Shadia: Dating while Muslim is complicated

I was never the girl who fantasized about Prince Charming charging in on his camel and sweeping me off my feet.

When I was growing up in Egypt, education was emphasized above all else. My mom, Shadia, who never graduated from high school, always read the newspaper. She sent me and my sister, Marwa, to school the first chance she could and made sure I learned to read and spell at a young age.

But the idea of marriage was never absent.

Middle Easterners love weddings, which can last for days and involve entire neighborhoods.

There is an expectation to get married early. If you hit your mid- or late-20s and you're not married yet, something is wrong. And the more kids the merrier.

When I was little, I thought I'd get married when I turned 20, the age I would have graduated from college had I stayed in their school system.

I'm 28 now, which makes me about 50 in Arab years.

That fantasy about Prince Charming did eventually take over in my early 20s, but it was refined to be more mature and realistic.

Not only do I know exactly what kind of a guy I want, I also know how my wedding dress, veil and engagement ring should look, and even who should officiate. I mean, who cares what the guy thinks, right?

Maybe, if he wanted a say, he would be here already.

"Dating," or the process in which you get to the point of marriage, is kind of taboo in my culture. The word boyfriend or girlfriend can cause a Middle Eastern parent to have a heart attack.

Western-style dating is frowned upon in Islam, and that's because men shouldn't be allowed to go from one girl to the next without making a commitment. They should "get to know the girl" only if they intend on marrying her, and that period of "getting to know each other" is usually monitored and limited in time, especially in conservative families.

On-and-off dating, especially when there's no commitment or good intentions, devalues women and the sanctity of marriage. This is a point on which I agree with the conventions of my culture and religion.

Though I consider myself pretty Americanized and must have gone on a gazillion dates in the last five years, if I don't see potential in the first few hours of knowing and meeting a guy, I end it. I don't have time to waste (not when you're 50 in Arab years).

Of course, like everyone who's trying to find their soul mate, I have encountered disappointments. The last time that happened, I began to wonder whether I'm meant to be with someone at all.

I know. It's a bit dramatic. But I went completely off the radar. It's been about eight months now, and I don't think I'm ready to go through the exhaustive process or on one more date at this point.

But for the sake of objectivity, I tried something new on Sunday.

Mohammed Ibn Faqih, the imam and religious director of my mosque, the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Anaheim, is passionate about helping young Muslim men and women find their significant other. The mosque organizes "networking" dinners from time to time.

It's pretty much like speed dating.

Attendees are usually within the same age range and professional status. At first, I didn't want to attend. But the journalist in me again was taken over by innate curiosity.

I'm not a shy person, but it took me awhile to feel comfortable and be myself.

I chatted with a few guys. Didn't see potential with any.

But I appreciated the efforts of my mosque.

My Jewish friend Meesh and I are in the same boat. We're both connected spiritually to our faiths, but we're also independent-minded and we don't always fit in the frame.

To the liberal followers of our religions, Meesh and I are considered conservative, and to the conservatives, we're viewed as liberal. We need to find partners in that perfect middle — men who value and understand our faiths and their teachings, but don't go overboard.

And it's not just about finding someone who is connected to Islam or Judaism, but someone whose views on most aspects of life, and our religion, align with ours. Isn't that what everyone wants?

Until then, I don't see camels on the horizon.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter: @MonaShadia.

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