LONDON (Reuters) - When “Sweetgal”, a 29-year-old British Muslim from central England, began looking for a new husband last year, at first she didn’t know where to turn.
The answer, it turned out, was on the Internet.
She’d been married once -- a union arranged by her parents -- to a man from Pakistan. It lasted seven years and produced children but broke down due to cultural differences and she didn’t want to go through a similar trauma again.
At the same time, being a respectful Muslim who wears hijab, she wasn’t going to start ‘dating’, and knew her parents would have to be involved in her new search in one way or another.
Over the past two years there has been a boom in the use of Web sites that introduce Muslim men and women, not for casual dating, but for those actively seeking traditional Muslim marriage.
Where once young British Muslims might have had a marriage arranged to a spouse from the country of their parents’ origin -- perhaps Pakistan or Bangladesh -- it is now much more common for them to marry within the Muslim community in Britain.
“Sweetgal”, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, has been registered on www.singlemuslim.com for several months, in which time she’s found someone she hopes could be a marriage prospect. She does not allow her picture to appear on the site.
”My parents are coming round (to the idea),“ she said. ”He’s a British Pakistani Muslim and more in line with what I‘m looking for.
Where marriages used to be fixed up solely by parents with the help of religious leaders, the Internet now plays an influential role in bringing partners together, even if parents remain part of the equation.
Singlemuslim.com, which calls itself Britain’s largest Muslim introductions agency, has seen registered users more than double over the past year to 100,000, as word has spread about its service, not only among singles but their parents too.
Such is the demand for trustworthy introductions that its founder is now opening sites in the United States, Canada and Australia to cater to large Muslim communities there.
“Our success rate is extremely high,” said Adeem Younis, who founded the site from his base in West Yorkshire six years ago.
“Two people a day, on average, are coming off the site having found success, which is a lot really. We’re seeing the number of traditionally arranged marriages dropping quite rapidly as this becomes more popular.”
“For some people it’s difficult because I’ve got children,” said “Sweetgal”. “I want someone who is caring and understands where I‘m coming from. That’s why the site’s really useful -- I can be so much more straightforward on the Web.”
“Sweetgal” is not alone. One of the most marked effects of the growth of sites that cater to Muslims as well as Sikhs, Hindus, Tamils and others across South Asia looking for traditional marriage, is the empowerment of women.
On some sites, more than half the registered users are professional women with above-average incomes who use the service to save time and broaden the scope of their search. They are direct and demanding about what they are looking for.
“It’s been a major revolution,” said Geeta Sri Vastav, the UK head of www.shaadi.com, which calls itself the world’s largest matrimonial service, with 10 million registered users, most in South Asia -- in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
In Britain, where 700,000 people are registered, 40 percent of users say they have an average annual income of 40,000 pounds
“In the past, an Asian woman who came of age didn’t have too many choices in terms of marriage. But the Internet has increased her options immensely,” Sri Vastav said.
“Whereas before she would meet 10 or 20 people through her family, now she potentially has millions to choose from. She has the initiative. It has put power in her hands, allowing her to shape her destiny when it comes to marriage.”
Another impact of the sites, particularly in Britain, where there are approximately 1.8 million Muslims, is to increase the tendency for young people to “marry in”, rather than looking to marry someone from their “home” country.
Rapid changes in lifestyle, wealth and outlook have increased the gap between Britain and the countries where most of its Muslims originally came from -- Pakistan and Bangladesh -- making cross-national marriage a much trickier affair.
New immigration laws introduced since September 11, 2001 have also made it more difficult for potential brides or grooms from countries like Pakistan to enter Britain for marriage.
“Anita”, a Sunni Muslim and typical user of one of the sites in Britain, is a case in point. In her profile, she makes it clear she does not want a non-British Muslim partner.
“MUST BE A UK CITIZEN, preferably raised in the UK,” she writes, adding: “Once compatibility is established, would prefer family involvement. My family know I am looking so would prefer someone who is looking with permission from their family.”
There are no precise figures on Muslim marriages in Britain, but community leaders say trends have changed rapidly in recent years, particularly as far as strictly arranged marriages go, and point to education and the Internet as the main causes.
“It’s just not as common anymore,” said Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the head of the Muslim Parliament of Britain.
“People coming from abroad find it difficult to adjust, and people living here find they have much more compatibility with Muslims who were also born or grew up here, so the demand for the old traditional arranged marriage just isn’t there.”
A side-effect of Muslim women’s increased confidence that he’s noticed, however, is that there now appear to be fewer “good Muslim male” marriage prospects to go around.
That’s led to some women marrying outside their community, so a British Pakistani woman might marry a British Bangladeshi.