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Swipe Left: dating inside and outside Muslim, Syrian and refugee boxes

When I moved to London, first as a student and then as a refugee, I thought dating would be easier than in Syria. But using dating apps has taught me more about myself.

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14 Dec 2022

Alex Smyth

It has been six years since my feet first touched London’s wet ground, arriving from Damascus in Syria to do a master’s degree at 32 years old. Those years were overwhelming, to say the least. Before I left Damascus, I was in survival mode. Unemployed and living with my parents (a tradition that many Syrian women do until we marry or die), I wore a hijab, and I was in the last days of my first and only relationship with my university boyfriend. I had no expectations or hopes until I decided to study in the UK.

After a few months of culture shock in London, I unleashed the genie of my trapped feelings from the bottle and outpoured insecurities, PTSD, otherness and depression. I was fragile, vulnerable, and, most of all, lonely. My boyfriend had ended our 12-year-old, dead-end relationship, which was about time. 

After my master’s finished, I stayed in the UK and got refugee status. It wasn’t safe to stay in Damascus: bombshells and bullets were as abundant as the stars – they covered my sky. After coming to safety, I finally understood what safety meant. That’s why I am a refugee. All of these life changes pushed me to rethink several things. 

“These are identities that I am proud to carry, but I don’t want them to define my entire life”

One was to take off my hijab, which nobody had forced me to wear in the first place. I had previously felt that my hijab was marking my territory and putting me inside a box: the Muslim, Syrian and refugee box. These are identities that I am proud to carry, but I don’t want them to define my entire life. 

My second realisation was that I wanted to break free, to surprise people with who I am and what I have to offer. I wanted to immerse myself in love: to love and to be loved. Admittedly, I thought that my chances of finding a partner in London were high, especially after taking off my hijab. Surely in London, a city with a population of nine and a half million people, there must be someone for me!

I thought I was ready for change: I wanted to explore the intimacy of internet dating that I saw in my favourite romantic movies like You’ve Got Mail and Must Love Dogs. I was hopeful of starting my online dating journey, convinced it would be good.

The tube in London is full of ads for a Muslim dating app, which my friends encouraged me to download. Many of the people in my Syrian community, along with friends, have found their partners online. I downloaded so many apps until I was exhausted. I was looking for a romantic experience that would sweep me off my feet, but instead, I am stuck with awkward and funny dating stories.

“I was looking for a romantic experience that would sweep me off my feet, but instead, I am stuck with awkward and funny dating stories”

Sometimes, I wanted someone who didn’t know a single letter of Arabic. This led to me swiping right on a guy who, from the first minute we met, kept touching and hugging me even as I tried to move away. I apologised, left and blocked him. I have no idea why I apologised; I should have slapped him instead. 

It also led to me going on a date with a man from Sicily. He asked me what it was like in Syria: “Was it like the Taliban?” I almost died. Syria is not geographically far from Italy, yet he hadn’t bothered to educate himself about it. Coming back home and seeing that he had unmatched me upset me a little, but at least I’d enjoyed a nice dinner.

Other times, I wanted only Arab or Muslim matches so we would have common ground. I swiped right on traditional, heterosexual Muslim men who expected me to be the feminine Muslim woman who wanted to be a housewife. To escape a date with one of these men, I got a girlfriend to call to pretend she urgently needed my help, then left and blocked him. 

In the past five years, I’ve opened the apps only sporadically and was disappointed each time I used them. But recently, after experiencing my mother’s death, that loss and my increased loneliness compelled me to give a new app another chance – one specifically for Middle Eastern people and Muslims. Despite my incomplete profile, I matched with two guys with gorgeous images who had converted to Islam. Although they were friendly, something didn’t add up and it turned out that they were scammers looking only for money.

“Are the labels on the box I wanted to escape – Muslim, Syrian, refugee – still keeping me inside?”

I kept asking myself, what is dating for me? Does it involve sex, a taboo subject in conservative communities like mine? Are the labels on the box I wanted to escape – Muslim, Syrian, refugee – still keeping me inside? Should I be more courageous? Am I asking for too much? My friend jokes about my ideal partner’s specific traits and that I am searching for the impossible man. 

There is a big chance I am chasing a phantom, a combination of traits I will never find. But going through the tough journey has taught me that I have no choice but to keep trying, never give up, and keep rising after every fall. We are doomed to hope, as Saadallah Wannous, a Syrian writer, once said. So, hope keeps rising, reminding me of the high odds for each one of us to find happiness. Despite the hope, facing reality alone and having nobody to go home to is hard. That’s why dating is not a luxury for me. It’s a basic life need. I am uprooted here, a stranger with no support system or family.

But as I date with this new understanding, how do I balance being me with breaking out of the box that has kept me hemmed in? How can I meet a good match without compromising my beliefs?

“Life is too short to keep pleasing others, especially men on dating apps”

It is hard not to judge and be judged based on looks, religion, hometown, or job title. It is hard to be patient and wait for the story to unfold in instalments of just a few pictures and captions, while the impatient age we live in makes us wish for the full story. Swiping left is the easiest, most tempting move. But while using apps, I want to take my time to think and reflect. Swiping based on looks is a standard modern dating procedure that I find unfair: it flattens real humans. Getting matches and compliments is amazing – I’m not complaining – but knowing they often sugarcoat other intentions is vexing.

After thinking it over, I realised dating apps probably aren’t right for me. But using them taught me never to settle for someone who is not right for me, to never be ashamed of who I am and to embrace the box – but also to recognise when it’s time to break free of it. Life is too short to keep pleasing others, especially men on dating apps. If I don’t find what pleases me, I am better off without it.