When Mariam Mokhtar, 21, started taking karate classes for fun with her little brothers, she expected to get exercise and learn self-defense, not to meet her future husband. Mokhtar and Rai Shaw were both in high school at the time, and they became friends through the class.
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“We were doing karate for years,” she said. “We’d see each other like every week, and, you know, it starts off as nothing, and then you become friends because you see them all the time. And then yeah, things just developed from there.”
A year after they met, he knew he wanted to marry her. She wasn’t so sure.
“One day he was like, ‘I love you,’” Mokhtar said. “And I was like, ‘Uhhhh.’”
As a young woman hoping to find a partner one day, Mokhtar said she had always been searching for a middle ground between the traditions of their parents’ Muslim culture and the world of her non-Muslim peers. Western media and even Bollywood portray romance one way, but Muslim American couples and chaplains say the way they often meet, fall in love and eventually decide to get married are usually misunderstood or not told at all.
“A lot of young Muslims are trying to navigate their story of love between traditional cultures that their parents may come from and their newly found American culture,” Imam Sohaib Sultan, a longtime chaplain at Princeton University who died in April, told NBC Asian America in February.
That made it hard for Mokhtar to be sure of what she wanted. Though she loved him too, they were so young and still had college ahead of them. And because of her faith, she didn’t really want to date in the way her non-Muslim peers did.
“I was like, I would not marry this guy right now,” she said, laughing. “But then over the years, I saw him grow.”
So they waited, stayed friends, and eventually the time was right. The two got married last summer in an intimate ceremony with just the couple and their immediate family. Four years of waiting came to a head during a pandemic. But Mokhtar could not be happier.
Navigating love wasn’t always easy for Mokhtar, who is Egyptian American. Growing up, she felt everyone around her had different ideas about what partnership and marriage were supposed to look like.
Though the community is not a monolith — Muslims span cultures, races, ethnicities, nationalities and traditions around dating and marriage — spiritual leaders say the young people they work with come to them with common questions and concerns, including balancing family expectations, wondering how to find love without participating in dating culture and not seeing themselves represented in media.
“I think a lot of young people that are second-gen immigrants, they’ve been raised in communities or households with a lot of expectations,” said Imam Omer Bajwa, the Muslim chaplain at Yale University. “So there’s a challenge navigating what social expectations are, what family expectations are and what a person’s own expectations are.”
For young Muslim Americans looking to adhere to their faith and culture and live a lifestyle that’s halal — the Islamic term for “religiously permissible” — Bajwa said it can take willpower.
“My parents knew each other before they got married, but their first interactions were of interest,” Mokhtar said of the way her mother and father were first introduced to each other as potential marriage partners. “And I didn’t want that for myself. I was like, I want somebody who … I’m friends with and I like them.”
For years, she and Shaw, whose family is originally from Guyana, were just friends, texting on occasion and seeing each other every week at karate class.
“It’s hard to stay on the path that you want to stay on when you like someone and you want to push your marriage years in the future,” she said.
She grew up watching American TV shows and movies that made it seem like dating in high school and college was the standard. She knew that wasn’t for her, but overcoming that expectation took lots of introspection and conversation.
For those who find meeting in person to be a struggle, apps like Minder and Muzmatch seek to connect Muslim Americans with similar interests and relationship priorities.
“There’s no one singular or monolithic Muslim experience,” Bajwa said. The students that he’s worked with, guided spiritually and sometimes even introduced to their future spouse have a wide array of plans and priorities when it comes to their love life.
“Some Muslims are looking for that magical middle,” he said. “How can you have a halal relationship and find that halal love and have everything our society tells us — that it’s full of passion and you’ll find your soulmate?”
He said lots of young people are trying to meet each other in ways that aren’t just Friday night parties. He’s seen that happen through student clubs like Muslim students associations, where people can make friends and stay connected in a meaningful way.
Others opt for someone to fix them up.
“They will go to people that they trust,” he said. “Let’s just, for lack of a better term, call it a matchmaker — an older sibling, an older cousin, someone in the community that they trust.”
Bajwa has played that role himself.
“Many students have come to me asking for relationship advice, asking how to meet people in the best way, ask me if I know people that I may be able to introduce them to,” he said. “I honor that request because they’re saying, ‘It’s tough to navigate out there, so I’m looking for someone that I trust that has my best interests in mind.’”
The smell of tandoori chicken, a flash of red fabric and hands adorned with henna all signal one thing for Desi couples across the world: wedding season. For one couple, who asked for their names not to be used out of privacy, it was big. This moment had been on the back of their minds since they were freshmen in college, so they had to get it right.
The couple met during their undergrad years at a school on the East Coast and got to know each other through freshman orientation events and their Muslim students association.
“When I first met her, I was a teenager and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll end up marrying her,’ kind of half joking,” he said.
She didn’t reciprocate his crush right away. She was practical and hesitant about falling in love so young. Growing up, she said, American chick flicks influenced her image of what dating and marriage were supposed to look like. But Desi media wasn’t much better.
“I loved watching Bollywood movies, for example,” she said. “So that definitely impacted my ideal of romance from an early age.”
He grew up on the West Coast with parents who had already been in the U.S. for a generation and a lifestyle that was more traditional than many of his peers.
“I’d have crushes here and there, but unlike my friends, I wouldn’t act on them,” he said.
During college, the two grew close along with their group of friends. But after graduation, work took them in two different directions until they reconnected a few years ago.
Their wedding day at their mosque passed in a blur. Family and friends bustled in and out. The couple smiled for photos at a reception with 300 people.
“Our faces were like, pretty sore from smiling by the end of it,” he said.
At the events with her family, the bride wore a traditional red lehenga, henna and jewelry, and her family played classic Desi wedding games before the ceremony. On the West Coast with his family, she wore a white dress, he wore a tux and they celebrated on a golf course.
But the best part came when the noise died down and the two of them could just be together.
Covid-19 made Mokhtar’s experience a little different. There were no crowds or dancing, just her and Shaw and their closest loved ones.
“When the day did come, I had to consciously let it go and let it fall into place the way it did. And it did,” she said. “In so many ways, even though I didn’t get the big reception that I wanted, I felt so blessed.”