Latin Women Find Love on Muslim Dating Websites
Estela* looks at herself in the shop’s mirror while she tries a big winter coat. She seems like any other traditional Egyptian Muslim wearing a discrete hijab and Jallabiya that generously cover her well-rounded curves. At least until a few minutes later when, with a distinct Peruvian Spanish and a playful smile, she asks her friend: “Do you think this jacket shows my butt?”
She is just one of several Latina women who have converted to Islam and married Egyptian men. They’re professional, smart women in their thirties and forties, who hadn’t found the right match or had had poor marriages. While the majority of them convert for the wedding, there are some women like 36 year-old Estela, who actually found Islam several years before, through their own spiritual search, and out of disappointment at both Latino men and their own Catholic beliefs.
According to Myriam, a 41-year-old Colombian chemical engineer who married an Egyptian Muslim five years after her conversion, she felt that Islam “was not a religion but a lifestyle; a practical guide of how you should behave, dress or talk, of what to do in a marriage. It wasn’t the religion we learned at school or at home, which was only going to church on Sunday and doing whatever the hell you wanted afterwards… It seemed hypocritical to me, and Islam incorporated theory into practice all the time instead.”
What most of these women have in common, though, is that they met their partners through Internet Muslim dating websites. As Estela recalls, “a friend of mine opened me an account on Qiran.com, I had already been a Muslim for three years before but didn’t want to get married again. And then one day, browsing through the site, I saw his picture. I liked him because he was not only handsome, un papacito, he was also cheerful like me but serious and shy at the same time. He wasn’t fooling around and from the first moment he expressed his intentions. He was completely different to any man I’d known”.
When asked about the reasons why they thought men preferred Latinas over other types of women, they explained that preference with reasons that range from “our sense of family” similar to “Arabs,” to the importance they give to emotional connection over material satisfaction, which they compared to Egyptian women. As Estela so naughtily puts it, “the Egyptian [wife] is materialistic. She blackmails her husband with sex… If you don’t buy me this or that, forget about seeing ‘Cleopatra’ tonight… We Latina women, when we fall in love we give everything, we’re happy if they just like us, love us and make sweet love to us.”
If successful, these virtual crushes do not take too long to get to the next level. The marriage proposal usually arrives in a matter of weeks, and a few months later they are packing their suitcases for a new life abroad. Like any major change, things can get quite challenging at the beginning, especially with language, family and/or money issues. However, they claim to have satisfactory and happy marriages, despite the cultural differences that may give rise to potential conflict.
One of the areas that appears more problematic is managing family expenses, as it evidences the clash between traditional Islamic regulations and modern feminist practices. Given the fact that most of these women were used to economic independence, having their own full-time jobs or businesses back home, becoming the “supported-by-husband, stay-at-home” type of wives may seem hard to bear at first sight. This position is rigidly stated in the Sharia, as it imposes husbands the obligation (called nafaqa) of taking full responsibility of household expenses as well as wives personal economical needs, even in the cases where the wife is wealthier than him.
Frequently, this conflict manifests in the husband’s refusal to accept his wife’s household economic contributions, which results in discussions that normally resolve by him giving her back the money she spent. Other couples have issues concerning women’s working outside the home, which, although not “prohibited” by the husband (or religion), is also not encouraged. Interestingly, though, women’s perceptions on this matter are not of male chauvinism but rather the opposite, as they compare it with past experiences in their western Latin-American cultures of origin.
As Myriam clearly states, “It is not machismo, it’s a sense of responsibility. He’s very considerate to me, he says that is enough with the work I do at home … Why do you want to work more? People only see the usual topic that Muslim men don’t allow their wives to work, but the thing is, dealing with a house and three small children I already work! And then I wonder … How is it that, in our cultures, we women are the ones who have to work outside and inside our home? The woman arrives home from work and has to take care of the house, the children and then take care of him. And besides that she has to pay half of everything. Now, that’s what I call machismo!”
Although it may seem paradoxical, this distinctly unequal established system also contributes to a type of women’s economic independence. This is particularly apparent in the cases where they have previous familial or personal income, or a part-time/at-home job, as they are freed from economic responsibility for their households and children, and therefore have the liberty to use their own money as they please. As Estela says, “it’s a good deal: my money is my money and your money is ours.”
Evidently, not all women have the possibility to work or have their own previous savings or possessions, but even in those cases it is possible to recognize the use of strategies to guarantee some margin of financial independence. Among those, there is asking for more money than she would actually spend on home purchases and then saving the rest, lovingly forcing the husband to get her luxury items that she could buy herself, or charging the husband with extra loads that would free her from spending her own money, like her own family’s regular or incidental needs.
Another area where Islamic and western values usually collide is in the legally – and culturally-legitimized – practice of polygamy. It is a known fact that Islam allows men to have multiple wives (up to four) as long as he could provide them all with the same goods and comforts, and that it is up to each country to either legalize or prohibit it. As Egyptian law does not forbid it, and unless there is an agreement on both sides made legal by a monogamy clause, the possibility of having to share a husband is always a present threat to these women.
However, although they have the legal possibility of signing a monogamy clause, most of them had not done it, not simply because of lack of knowledge, but also because current economical hardships make polygamy more of an ideal than a plausible reality. More surprisingly, though, is the fact that the majority of them said to prefer having a legalized controlled polygamy here than having to put up with normal Latin-American male infidelities back home.
The reasons behind these positions seem to rely on the level of accountability of men’s actions. Whereas male Latin-American “playboy” behavior seems impossible to control by individual or institutional efforts, male Muslim conduct appears more easily regulated. In this respect, Estela’s opinion condenses a general feeling expressed by most of these women:
“In Latin America men can only have one legal wife but many have a lot of women, and they usually don’t assume their responsibility for women or children. Since many don’t have a steady job, even if you file an alimony claim for children support, they can get out of it. Their children become the children of oblivion, second class children without a father. If polygamy guarantees the rights of women and children, men aren’t going to have adventures, because there aren’t many prostitutes or easy-ones [women] around. Under those circumstances, it’s very difficult that he’ll be unfaithful to you. Now, personally I’d castrate him, because of my culture, but in the worst case scenario, I prefer that the other woman and her children have their rights, and that way I know where he is and with whom, he’s not going to bring me a disease or any other surprises.”
More often than not, converted women married to Muslim men are portrayed from an outsider’s western perspective as suffering, submissive or weak creatures, awaiting a “Not without my daughter” kind of destiny. The contrasting life stories and viewpoints of many Latin-American women that have found faith and love in Egyptian hands, give us a hint of other way of approaching this phenomenon.
* Some names are changed to protect the interviewed identities.
By Giangina Orsini