a wife to share it all with.
"I feel really down and have almost given up hope that I will ever find the one," he says. "My friends tell me I would make a lovely husband and father and that is what I want for myself. I want to marry a woman in her 20s but I get knocked off everyone's list because of my age, although people tell me that face-to-face I do not look that old. I did get engaged when I was 26 but it did not work out and I was left disillusioned and heartbroken. This event is excellent because it puts Muslim women with the same goal - to get married - in front of you.
"In an ideal world, my wife would be Muslim like me, but as I get older that is less important to me. I am looking for someone kind, considerate and caring. With me, she would have a good standard of living with an international lifestyle."
He says he has been unsuccessful searching for a potential spouse in Dubai.
"There are no events like this in the city to meet them," he says, adding: "Whenever I have met women in Dubai, my age is a stumbling block."
Sattar is in good company. Many young Muslims in their 20s and 30s are putting off getting married until later in life to allow themselves a chance to study and climb the career ladder before settling down. Singles in their 30s, 40s and older are a big market for Muslim Marriage Events, which runs a 30-plus event to meet the demand.
Time and again, those looking for their soulmate at the event have the same complaint - it is hard to find a Muslim mate in these modern times. The traditional routes of family introductions and community connections are not available or simply haven't worked for many of them.
The UK-based matrimonial website SingleMuslim.com, which works in partnership with Muslim Marriage Events, has more than 500,000 members worldwide, of which 130,000 signed up last year in the UK alone.
That is a picture seen across the Muslim world; the UAE is the sixth most active country on the website, with more than 6,300 new recruits joining last year, taking the total number from the Emirates to 24,511.
Some are hoping for better luck second time around, for in some countries, such as Malaysia, half of all Muslim marriages end in divorce. In the UAE that figure is one in four, with 40 per cent involving couples in their 20s.
The participants gathering on a frosty January day in Ilford, east London, are a reflection of that cross-cultural trend: they include an African woman in a niqab, an imam and an Asian wedding magazine model.
The youngest is 22 and the oldest is a woman of 53. The latter does not stick around for long, saying she is disappointed with the men on offer, some of whom are young enough to be her son. Among the suitors - some accompanied by chaperones to ensure a "halal", or Islamic, environment - are a taxi driver and a forensic scientist, the unemployed, several doctors and lawyers, divorcees and a single mum.
They are a fair representation of Britain's Muslim population, with the majority of participants of Indian and Pakistani heritage.
Proceedings begin with a Quran recitation, and the day's rhythm thereafter is set by prayer times. The second the event begins, the volume level jumps sharply from a gentle hum to a cacophony as 72 awkward conversations start at once. Smiles are shared and an icebreaker joke cuts through the tension for some. Some pairings find each other on their handout, where every participant's name, age and hometown is listed. Cryptic longhand notes are made in the margin to jog the memory later on.
Some conversations flow easily: "I love that part of south London, don't you?" and "My sister wears that perfume, too" are overheard. For others, the 180 seconds drag by, with a comfort break or a trip for tea as a polite getaway from someone who fails to interest them.
The pace is unrelenting, with the enthusiastic timekeepers and compères, Kaleem Muhammad and Nusrat Bashir, enforcing the three-minute deadline.
"Rotate, please, rotate," bellows Muhammad. Some men move on reluctantly, savouring a few more stolen seconds with a woman they have clicked with. Others cannot get away fast enough.
"Move on, please, rotate," repeats Muhammad to cajole stragglers.
"I am having so much fun," 28-year-old Naureen Ismail says to her female table companions before meeting her next potential suitor.
Likewise, Zafar Ali throws himself wholeheartedly into this courtship ritual on a clock. Four years of using Muslim matrimonial sites have drawn a blank in his search for a wife. The traditional route of being introduced through family and the Pakistani community was blighted because of potential in-laws' reluctance to entertain a deaf suitor.
Ali, 27, refuses to let his disability hold him back and runs his own successful painting and decorating business in Southampton. He communicates with the women present by lip-reading.
"I have decided 2011 is going to be a good year for me - the year I meet my wife," he says. "Because I am deaf, these one-to-ones with women are good. A lot of the ladies I've met today are very open-minded and kind and I have had lots of ticks by my name. I just want the same as everyone else here wants - a wife and a normal life with a family."
To help men such as Ali and their female counterparts, Muslim Marriage Events launched two years ago and holds similar matchmaking sessions four times a year in different locations in the UK.
The business grew out of Muhammad's own frustration at finding a Muslim woman to marry. The 34-year-old from Yorkshire eventually met his wife, Nazia, on SingleMuslim.com but decided to help others like him by setting up an event firm.
"The business was born because I found myself in a similar situation to the people who come to my events," he says. "It is difficult to meet like-minded Muslims because we do not go out drinking and clubbing to meet people."
The ladies' toilet is where the women come to take a break - from a man or from the frenetic pace. Multitasking, they check iPhones and apply eyeshadow while chatting to fellow husband hunters or newly made friends.
Two Scottish sisters compare notes in a soft Glaswegian burr:
"I think there's one that I really like."
"Ooh, which one is it? I bet I can guess, is it the one with the spiky hair?"
"How'd you know? I think he's really cute."
"Looks like he might spend more time looking in the mirror than you though..."
With a peal of giggles they trot off, making a clatter in their high heels and leaving behind a waft of Chanel No. 5 . Back in the hall, young men sporting trendy haircuts and low-slung jeans exchange pleasantries with businessmen dressed as if they have just left the executive boardroom.
So high is the appetite for an event such as this that attendees have come from across the UK, with one man crossing the English Channel from France, and others driving for up to five hours for their date with destiny.
Many are here through word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and relatives who found their spouses at a similar event. Muhammad is confident it is only a matter of time before he is guest of honour at a wedding he has helped broker.
This event was a sell-out with the £59 (Dh348) tickets for women snapped up several weeks earlier. Their male counterparts left their ticket purchases until the last minute, which is always what happens, according to Muhammad.
In a corner of the room behind a long table is a line-up of chaperones. No one shakes a head in disapproval or gives the thumbs-up. Their support is more subtle than that.
Saqeb Mirza is reading his daily newspaper and keeping an eye on his BlackBerry. The 37-year-old is here to look out for his 27-year-old sister, Anjum, a software engineer from north London.
"Anjum wants to get married but she has such a busy schedule and lifestyle it is hard for her to meet young Muslim men," he says. "I am lucky because I was introduced to my wife through a relative. We have tried the traditional route for Anjum and we had a few introductions but nobody has clicked for her. She was quite nervous coming today but she seems happy talking to people and looks like she is enjoying herself."
The introductions happen under the watchful eye of the imam Hafiz Sajid.
"I think these events are good because they are based around our religion," says Sajid. "It is something that is needed. There are a lot of modern Muslims here but there is an Islamic feel. People come up and talk to me and they often ask about the rights and obligations of marriage. It is not about having a big dowry and a wedding budget. Marriage is about two people coming together."
Events such as these are a 21st-century solution to this sort of problem, according to the Islamic scholar Shaykh Amer Jamil, who runs the Unity Family Services Muslim guidance centre in Glasgow, Scotland.
"These matrimonial events are a good thing," he says. "They are proactive and people are going there with marriage in mind. Our parents' generation had a lot of family pressure to get married using the traditional route, but the world has changed. Not everyone has the chance to be introduced in the traditional way - for example, if you don't have a big family or are divorced or a convert."
Zahida Ashraf knows only too well the dangers of going down a traditional route, and after a failed first marriage she is anxious to avoid being unlucky her second time around. Beautiful, bright and with a successful career as an IT consultant, she is a great catch for any man keen to land himself a modern Muslim woman. But two things hamper her chances - her age and her divorce.
At 32, Ashraf, who was born in Birmingham in the UK to Pakistani parents, is considered too old for marriage by many of the men she has met, and her short-lived marriage in her early 20s is also a perceived negative.
"I am looking for my life partner but I have not met anyone appropriate through the traditional introductions route," she says. "Some men are very close-minded about my age. I was married at 24 and divorced at 26 and because of that, I am once bitten, twice shy. Marriage is hard work and a responsibility. I lost faith in Muslim matchmaking sites because there were a lot of time-wasters, so events like this are perfect."
Attendees who hit it off are encouraged to swap e-mail addresses and phone numbers. Those too shy to declare their hand can use the post-event service to contact those they feel they might have a future with.
As the day draws to a close there is a warm round of applause from the participants, who are slow to depart. For some, there is the sweet anticipation and the promise of a new shared life ahead.
"I always know it has been a great event when no one wants to leave at the end," says Muhammad. "I know there are people here today who have met somebody special and that gives me enormous satisfaction."
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