When my friend first told me she was looking for a partner on Minder, I thought it was a typo.
"Surely she means Tinder," I thought.
She didn't. Minder is a real thing, an app Muslims use to browse local singles, much like Tinder.
As a Muslim, you get used to people not understanding your life. They don't get why you cover your hair or why you don't eat during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. And they definitely don't get how Muslim relationships work. I've been asked countless times if we get hitched solely through arranged marriages. (We don't.) Some people seem to have a notion Islam is stuck in the 15th century.
Yes, there's always that family friend who can't stop herself from playing matchmaker. But many Muslim millennials, especially those of us who grew up in the West, want more control over who we end up spending the rest of our lives with. Platforms like Minder and Muzmatch, another Muslim dating app, have put that power in our hands. They counteract misconceptions that Islam and modernity don't mix. And ultimately, they're proof that we, like 15 percent of Americans, use technology to find love.
"We're the generation that was born with the rise of technology and social media," says Mariam Bahawdory, founder of Muslim dating app Eshq, which, similar to Bumble, allows women to make the first move. "It's not like we can go to clubs or bars to meet people in our community, because there's a reputation to uphold and there's a stigma attached to going out and meeting people."
That stigma, prevalent in many immigrant communities, also applies to meeting people online, which is generally viewed by some as desperate. But as more people sign up for these apps, that notion is being challenged, says Muzmatch CEO and founder Shahzad Younas.
"There is an element of taboo still, but it's going," Younas says.
Even the word "dating" is contentious among Muslims. Especially for those from my parents' generation, it carries a negative connotation and pits Islamic ideals about intimacy against Western cultural norms. But for others, it's merely a term for getting to know someone and finding out if you're a match. As with all faiths, people follow more liberal or conservative rules around dating depending on how they interpret religious doctrines and what they choose to practice.
There are, of course, similarities between Muslim and mainstream dating apps like Tinder, OkCupid and Match. All have their fair share of quirky bios, pictures of guys in muscle shirts and awkward conversations about what we do for a living.
But a few features -- including one that lets "chaperones" peek at your messages -- make Muslim-catered apps stand out.
In February, I finally decided to check out Minder for myself. As someone in my mid-twenties, I'm essentially a prime target for dating apps, yet this was my first time trying one. I'd always been hesitant to put myself out there and didn't have much faith I'd meet anyone worthwhile.
Minder, which launched in 2015, has had over 500,000 sign-ups, the company says. Haroon Mokhtarzada, the CEO, says he was inspired to create the app after meeting several "well educated, highly eligible" Muslim women who struggled to find the right guy to marry. He felt technology could help by connecting people who might be geographically scattered.
"Minder helps fix that by bringing people together in one place," Mokhtarzada says.
When creating my profile, I was asked to indicate my level of religiosity on a sliding scale, from "Not practicing" to "Very religious." The app even asked for my "Flavor," which I thought was an interesting way to describe which sect of Islam I belong to (Sunni, Shia, etc.).
I indicated my family origin (my parents immigrated to the US from Iraq in 1982); languages spoken (English, Arabic); and education level, then filled in the "About me" section. You can even choose to indicate how soon you want to get married, but I opted to leave that blank. (Who even knows?)
These details can, for better or worse, become the focus of potential relationships. A Sunni may only want to be with another Sunni. Someone who's less religious may not be able to relate to someone with more strict interpretations of the faith. One person on the app might be looking for something more casual, while another might be seeking a serious relationship that leads to marriage.
I started to swipe. Left. A lot. There were some decent candidates, but it didn't take long to realize why my friends had such little success on these kinds of apps. Guys had a tendency to post selfies with weird Snapchat puppy filters and pictures of their cars, and there was an odd abundance of photos with tigers. Several "About me" sections just said "Ask me."
I did get a kick out of some of the lines in the bios, like: "Trying to avoid an arranged marriage to my cousin," "Misspelled Tinder on the app store and, well, here we are," and, "My mother manages this profile." I didn't doubt the veracity of any of those statements. My personal favorite: "I have Amazon Prime." I won't lie, that was pretty tempting.
My friend Diana Demchenko, who is also Muslim, downloaded the app with me as we sat on my couch one Saturday evening, and she managed to stay on it a grand total of 30 hours before deleting it. She was overwhelmed by how many people you can swipe through without even noticing.
"I was like, 'I just looked at 750 guys,'" she recalls. "That's a ton."
Some people have found success, of course. Three years ago, after a tough breakup, 28-year-old Saba Azizi-Ghannad of New York started to feel hopeless. She was busy with medical school and not meeting a lot of people. Then a friend told her about Minder. Suddenly, she was connecting with people across the country.
"It's hard to find what you're looking for because we're already a minority," Azizi-Ghannad says. "The app can help connect you to somebody you wouldn't have met otherwise or couldn't have bumped into at a social event."
She eventually matched with Hadi Shirmohamadali, 31, from California. The pair (pictured at the top of this story) talked on FaceTime every day. Around six weeks later, they met in person for dinner in New York City.
"It felt like I was meeting up with a friend for the first time," Azizi-Ghannad says. "Every time I [saw] him, it kind of felt that way."
After about four months of occasional meetings, their parents met. Then, in March, during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Shirmohamadali got down on one knee and proposed.
"From the get-go, it was just simple," Azizi-Ghannad says. "All ambiguity I had experienced with other people I had talked to wasn't there."
Need a chaperone?
Muzmatch is another popular app among Muslims. Founded in 2015, it reached a million members this year.
A few features set the app apart from Minder. For one, you can see if a person has swiped right on you, which is slightly horrifying but also somewhat helpful. Apps like Hinge also include this feature, while others (including Minder) will tell you who's liked you if you pay for a premium subscription. I did feel like I was more likely to swipe right on someone who showed interest in me if I'd been on the fence about them before.
Muzmatch CEO Shahzad Younas says he opted to include that level of transparency because the app is designed for people who are more serious about finding a partner. That's great until you start seeing people on the app you know in real life, which happens often in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area, where social circles often overlap. That, my friends, is when I decided to tap out. No need to stir up drama or make things uncomfortable.
The app also lets "chaperones" monitor your messages. People who aren't comfortable having one-on-one conversations with random people online can invite a family member or friend to follow their chats and make sure all's good. Everyone in the conversation is aware another person can read the messages. As strange as it may sound to willingly have a third person read your texts, it could help ease someone onto the platform if they follow more conservative guidelines about who they can talk to.
"There are lots of variations and differences of opinion in Islam," Younas says. "We don't want to force a particular view on everyone. Pick and choose what's important to you."
Muzmatch also asks how often you pray. There are five required daily prayers in Islam, and some people may feel more comfortable being with someone who adheres to that requirement. Civil rights attorney Zahra Billoo appreciates the prayer gauge feature. As someone who prays daily, it helps her narrow her options to someone who's more aligned to her lifestyle.
What Billoo isn't a fan of: people who go through the app without putting in much effort.
"You swipe through a dozen, two dozen, 100 people in a day, and it means nothing," Billoo says. "Quantity over quality seems to be the norm now."
That, of course, is a serious concern across all dating apps.
"There's always this illusion that what you've found isn't sufficient and that there's someone better out there," says Heba El-Haddad, a mental health associate at Khalil Center, a faith-based wellness center. Just because you have more options doesn't mean they're all going to be a fit for you, she cautions.
Muzmatch has also had its fair share of success stories: More than 25,000 people around the world have found their partner through the app, Younas says.
One of them is Anwar Mohid, 35, who converted to Islam in December and started looking for a partner on Muzmatch. Two days after becoming Muslim, he matched with a woman in Australia. They talked on the phone for hours a day. A month and a half later, she flew to the US and they got engaged.
Mohid says he was slightly nervous about meeting up in person. They knew they could easily talk on the phone for hours, but weren't sure if they'd click in real life.
"We just picked up from the phone conversations," Mohid says. "If it wasn't for Muzmatch, I don't think I'd be getting married."
Eshq, the app that lets women make the first move, is hoping to shake up the Muslim online dating game.
Mariam Bahawdory, its founder, says women she spoke with complained about men not knowing how to initiate a conversation. Some were even harassed for being on the apps in the first place, likely by people who thought it was inappropriate for women to be putting themselves out there. So Bahawdory decided to put the power in womens' hands.
While platforms like Muzmatch and Minder have the underlying goal of marriage, Bahawdory says you won't see the word "matrimony" anywhere on Eshq. Users can choose whether they want to use the app for marriage, dating or friendship. She's aware of the criticism this will likely draw from more conservative crowds, but says she isn't phased.
"One of the stigmas is that it's haram [forbidden] and this isn't what Muslims do," Bahawdory says. "We're not saying we're following Islamic guidelines. We're bringing the community together to use the platform as they see fit."
The app launched for iOS this month.
"This generation is revolutionizing the way Muslims are meeting," Bahawdory, who is 31, says. "Our parents are noticing there are advancements in technology that could help us meet others."
It's true. Minder and Muzmatch connected me with more people than I could ever encounter in the real world. It opened up my options and allowed me to make my own choices about who to talk to. It was empowering.
A few weeks after downloading the apps, though, I went into settings and made my accounts undiscoverable. Sure, a part of me wondered what it would be like if I actually found a partner on Minder or Muzmatch (it would make for a hell of a story). But after meeting in-person with a few guys I matched with, I realized I'm not ready to put so much effort into finding out whether digital compatibility translates into a real-world connection. It takes time, patience and thicker skin than I have right now.
But I didn't go so far as to delete the apps. After all, a handful of people told me about their positive experiences. Maybe someday, when I'm ready to commit, I'll give it another shot and find my tiger-loving, Amazon Prime-subscribing soulmate.