For 26-year-old Adji Mubarok, taaruf is the only way to get married. Once he turned to religion in 2010, dating was no longer his thing. The last time he had a girlfriend was in 12th grade, and it only lasted three months.
Adji left his hometown in Tangerang to move to Yogyakarta soon after he graduated from high school. Since then, he has decided to be closer to Allah. In 2016, after he got his bachelor’s degree, he went to an ustad or cleric to ask for help. Adji wanted to find someone to marry.
He then listed everything he wanted in his ideal partner. Adji was matched with Fani, who is now his wife. They got married in early 2017.
Taaruf is the practice of young, religious men asking clerics to help them find a woman. While it is similar to matchmaking, it’s also different in many ways. The pair is forbidden to make physical contact, and individuals who want to meet must be accompanied by either family members or an older guardian to ensure compliance. Taaruf is a growing trend in Indonesia as young Muslims are turning to more conservative practices.
Adji however rejects the notion that people practice taaruf just because they want to get married immediately, adding that it’s not as easy as it sounds. In his own experience, it took him a year to get to know his partner. During the taaruf process, they were not allowed to meet up without a guardian. They couldn’t talk to each other every day. Flirting was also prohibited.
"Let’s get this straight, taaruf is more than what you think it is. You don’t get married right after meeting a potential partner," said the Islamic business law graduate from Yogyakarta.
Adji works in Sharia property marketing, but also actively writes for "Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran” (Indonesia Without Dating), a conservative social movement that now has nearly 1 million followers on Instagram. He thinks hijrah – or coming back to religion – and taaruf movements, have gained momentum in recent years, especially in big cities. “The younger generations show great enthusiasm to learn this practice,” he told VICE.
In 2014, Tri Wahyu Nugroho started a website called rumahtaaruf.com for Muslim youth who are interested in taaruf. Rumah Taaruf currently has 7,000 followers, but the 34-year-old claims to have mediated more than 330,000 people in the taaruf process.
Rumah Taaruf was initially a subforum on the now-inactive site myquran.com in 2010. In the subforum, users exchanged their CVs to find prospective partners. If they both fit each other’s criteria, they planned to meet up. Nugroho saw this as a great opportunity to make his own Rumah Taaruf website. His purpose is to build a platform which is in line with Islamic teaching.
The procedures are still essentially the same. Firstly, users upload their CV on the site. If a guy is attracted to a woman, he contacts the administrator to arrange a schedule for them to meet. Nugroho said the meeting will be at a grand mosque near where the woman lives, with the assistance of Rumah Taaruf. If they feel chemistry, they can decide when to meet the family.
According to Nugroho, 66 couples have been married since 2014 thanks to Rumah Taaruf. He can mediate four partners in one day. He also says Rumah Taaruf never charges a penny for the mediation process.
“Not everyone we mediate ends in marriage,” he said. “Most of our male clients don’t feel the chemistry. We assume the main factor is the woman’s appearance. They probably look more attractive in pictures. Or maybe their parents don’t like them.”
Rumah Taaruf is only one of many forums that offer taaruf services. On Nugroho’s site, there is no age limit to join. He claims that the youngest members are 19 years old, and the oldest are 55 years old, but this is difficult to confirm. When asked about child marriage, a prevailing issue in Indonesia, he countered that his organization “still follows the marriage law.”
The concern of taaruf contributing to an increase in child marriages is only one of many other debates surrounding the practice. The movement's supporters often encourage Muslims to undergo taaruf so they can have sex without sin, as Islam sees sex as sinful if it’s done outside marriage. But critics argue that taaruf targets young school age individuals, who are not mentally fit for marriage, and have no knowledge of sex education or reproductive health.
It also hasn’t helped that many young celebrities were eager to turn to Islam after the hijrah movement gained momentum ahead of the 2014 Indonesian presidential elections, when religious populism was on the rise. Other critics note that young married celebrity couples who are part of the movement to marry young, along with increasing conservatism in Indonesia, play a significant role in making taaruf a trend. Its popularity is also raising concerns among women’s rights activists.
“This will lead to the emergence of anti-equality politics, where women’s morals are controlled in such a way, and that good women are those who married young,” said Lathiefah Widuri Retyaningtyas, the coordinator of Jaringan Muda organization, which fights for gender equality. Taaruf, critics believe, reinforce the conservative and traditional belief that a woman’s purpose is to have a family and serve her husband – doing anything else would make her look like a “bad Muslim”. The concern is further fueled by the hijrah movement's savvy use of social media to post eye-popping visuals and easy-to-understand religious quotes to attract young people. Posts criticize dating, reiterate stereotypes of women’s roles as subservient to their husbands, and insist that marriage is the path to true happiness.
Najib Kailani, a lecturer of interdisciplinary Islamic studies at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, is worried about what he called the strengthening of conservatism, which comes with the rejection of any law that’s not Allah’s law. “They not only reject other religions’ beliefs, but also Islamic teachings which they considered deviant,” Najib said.
But for youth like Adji, the criticism is unfounded. He contends that taaruf has served him well.
In their first two years of marriage, Adji claims they had never encountered significant domestic problems.
“People say that you need to date someone for a long time to ensure you know your partner well,” said Adji. “But that’s not always the case. I knew my wife only for a short time. But we haven’t had any problems along the way."
This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.