Heart Searching: First the marriage, then the relationship: 'They're all looking for each other, a whole generation. How do they find each other?' Cathy Aitchison talks to Muslim women

Humera Khan met her husband by chance, then got to know him in the course of her work. They liked each other and decided to get married. 'I come across as difficult, outspoken, I say what I think - and what I liked about him was that he was able to see beyond the superficial characteristics about me. As Muslims we don't have this 'going out with each other', so when you meet someone and you can see you like them, the first issue is marriage - the relationship develops after that.' Both sets of parents agreed to the match, and soon afterwards they were married.

Humera is one of the founder members of a Muslim women's society in north London, which offers support to women in the community and help for Muslims looking for a partner. 'We spend a lot of time advising, and dealing with the nitty gritty, the mechanics of problems - for example, if the parents don't know or don't approve.'

Huda (not her real name) met her husband through the Islamic society at university in London, and at first her father was angry at her choice: she is from a Pakistani background, unlike her husband, whose family is not Urdu-speaking, and who is younger than her. 'He's totally different from what my father would have chosen - more religious, and from a different tribe from us.' After months of support and persuasion from Humera, Huda's parents finally accepted the match. An alternative would bave been to marry in secret, but Huda feels she made the right decision. 'It was worth it, going through the family and having the blessings - a proper Islamic marriage.'

In the West, Muslim women are often portrayed as downtrodden or oppressed by their husbands, but in fact Islam sees marriage as a partnership based on mutual respect, care and companionship. 'They (wives) are as a garment for you, and you (husbands) are as a garment for them,' as the Koran describes it. Although marriage is strongly encouraged, a woman can choose whether or not to accept the man, and, if she does accept him, the couple should be given the chance to get to know each other before the marriage; unfortunately, these points are often ignored in some traditional cultures when marriages are arranged.

Aliya Haeri acts as a counsellor for the Muslim Women's Helpline, a national advice service set up three years ago. She sees many second generation Muslims whose ideals and expectations conflict with those of their parents, who want the young to hang on to culturally based traditions. 'This generation has rediscovered Islam and read the book (the Koran) properly, and many have become very passionate Muslims.' But in doing so, many then find their parents' choices of partners unacceptable: they want a practising Muslim, possibly from their own background, but who also feels at home in the West. 'They're all looking for each other - a whole generation - but how do they find each other?'

One way that is growing is via introduction agencies, which offer regular introductory dinners, or exchange of contact numbers. Fatima runs an informal service in London which she set up, initially to help friends and acquaintances. She now also intrdouces others who have been put in touch with her, for example, from the Muslim Women's Helpline: 'I get calls from all sorts of people - Middle Eastern Muslims, Pakistanis, English converts.'

Cross-cultural marriages are not uncommon - Welsh with Pakistani, English with Iranian, and so on. 'When you're a Muslim you don't look at race or colour, you just go on your interests, and if you're suitable and compatible,' says Fatima. Mrs Haeri also believes that cross-cultural marriages can bring benefits: 'Many find the pressures of family overwhelming, so marriage outside the culture gets beyond that. With your faith as your common ground, that's a very powerful commitment - the cultural differences take a secondary role.'

Although dating is forbidden, there are opportunities for Muslim men amd women to meet at work or college, or through groups that meet to study the Koran. Yasmine Chowdry is 20 and not yet married; she was born in England and grew up as a Muslim. 'With my Muslim friends a lot of what we do is home- based - I go to visit my married friends, or we eat at other people's houses. Sometimes the company is mixed. A lot of relationships start up at Islamic study circles: you go there to study the Koran and end up with a husband.' She stresses that there is nothing of the 'meat market' about these gatherings, and agrees that they could be described as innocent. 'A lot of us are very innocent, very naive even, but that can be a positive thing as well.'

Huda and her husband are active in the Islamic society at their university: 'We try to hold study circles and talks so that people can meet . . . many of the foreign students have no guidelines here, so we act as role models for the younger students.' Keeping to the Islamic ideal of chastity outside marriage is difficult for some, especially in the student situation: 'Islam does tell you to get married early, and I really do believe in that,' she adds.

Sana Namazie, an Iranian Muslim brought up mainly in England, is 24, and not yet married. She has experienced the difficulties of growing up in two cultures, for example seeing the companionship that her non-Muslim girlfriends can have with their boyfriends. Working for the Muslim newspaper Q News, she hears of many women having problems finding a suitable partner. 'Women have a tough time meeting the kind of person they want. They tend to have high expectations nowadays.'

Humera agrees. She married at 28 (late for a Muslim, but becoming less unusual) and she encourages the idea of older women marrying younger men. 'Women's expectations are increasing whereas men's are staying the same; I'm finding that older men are more static, but younger men are more flexible and they're actually looking for far more dimensions to married life.'

Muslim Women's Helpline: 081-908 6715 or 081-904 8193 (Mon-Fri 10-4).

(Photograph omitted)