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Illinois woman helps South Asian Muslims find each other

Date: 2008-03-11

It's Wednesday, matchmaking day, and Athia Syed's phone won't stop
ringing. There's a father on the line looking for a U.S. citizen to marry
his son in India. A woman seeking a hijab-wearing spouse for her stockbroker
brother. A mother who wants a well-educated wife for her son.

Will she settle for someone with only a bachelor's degree? Syed asks.

"From a very good school?" the caller inquires.

Certainly love is not dead, but in Syed's opinion it can be way too picky.

For 15 years, the retired City Colleges of Chicago professor has been
matching South Asian Muslims across the country. From her comfortable
Downers Grove, Ill., home she fields dozens of calls while scrolling through
a laptop database that organizes more than 1,100 marriage-minded Muslims by
age, height, educational background, legal status and their parents' country
of origin. She notes their appearance, marital history and whether they wear
the hijab, or head scarf.

Syed estimates she has been responsible for more than 50 marriages. Her
services are free, but sometimes playing Cupid feels like a full-time job.
Years ago, when many Muslim immigrants returned to their home countries to
find a spouse, matrimonial networks might not have been necessary. But today
few Muslim Americans are interested in traveling halfway across the world
for an arranged marriage. Increasingly, mosques and Islamic organizations
are playing a role in helping young Muslims find their mates, said Imam
Mohamed Magid, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America
(ISNA), the nation's largest Muslim organization.

"There are so many young people in the Muslim community looking to get
married, but they have a dilemma: They can't date," Magid said. "We offer
options within Islamic boundaries."

Among the most popular options are ISNA's chaperoned speed-dating sessions.
They draw hundreds of participants and have become a big attraction at the
organization's annual convention.

Magid also organizes smaller gatherings for singles through his mosque in
Virginia and has received calls from mosques in New York, Florida and
Arizona seeking advice on sponsoring similar meetings.

In addition to social networking sites such as or, some mosques have started adding matrimonial databases
to their Web sites.

Still, for those put off by matrimonial Web sites or the thought of finding
a lifelong companion at a harried speed-dating session, matchmakers offer an
old-fashioned approach.

"Basically matchmakers are keeping up with the best aspects of the
arranged-marriage tradition of the old country," Asma Gull Hasan, a (33 and
single) Chicagoan and author of "American Muslims: The New Generation," said
in an e-mail. "The community still needs this service because of our
geographic isolation from each other and our small size."

Syed never intended to become a matchmaker, but word got around after she
successfully set up several singles. Now her phone number is passed along.

Switching seamlessly from English to her native Urdu, Syed quizzes callers
on their preferences as she scrolls through her database searching for
singles that match the candidate's age, height and professional background.
She does not know most of the candidates personally and warns that it's up
to each family to confirm profile information. There are about four times
more women than men in Syed's database.

Though callers often ask for photos and physical descriptions of potential
matches, Syed, who has been married 39 years, encourages them to look

"I say, 'Don't go by outer looks only,' " she said, " 'Don't go by the
physical only.' "

Syed counsels young Muslims to be more proactive in finding their future
mates, rather than relying on their parents or matchmakers.

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