The pair talk shyly for a few minutes under the watchful eyes of Siti’s parents until a bell prompts the dozens of male participants to shift to a new table and a new prospective wife.
The Malaysian concept, staged in a Kuala Lumpur restaurant, is a new twist on Islam’s practice of heavily-chaperoned match-making, but aimed at modern singles for whom time is of the essence.
Siti, a 29-year-old graphic designer, has not been in a relationship since her university days.
“I’m here to find someone for marriage because I’m too busy to meet anyone and I spend all my free time with my family,” she said during a break, as her parents eagerly compared notes on the male prospects.
Organisers said more than 2,000 people had applied to take part in the session this past weekend, the second staged so far by “Halal Speed Dating”, which uses the term denoting practises that comply with Islamic rules.
Suitable matches don’t wed immediately.
But unlike Western-style speed dating, which is geared toward matching up people for later dates and courtship on their own, couples in the Islamic version are expected to seek marriage soon after both sides agree, including the parents.
Finding a ‘true gentleman’
Muslim-majority Malaysia has long practised a moderate form of Islam.
But conservative attitudes are rising, and the speed dating sessions have been embraced as an alternative to online match-making sites or apps that many Malaysian Muslims view as geared more for Western-style casual flings.
As an added incentive, Malaysian Muslims face possible fines and jail terms for committing “khalwat”, the Islamic crime of being alone with a member of the opposite sex other than a spouse or close relative.
“A true gentleman would seek permission from the woman’s father first,” said Zuhri Yuhyi, co-founder of Halal Speed Dating.
“That has been the way for thousands of years and it’s only in the last two or three generations that we have lost this beauty. But we hope to bring it back.”
Zuhri and his wife met at an unrelated match-making event in 2012 and now have a baby boy. But he wanted to create something more in line with Islamic principles.
Promising an Islamic courtship in a “dignified manner,” Halal Speed Dating requires that women be chaperoned and that all participants ultimately plan to wed.
The weekend round followed an initial instalment in May that Zuhri said resulted in 14 matches that he hopes will soon end in martrimony.
Though 2,000 people applied for the latest session, capacity constraints meant only around 50 could take part, but Zuhri hopes to stage a bigger event soon, with up to 500 couples.
During the sessions, Muslim Malay men in Western clothing banter with the women, most of them dressed in conservative Islamic long-sleeved blouses, long flowing skirts and headscarves.
Use of personal names is taboo, and participants have numbers pinned to their shirts. A few participants scribbled notes as they chatted.
Cupid’s work is interrupted every five minutes when Zuhri jingles a hand-held bell to signal it is time for the men to switch tables.
“Alright, time to move on everybody. Let’s move it, move it!” he said cheerily into a microphone.
Keeping an ‘open mind’
Afterward, organisers notify the women of any interested suitors.
“So far it’s been good,” said one young woman chaperoned by her brother but who, like most participants, declined to give her name.
“I think maybe there’s one or two potentials, but even if it doesn’t work out I get to meet new people,” she said.
Several women said the difficulty finding romance by traditional match-making agencies, websites, or just by chance, had spurred them to take part.
“I have used apps to try and meet Muslim men. But the selection is not varied enough,” she said.
Zuhri, meanwhile, warned that popular Western-based websites such as Tinder “can lead to social ills like premarital sex, abandoned babies and extramarital affairs.”
Siti’s father Jamali Kamarudin said they had tried other methods including match-making via friends but “it didn’t work out very well.”
“This is very new and it’s our first time, but hopefully it works out. We should keep an open mind,” he said.