Navigating the world of dating, sex and love is a minefield at the best of times, but when you throw religion into the mix it can be even more complicated. For Muslim women in particular, it can be difficult speaking openly about relationship issues and concerns, which some put down to a lack of sex-positivity in the faith and its strict rules around relationships and sex outside marriage.
Thanna Alghabban, 31, is a trainee solicitor, director of a modestwear fashion company, YouTuber and self-proclaimed 'halal dating guru' from London. She believes there's no one speaking as candidly about dating as a Muslim as she is right now – among the topics she's taken on hitherto are wedding night sex, haram (forbidden) relationships, and her own experience of divorce and being widowed, as well as practical advice and tips for creating a Muslim dating app profile.
Alghabban answers "pre-dating issues, post-dating issues and also issues that arise after talking to someone for a period of time – all while being mindful of Islamic practices," she told Refinery29. ("Halal" means permissible in Arabic, so a halal relationship is one that would be allowed under Islamic law.)
There’s less 'I like you, let’s see where this goes,' and more 'I like you, do you see yourself marrying me in the future?'
Alghabban fell into the role and made it her own following the death of her husband in 2015. "The more I spoke of my relationship with him – I'd met him on Tinder...which isn’t a norm – the more I got messages from my female following about their guy issues." At first she'd answer most of them on Snapchat, but soon she was receiving a hundred messages a day from Muslim women seeking advice about their not-so-Muslim relationships and how to make them halal. Alghabban couldn't keep up.
"It was at this point I realised there was a huge need for these issues to be addressed." So she started making YouTube videos.
Dating as a Muslim woman is different than it is for many others, she explains, in that "there’s less 'I like you, let’s see where this goes,' and more 'I like you, do you see yourself marrying me in the future? Because if not, tell me now'." There's "a lot of pressure" she says.
She explains: "Women can go on dates in a public setting but must keep the relationship and line of conversation non-sexual, and not put themselves in a situation where they're alone in an enclosed environment with a boy, because we're mindful that one thing may lead to another if two people feel a certain way about each other and are alone."
I get told I'm leading girls astray with my ideology
There's a dark side to the role, however, and she receives abuse online every day because of her frank, controversial content. It's particularly intense when she uploads something "that might challenge some people’s rigid views of Islam," she explains. "I get told I'm leading girls astray with my ideology and that I'm not a Muslim. I'm likened to a prostitute because I encourage women to talk more to different people [when they start dating] to get a better understanding of how a guy's mind works, and to also not fixate on any one guy."
But Alghabban sees these comments as a price worth paying. "I'm not trying to normalise dating and non-marital relationships at all, nor am I trying to encourage non-halal relationships," she says. Instead, she wants to draw attention to the fact that un-Islamic relationships are happening and she believes the young people involved deserve proper guidance.
"I guarantee about 90% of all Muslim households will have a son, daughter or relative engaging in such relationships, and instead of trying to advise these girls and guys, we sweep it under the carpet because it’s not 'halal' and it’s not supposed to be happening," she explains.
"I say yes okay, it’s not supposed to be happening but guess what? It is. So let’s advise that 18-year-old girl in love with a guy who is pressuring her to get physical, and show her actually he doesn’t really care about you if he's putting you in that position."
When Alghabban describes her own love life as a "work in progress" at the moment, she is at pains to point out that she doesn't let her own religiosity interfere too much. "As a Muslim woman I see myself the same as any other woman when it comes to how I view a boy or relationships. I love being loved – who doesn’t? I get insecure, I like attention, I get jealous, I like excessive affection. I go through pretty much every emotion a non-Muslim woman does when talking to someone," she says, which is why a fair number of her followers are non-Muslim.
"We're just a different religion, not a different breed. We just tend to be less likely to be sexual due to our religion, but so do other women who follow religions in an orthodox fashion, like Christianity or Judaism."