We Asked 6 Arab Girls What It’s Really Like Dating Outside Their Culture

Here's what they had to say

There are plenty of logical reasons to not want to date someone. Maybe they display a lot of red flags that you can’t ignore or perhaps you just can’t be bothered to explain why you keep a watering can next to the toilet in your bathroom. Over the last couple of months, many communities took to social media to jokingly share the reasons why they can’t date outside of their cultures, yielding some hilarious results. To quote one Twitter user: “I can’t date too far outside my culture because I’m not explaining why baba calls me baba and mama calls me mama.”

Jokes aside, in a lot of ways, dating outside of your culture can be fun and exciting and can open you up to a whole new universe. But  cross-cultural relationships can also come with a plethora of unique and unforeseen challenges. Even if you both share a similar ethnic background, you can still experience misunderstandings in your relationship due to a variety of factors such as language, religion, familial expectations, customs, traditions, and even food. You don’t have to look further than TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé for proof— instant flashback to when Chantel’s mom thought her son-in-law’s Dominican mother was doing voodoo on her after she served them a plate of chicken feet.

Relationships are never easy to begin with, and when you mix in a bunch of cultural differences, they become nearly impossible to navigate, despite how strong your feelings might be for each other. In some cases, people in intercultural relationships are able to get past these differences together and even go on to get married and start a family, however, for a lot of couples, the disparities are difficult to overlook, leading them to ultimately go on their own separate ways.

My friend Maryam* from Tunisia, who has been dating her French boyfriend for two-and-a-half years had a lot to say about the topic. Fortunately for her, her partner has been living in an Arab country for nearly a decade so according to Maryam, “he is already impregnated with its specificities.” However, this doesn’t mean it has always been smooth sailing.  “It is true that this made what is supposed to be very challenging, a less challenging experience. But then at times, it feels like it’s the first time he sets foot in my culture,” she shared over Instagram DMs.

“When dating a man from a different culture, you may feel threatened sometimes to lose the attachment and habits of your culture. While it may seem as a threat, I took this journey as a beautiful way to introduce my partner to my culture, my way, for him to appreciate its soft corners and understand its sharper ones. There are an infinite number of perspectives to understand a culture, I think it is important to align the ways of reading it, for you to be looking the same way,” she explained.

“As an Arab woman, the force of adaptation, learning to adjust to circumstances, contexts and situations especially in a love relationship is something I think we master. Growing up, my relationships were never explicit to my parents, until this day. My father never heard of any of my relationships and once I’m home I would act like I’ve never had one in my life— when I had a four year relationship before this one, but I guess we all love denial. Women in my culture know very well how to navigate relationships and adjust to them, the same way they would have the strength to give time, learn, communicate and adjust to a different culture,” she continues, revealing that she always wanted to have a relationship with a man who didn’t have the same culture (In Tunisia, Muslim women are legally allowed to marry non-Muslims).

According to Maryam, communication and compromising are the two most important elements in cross-cultural relationships. “Expressing an interest in each other’s cultures shows you accept and embrace them,” she said.

Below, we asked six Arab Muslim girls to share the biggest cultural differences they experienced while dating a non-Arab and non-Muslim partner and how they dealt with them. From hiding their boyfriends in the closet when their dad visited to convincing them to stop wearing gold jewelry, read on for what they had to say.

Hiba, Emirati

I’m not dating outside of my culture anymore because I’m tired of having to hide my boyfriend in the room when my dad comes over. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to tell him to stay inside the room and not come out. When I first did tell my dad about my boyfriend, I had to tell him that we just met even though we were literally dating for three years. And on top of that, I had to tell him we were getting engaged, which isn’t true, but you can’t just say “this is my boyfriend.” We proceeded to be fake engaged for like four or five years until the actual engagement before breaking it off recently. Also, I’m not dating outside of my culture because I can’t be bothered to explain that they need to convert to Islam in order to be with me.


Malika, Algerian

I’m in a long distance relationship with someone who is not Arab or Muslim, and we hadn’t seen each other in a while due to our conflicting schedules. We were trying to plan a date to meet up that would be convenient for both of us, but there was one problem: Ramadan was just around the corner. I had to explain to him why we had approximately x-amount of days to see each other as Ramadan is strictly off-limits for any romantic interactions (I know, I know…) He was very understanding about it and while our baecation ended up being prolonged an extra month, the time apart  made our hearts grow much fonder or whatever they say.


Mona, Iraqi

I dated my last boyfriend, who was Portuguese, for maybe less than a year before he decided he was ready to meet my parents and me his. Though I met his family, he didn’t meet mine because I didn’t want him to. That’s not how it works in our culture.  For some, meeting parents is not a big deal, but for us it is. So it was kind of an issue as he just couldn’t understand why.


Sabrina, Algerian

I once made my non-Muslim husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, to stop playing music at our house party because the athan went off. Now, every time he’s playing music and the call to prayer comes on, he automatically turns it off without anyone having to tell him to. I also made him stop wearing gold jewelry asides from the Cartier ring he has and his Rolex— he hasn’t bought gold ever since and sticks to strictly silver now.


Reem, Saudi

When I was dating a non-Muslim before, it was hard to have conversations about future plans or any events we eagerly wanted to happen without saying Inshallah at the end. In English “I hope” is the closest it gets, but I would always feel the need to say Inshallah as it’s a habit or seen as disregarding God’s will for anything planned for the future. Another big one was when we would get in the car and he would start playing music right away— I would always recite a prayer before I start driving, so I had to explain to him why I can’t start the music right when I get in the car.


Maryam, Tunisia

When we started having conversations about marriage, my partner wouldn’t understand why it wasn’t possible for me to “marry him” without legally signing wedding papers, simply because he was against marriage as an institution. Knowing that he had lived in an Arab country for over six years, I assumed that I wouldn’t have to explain myself. The reality wasn’t what I expected. It felt very challenging to invest time and energy to explain to my partner that this cannot happen, and if it were to happen with other families, I would not choose this topic as my life combat. My act of “activism” wouldn’t be based on me standing up to my family values and cultural identity to marry someone in an unconventional way. His ability to make a choice in the format of marriage was a true privilege, of which he was unaware and in denial. Making efforts to explain to him sounded very absurd to me at that moment, so I didn’t. Why would I have to explain to someone why they would want to marry me right? So I told him that I respected his choice and would not influence his principles, that I was enjoying the relationship for now and that the moment I thought I wanted a more “serious” relationship, in the sense that it would lead to a marriage and a family, I would have to end it. One minute later, he asked what wedding venue I wanted to have.

That privilege he did not recognize at the beginning made me want to spend less effort explaining myself. With compromise, we had a whole conversation about it and he understood and respected my point very well.

My partner also had a hard time accepting my rejections when I wouldn’t let him kiss me in public, on the streets. I would simply and smoothly present my cheek to receive the kiss, and he would take it very personally and label it as a rejection when I simply don’t like PDA on popular streets, in an Arab country, and somehow would not want to risk getting arrested for a kiss.


*Names have been changed for anonymity. 

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