Finding a life partner

The complexities of romance and marriage for South Asian Muslim immigrants in Canada

An interracial couple—South Asian and white Canadian—celebrating their engagement

Photo: Razeeb Chowdhury Photography

It’s meant to be one of the most exciting times in a person’s life. Meeting someone special and falling in love. For new immigrants in Canada though, making that romantic connection can be complicated. Often when it comes to committing to a life partner, it becomes less about romance and more about race, culture, politics and faith.

“When setting out to find a partner, immigrants often ask: ‘Who will understand me? Who will accept me? Who will share my world views?,’” says author, sociologist and assistant professor of international migration and race/ethnicity at the University of Pennsylvania Tahseen Shams. “It’s not just about swiping left and right on a dating app; there is this cultural baggage that is being carried to make these very consequential and intimate decisions.”

Shams has firsthand knowledge about the complexities around race, cultural background and marriage. Her family immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh when she was a teenager during the post-911 period. She is a South Asian Muslim American who is married to a white Canadian man whose family emigrated from the United Kingdom.

“We now have a one-year-old who is a Bangladeshi Welsh English American Canadian. “As a researcher, these interracial and interfaith dynamics in my own life prompted me to start thinking about the meaning-making process and whether or not immigrants feel accepted.”

interracial couple walking hand in hand on a forest pathway

While interracial marriages are not common among South Asian Muslim Canadians, they are increasingly open to dating outside their racial/ethnic and religious groups.

Photo: Razeeb Chowdhury Photography

Race, religion, and romance

In 2021, while an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, Shams was awarded a SSHRC Insight Grant for her project, Race, Religion and Romance: Interracial and Interfaith Dating and Marriage of South Asian Muslim Immigrants in Canada. South Asians are the largest racialized group in Canada, while Muslims are the second largest religious group in Canada behind Christians. Despite their numbers in Canada, South Asians are one of the two least likely racialized groups, along with Chinese, to marry outside their ethnic and religious communities, and marital integration becomes even more challenging for South Asian Muslim immigrants due to stigma based on religion.

Over the next year, Shams and her research team interviewed 130 Canadian participants from four groups of South Asian Muslim backgrounds: single South Asian Muslims looking for romantic partners, South Asian Muslims currently in mixed relationships, South Asian Muslims who were formerly in mixed relationships, and South Asian Muslim parents with young children. To understand how South Asian Muslims were perceived as romantic partners by others, Shams and her team also interviewed non-Muslim white and Black Canadians. Most of the interviews were conducted in urban and suburban parts of Ontario. The study included both first- and second- generation South Asian Muslim immigrants. While Shams is in the process of compiling the full study findings, early publications show that interracial and interfaith marriages are a rarity for South Asian Muslim immigrants in Canada. But her research reveals much more than that.

“My research shows that global geopolitics shapes participants’ romantic pursuits,” explains Shams. “What happens far away, and how South Asian Muslims are viewed here in Canada are interpreted through a racial lens when choosing a partner. The prevalence of Islamophobia, even in a multicultural Canada, means that Muslims are often still considered outsiders. The majority of participants we spoke with admit that it’s easier to keep within their own group because they believe they will be better understood than partnering with a non-Muslim.”

Unpacking the research

Shams’ study had several other key findings: Even if a non-Muslim partner is willing to convert to Islam, often that still isn’t enough to consider marriage over concern that the partner won’t be “Muslim enough”. Relationships remain a family affair with arranged marriages still common in South Asian Muslim culture, even in Canada. Because of complex historical issues, South Asian Muslims, the majority of whom are Sunni, are still reluctant to partner with someone from a different Muslim sect over concerns of backlash in the family. And for participants to even consider marrying outside their faith, their partner must have the same geopolitical views on big issues, not just in their homeland, but in other parts of the world like Palestine, Syria and Ukraine.

“While my research shows that interracial marriage remains a rarity among South Asian Muslims in Canada, interracial dating is not as rare, especially for second-generation immigrants, but that depends on where you live. In multicultural Toronto, where people are more inclusive, it is not uncommon for young South Asian Muslims to go on dates and have short-term romantic relationships with non-Muslims. That is less common in predominantly white areas where immigrants feel less included. But when it comes to marriage it’s similar for both first- and second-generation immigrants. It’s less about emotion and more about compatibility.”

South Asian Muslim bride in her vivid bridal finery and jewellery

South Asian Muslim bride at her interracial wedding

Photo: Razeeb Chowdhury Photography

Policy implications: A call for action

Shams admits her research came with some surprising results. “When I began this research, I thought there would be a much larger contrast between my findings in Canada and my previous findings in the United States. Canada has a reputation for being more multicultural and less politically polarized than the United States. I was surprised to find the results similar on both sides of the border.”

Consequently, Shams feels Canadian policy makers should pay attention to this study. “Despite South Asians being the largest racialized minority in Canada, they still don’t feel completely accepted. Islamophobia is real and present in Canada, not just for Muslims but for anyone who ‘looks’ Muslim. I think if there is a policy implication to my research, it is for policy makers to consider Muslim integration not just as a political gesture, but as a continuous process that is responsive to geopolitical developments.”

Shams has now wrapped up her study and is using the findings to write her second book. She now speaks on the topic across North America, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. While her research career has now taken her back to the United States, she says she is forever grateful to Canada for supporting her groundbreaking work.

“I think the fact that Canada invests in early scholars, like me, and that we have these opportunities to explore questions that may have policy implications nationally and globally is incredible. It’s what makes Canada stand out in the research landscape.”

Want to learn more?

Check out Tahseen Shams’ debut book Here, There and Elsewhere: The Making of Immigrant Identities in a Globalized World (Stanford University Press, 2020). Listen here to a sample of conversations with Shams on the topics of race, religion and Islamophobia.