The very word ‘matchmaking’ tends to send people running for cover, whether it be the thought of being set up or setting other people up. In a society where individual choice and autonomy reigns supreme (thank you, modernity), it’s not hard to see why. Many people are fiercely protective of their love lives, resisting any perceived ‘interference’. But is matchmaking really the big nasty it’s made out to be?
The answer is no, it’s not. In fact, it’s all the more necessary and handy for the Muslim diaspora in the West, largely displaced from traditional support systems for finding a partner and swimming in a big sea of ineligible classmates and colleagues. The increase in online marriage sites and Tinder-esque apps reflects the confusing mesh of requirements for love amongst Muslims in the 21st century. We want romance, but we also want commitment. Some of us have families who can find us someone, but we aren’t up for that. Some of us don’t have that option at all, whether it’s because our families are non-Muslim or simply not well-connected. We want ‘organic’ connections, despite knowing that the chances of simply bumping into that special someone are slim to nil. We feel like we know most of the people there are to know, and the people we don’t know…well, we just don’t know them and we aren’t sure how we could go about knowing them.
This is where the third party referral system can step in. I call it referral rather than recommendation because I know the very idea of vouching for a person’s character puts people off matchmaking entirely. They worry that if it doesn’t work out, they’ll somehow be held responsible. They feel like they’re just not qualified to make an assessment as to the compatibility of two people, and feel it would be presumptuous of them to even try.
But what are we really doing when we matchmake? At its simplest, all we’re doing is providing an introduction. Whatever happens from there is completely up to the people in question. Whether it works out or doesn’t is immaterial because we’ve done our part: put two people in contact who wouldn’t have otherwise had the agency or courage to. If I suggest a person talk to another person, I’m not claiming to know that they’re meant to be together. I’m not claiming that it even has a high chance of working out. All I’m doing is providing an ‘in’ for them to use as they see fit.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should try to set two people up simply because one is a girl and one is a guy. Some thought should be given to whether they’d be compatible on at least a superficial level, but if it’s presumptuous to think two people are compatible, it’s also presumptuous to think two people won’t be compatible. People aren’t linear; they’re jagged and complex and multi-faceted. I’d much rather give two people the chance to discover that they’re not compatible for themselves, rather than simply assume that they’re not and thereby deprive them of even the slightest chance they may have had.
I know, I know, it’s not exactly how many people picture meeting a partner, but I’m pretty sure no one fantasises about meeting a partner on an app either. At least with the introductory system, someone can at the very least vouch for the fact that someone is who they say they are and isn’t a wanted criminal (in this jurisdiction, if not elsewhere). A guiding hand in the process, however invisible, can also be invaluable. Negotiating everything on our own, as exciting and romantic as it may be, is often a spectacular failure, given the lack of parameters or set expectations. (Oddly enough, many of us seem to prefer the spectacular failures to the perceived rigidity and constraints of letting our family or friends have a hand in selecting a partner.)
The other good thing about matchmaking is that it’s a fairly fluid sort of institution. It ranges from people being set up who don’t know each other at all to people who may have an interest in each other but are too scared or don’t know how to go about pursuing it. In the latter cases, the matchmaker is simply there to facilitate the interest. This scenario is a lot more common than people realise, but it’s fairly obvious why it happens: it’s difficult, scary, risky and potentially darn embarrassing to try to make something happen with someone we barely know, and perhaps even more so when we do know the person.
If we see marriage as a purely individual, private project for each person to determine on their own, we’ll naturally resist both the impulse to suggest people to others or have people suggested to us. Frequently, the desire to respect people’s privacy or not to offend holds us back from inquiring about their lives, their happiness or lack thereof. The burden for seeking assistance usually lies with the person in need of it, but often people are too embarrassed or ashamed to ask. After all, who’d be comfortable to ask someone to help them find a spouse? It implies we’re incapable of doing it ourselves, and no one likes that idea. But if we see marriage as a communal project and the path to it as a communal struggle, we’re a lot more likely to both offer and accept help. People struggling to get meet potential partners often share similar issues: family pressures or constraints, lack of opportunity to widen their circles, lack of time or energy to actively seek it out. If we’re all on the same journey, why not give each other a leg-up and help to spread the love as we go along?