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The Male Chaperones of Muslim Dating Apps

Muhammad Khan, 29, has eaten the same coconut-and-pistachio flavored ice cream in the same corner of Creams, an ice-cream parlor in South London, three different times this month. As one of the few late-night spots that’s alcohol-free in the city, it’s a popular hangout for young Muslims in London. And without the formal setting of an upscale restaurant or the cheesiness of a bowling alley, it’s also got a reputation as a go-to spot for halal, or Islamically permissible dating.

Muhammad, however, isn’t here for a date. He’s been married for a couple of years, having met his wife through family friends. Instead, he’s here as a chaperone for his sister, Aleesha, 24, who’s looking to get married this year. On this night, Aleesha is meeting a prospective suitor that she found on the online Muslim dating app Muzmatch — dubbed by some as an “Islamic version of Tinder” because it operates using a similar swipe mechanism.

It’s the first time Aleesha and her suitor will meet in real life. Until now, they’ve mostly spent the last few weeks talking via the app, mainly about their shared interest in Stranger Things. While they officially lock eyes for the first time, though, Muhammad will sit close by, watching over the date with a scoop of ice cream in hand, as inconspicuous as possible.

Muhammad is acting as a wali, an Arabic term that translates to “guardian.” For the most part, the role exists in relation to Islamic marriage, whereby the wali’s permission is usually required to make a marriage religiously valid. In some countries, the role of the wali stretches further though. In Saudi Arabia, for example, walis are legally obliged to accompany — or grant permission to — women wishing to travel alone. But in the context of halal dating in the West, walis have become as common in the process of finding a potential husband as in the machinations of a formal marriage proposal.

“I try to take a more relaxed approach these days, mainly because I’d like to see [Aleesha] get married soon and I’d like to go to Creams less,” Muhammad tells me. He adds that he sees his role as keeping his sister safe, making sure that she isn’t “alone with any creeps, or guys who you can tell are sleazy and just not good for her. I’ll basically meet the guy, talk to him for a bit to size him up and then leave them to it.”

In his early wali days, though, he wasn’t nearly as chill. “As her only brother, you obviously want to protect your sister as much as you can,” he says. And so, he’d search for Aleesha’s dates on Google and Facebook before meeting them, getting a gauge of how religious they were and how often they were liking and commenting on pictures of other women. “The trick is to look at their Instagram,” he explains. “You can see if they’ve liked any pictures of models, celebrities in bikinis or worse. That tells you a lot about them, because sometimes they pretend to be pious and practicing. But it’s unbelievable the amount of times I’ve seen these same guys liking photos of Gigi Hadid or Emily Ratajkowski.”

For what it’s worth, though, his opinion was simply that — his opinion. “At the end of the day, the decision [to meet them] is always hers,” he adds. Plus, it’s never really been an issue anyway: “Mostly, we agree,” he says. “There’s the odd time when we won’t — usually, if the guy has good hair or is really muscular or something. But that’s rare.”

As for the dates themselves, Aleesha will usually tell prospective partners in advance that she’ll be accompanied by a wali, which Muhammad says can “scare some guys, but most of the time, they’re cool with it.” Once the three of them are together in person, Muhammad will introduce himself first. Next, he’ll talk with the guy for a few minutes — typically asking them about themselves. “If they’re really nervous, I just ask what football team they support, which is usually a good ice-breaker. Unless they support [Manchester United],” he jokes.

Then, he’ll go to a nearby table on his own, keeping an eye on the date while watching soccer or YouTube videos on his phone. “I’d like to think I’m hands off,” Muhammad says. “I know some walis who insist they sit at the same table as the date, in case there’s any haram [nonpermissible] talk.”

Of course, the whole concept of “casual dating” is regarded by many Islamic scholars — including Omar Suleiman, the president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research — as nonpermissible. So while they believe walis are a vital component for healthy romantic relationships (i.e., facilitating and promoting marriage), they also believe that any kind of casual dating (whether with a wali or not) can lead to the most serious kind of haram activity— sex before marriage.

Apps like Muzmatch, however, are trying to find a happy medium by offering old-world customs via new-world realities. And a wali function is one of the main ways in which they’ve done so. (This functionality even allows walis to be present during conversations prior to a real-life meeting; walis can also receive a weekly transcript of the conversations via email.) “We wanted to build a modern app that appealed to all Muslims, at all levels of religiosity,” says Shazhad Younas, the founder of Muzmatch. “Users can configure the app themselves to add a wali. And on the app, when you match with someone and start talking to them, it will notify you that a wali is present.”

Younas tells me that since adding the feature, which he hopes to develop and integrate further as Muzmatch grows, he’s noticed a “higher quality of conversation” as well as higher rates of marriages from accounts accompanied by walis. He adds that there’s an increasing number of accounts opting to use walis, even among those who aren’t as traditional or ardently religious.

Part of that is to guard against the abuse or harassment that comes with any modern dating app. The other part, says Younas, is to make a tried-and-true tradition applicable in an age when young Muslims want more say in who they get married to, yet don’t want to disregard the thoughts and opinions of their family. The Muzmatch wali function, in essence, allows them to do both.

This basically explains Muhammad’s continued presence in Aleesha’s dating life. He says he “wouldn’t read any conversation transcripts, but if something is really scaring her, I’d like to be there to help sooner rather than later.” And: “She has the choice on who she wants to marry — even if I’m not a fan of whoever she chooses, or even if I don’t think he’ll make a good addition to the family. I’m just there to look out for her [as best I can].”

Until then, he’ll happily keep playing wali. Though he admits he’s actively looking for different meeting spots. “I can’t deal with eating so much ice cream,” he jokes.