South Philadelphia mosque takes on matchmaking of black Muslim women

Aminah Muhammad (right), her fiancé Muhammad Abdul-Warith share a laugh on her Overbrook porch. One of their early dates involved talking for hours on her porch. They are getting married in July. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Naeemah Khabir, a 35-year-old devout Muslim who works for the Department of Veteran Affairs in Philadelphia, has attended matchmaking events from New Brunswick, N.J., to Queens, N.Y. She has used several matchmaking services. Khabir, of Elkins Park, who has a master’s degree from Syracuse University, even hired a private matchmaker for nine months until the counselor assigned to her conceded that race was part of her problem.

“When you look at all Muslims, of all races and ethnicities, who has it the hardest? Black women unequivocally have it the worst. Black men have it bad, too, but black women have it the worst,” Khabir said. “Everyone knows it, but it goes unspoken.”

Muslims say there’s an epidemic of educated, professional women older than 30 struggling to find suitable matches among Muslim men, who are often less bound by a biological clock and societal expectations, and more likely than Muslim women to marry younger and outside their culture or religion.

Women in the Philadelphia Muslim community, which is primarily African American, may also face a double whammy: a dearth of educated men in communities ravaged by unemployment and incarceration, said Aneesah Nadir, whose observation is echoed in research by the Brookings Institution and Yale University. Nadir is a social worker specializing in premarital education and project director of the Muslim Alliance in North America’s Healthy Marriage Initiative.

An obstacle to finding a good Muslim man through dating can be Islam itself: The religion limits intermingling with the opposite sex, prohibits physical intimacy before marriage, and requires the presence of a wali — a male family member who serves as a chaperone, go-between, and private investigator — for all interactions between two potential spouses.

So what’s a modern Muslim woman to do?

Khabir, along with Kashief Smith, a fellow member of the United Muslim Masjid in South Philadelphia, created a “marriage fair” under the mosque’s Healthy Marriage Committee. First taking place with a speed-dating format in 2012, this year it was revamped and rebranded as a match-up event.

When Aminah Muhammad, divorced 16 years with six adult children, attended the April match-up, she already had tried — unsuccessfully — one other match-up event and the services of a matchmaker. This time, she met Muhammad Abdul-Warith, a man she thought was nice, funny, and, most important, comfortable around her 23-year-old son, also her wali.

The two then met at a Starbucks. Three visits later — always communicating through her son — the two eventually met on her porch and talked for several hours.

“If he can handle himself with my boys and convince them,” Muhammad said, “that says a lot.”

The wedding is July 9.

The match-up event  was born of the Healthy Marriage Committee’s marriage retreat — created by Khabir and Smith in 2011. Attracting 23 couples to two days of speaker events and activities in the Poconos, the idea was for people to learn tools rooted in the principles of Islam to manage challenges within a committed relationship. United Muslim Masjid’s then-new imam, Shadeed Muhammad, has made strengthening marriages a priority, so he sees the  committee’s goals as twofold: to fortify the connection of married couples to the mosque, and to make marriage seem “cool” to single members.

Both initiatives help an institution, a bedrock of the community, that’s seen as under threat.

Just 49 percent of college-educated black women marry  well-educated men (i.e., with at least some post-secondary education), compared to 84 percent of college-educated white women, according to an analysis by Yale sociologist Vida Maralani. According to the 2015 Brookings Institution report, black women have the lowest rates of “marrying out” across race lines.

“The women themselves, they would maybe be interested in someone from another cultural group,” said Nadir. “But those other cultural groups are looking at their own group, and not so much at African American women, as prospective mates.”

In the meantime, there has been a rise in the practice of polygyny,  marriages in which the husband has more than one wife, particularly in cities like Philadelphia, New York and Chicago, Nadir said. (By contrast, polygamy, illegal in the United States, refers generally to the practice of marrying multiple spouses.)

Khabir said she felt the pressure.

“Sometimes, when you express that you want to be in monogamy, people look at you like that’s an unrealistic expectation,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Do you see all these women, and there are very few men?’ ”

It’s why Yusuf Abdul Jaleel, who traveled from Yonkers to attend the marriage committee’s latest match-up event in April, is open to a polygynous marriage.

“You have a surplus of single sisters, and you have a deficit of single brothers,” he said. “I feel that the reason for it is because of the need. It’s not a matter of, ‘Oh, I want to have two women.’ It’s a matter of no women should be left behind. … If I’m 44, and I’m only looking at women who are 20 years younger than me, and I’m not considering women my age, that’s wrong.”

At the same time, Aliya Khabir special assistant at United Muslim Masjid and sister of Naeemah — sees many educated, financially independent women who prefer the extra free time and independence that polygyny provides. Older or divorced women particularly value the companionship without the responsibilities of caring for a full-time spouse. Meanwhile, she says, men often face greater difficulties in navigating two marriages, two mortgages, and two mothers-in-law.

“People tend to think that polygyny is just a man’s game. He’s the one that benefits everything, and they don’t look at the benefit of the woman,” Khabir said. “But I think a lot of the time, it’s seen as this sexist institution of marriage that only benefits the man.”

Although polygyny is permitted under Islam, and some would say is growing in acceptance, Naeemah Khabir said that it remained a contentious topic within the Muslim community and that the specific guidelines under which it is permitted have not always been followed.

“These are rules that some men follow,” she said, “and a lot of men don’t.”

As a result, many matchmaking websites and apps geared toward Muslims have emerged. Most of these modern solutions accommodate traditional practices, like the use of a wali. But Zara Johnson, known as Zara J, founder of the private marriage network Black Muslim Singles Society, said she believed hers was the only one that specifically served African American Muslims.

“It’s just not an industry where we’re represented or that we’ve really even taken the time to enter,” she said.

Many also feel uncomfortable with the anonymity and practices of online services.

“If you come from a conservative household, and then you’re online with people who don’t have that background, it becomes very scary,” Aliya Khabir said. “The norms are different.”

Almost all of the matchmaking services, events, and websites, including the Black Muslim Singles Society, face a similar problem: There is much more interest from women than from men.

Still others are committed to adhering to traditional Islamic courtship practices, and that’s where the Healthy Marriage Committee comes in. For Naeemah Khabir, it makes sense.

“Most people would say, ‘You’re a 30-year-old woman, you live on your own, you make your own money. Isn’t that kind of demeaning that you have to have a male relative there? Don’t you feel like a child?’ And I say, ‘No, not at all,’ ” she said. The rule “is there for protection, it’s there out of respect.”

The committee plans to continue programming for married couples, including pottery classes, sports outings, and game nights featuring reportedly intense games of Taboo.

“It takes a strong person to follow the rules when you live in a society that’s telling you that those rules are stupid, that they’re archaic, that they’re obsolete, that they’re chauvinist,” Khabir said. “But Islam teaches us to be strong.”