Chicago Tribune: Matchmaking for Muslims is custom job

It’s Wednesday, matchmaking day, and Athia Syed’s phone won’t stop ringing. There’s a father on the line looking for a U.S. citizen to marry his son in India. A woman seeking a hijab-wearing spouse for her stockbroker brother. A mother who wants a well-educated wife for her son.

Will she settle for someone with only a bachelor’s degree? Syed asks.

“From a very good school?” the caller inquires.

Certainly love is not dead, but in Syed’s opinion it can be way too picky.

For 15 years, the retired City Colleges of Chicago professor has been matching South Asian Muslims across the country. From her comfortable Downers Grove home she fields dozens of calls while scrolling through a laptop database that organizes more than 1,100 marriage-minded Muslims by age, height, educational background, legal status and their parents’ country of origin. She notes their appearance (“slim,” “pretty,” “fair”), marital history and whether they wear the hijab, or head scarf.

Syed estimates she has been responsible for more than 50 marriages. Her services are free, but sometimes playing cupid feels like a full-time job.

“Everyone wants Ms. Perfect or Mr. Perfect,” sighs the plain-spoken, bespectacled Syed. “All the girls’ parents are looking for a doctor, a dentist, an attorney.”

And the families of prospective bridegrooms?

“They say, ‘We are looking for perfect beauty,'” said Syed, 65, who emigrated from India in the 1960s. “Each parent wants their daughter-in-law to be the most beautiful.”

Years ago, when many Muslim immigrants returned to their home countries to find a spouse, matrimonial networks might not have been necessary. But today few Muslim Americans are interested in traveling halfway across the world for an arranged marriage. More often, mosques and Islamic organizations are playing a role in helping young Muslims find their mates, said Imam Mohamed Magid, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, the nation’s largest Muslim organization.

“There are so many young people in the Muslim community looking to get married, but they have a dilemma: They can’t date,” Magid said. “We offer options within Islamic boundaries.”

Among the most popular options are the Islamic society’s chaperoned speed-dating sessions. They draw hundreds of participants and have become a big attraction at the organization’s annual convention.

In addition to social networking sites such as or , some mosques have started adding matrimonial databases to their Web sites, giving singles the ability to post profiles and initiate contact via e-mail before moving on to chaperoned meetings.

Still, for those put off by matrimonial Web sites or harried speed-dating sessions, matchmakers offer a more old-fashioned approach.

“The community still needs this service because of our geographic isolation from each other and our small size,” Asma Gull Hasan, a Chicago native (33 and single) and author of “American Muslims: The New Generation,” said in an e-mail.

Syed never intended to become a matchmaker, but word got around after she successfully set up several singles. Now her phone number is passed along from one family to the next, mainly by Muslim mothers concerned that their American-born children are working too hard and marrying too old.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Faiza Khan, 27, always knew she wanted to marry within the Muslim faith and sought her parents’ help in finding a husband. As she got older, she began feeling pressure from her community to tie the knot.

“Once you reach 25 people start wondering if something is wrong with you,” said Khan of Chicago.

Khan was apprehensive about matchmakers, but when Syed, a trusted friend of her family, suggested she meet one of the young men on her spreadsheet, Khan agreed. From her first meeting with Wasif Abdul, Khan knew they could be compatible because both were adept at balancing Eastern and Western cultures.

Three months later they were engaged and last August they wed.

Syed is popular because of her large social network, ample patience and straightforward approach.

“She doesn’t romanticize this whatsoever. She is extremely practical and extremely realistic,” Khan said.

Switching seamlessly from English to her native Urdu, Syed quizzes callers on their preferences as she scrolls through her database. She does not know most of the candidates personally and warns that it’s up to each family to confirm profile information. There are about four times more women than men in Syed’s database, a ratio so skewed she recently stopped registering women.

Though callers often ask for photos and physical descriptions of potential matches, Syed encourages them to look deeper.

“I say, ‘Don’t go by outer looks only. Don’t go by the physical only.'”

Syed counsels young Muslims to be more active in finding their future mates, rather than relying on their parents or matchmakers.

That’s advice Ahmed Rehab intends to take. The executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Rehab is 31 and single — much to his mother’s dismay.

“She works overtime advocating that I should get hitched.,” Rehab said. “When I am ready for it, I reckon I will just meet people myself.”

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