Online Dating in Pakistan

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Two pairs of hands holding cups of chai

Illustration by Paru Ramesh

Subhan* is a 24-year old management trainee in the sales department of one of the leading FMCG corporations in Karachi. He has been using Tinder since a month now, and is looking for a casual hookup. He claims to be inspired by the famous Hollywood movies No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits. According to him, his past relationships were “a waste of time, energy and resources”, and he doesn’t want any commitments right now. He says that his experience on Tinder has particularly been “weird and disappointing” so far because “women don’t know what they want from Tinder in Pakistan.” He adds, “nobody comes on a dating app to make friends or to get married. It’s like a fast lane to find somebody who would have sex with you without any other expectations.”

This experience isn’t specific to Subhan, in fact most men join online dating apps to hookup and never see the other person again - at least in the opinion of Haris*, another Tinder user who has been on several Tinder dates and is a self-proclaimed ‘ghosting expert’. However, Mehreen, a 25-year old woman working in a local modeling agency, believes that she can’t trust anyone on Tinder. “It will take another century for Pakistanis to accept the way people are, and I can’t afford being judged”, she says.

It will take another century for Pakistanis to accept the way people are, and I can’t afford being judged”, Mehreen says.

Pakistan is a conservative Muslim majority nation with a population of approximately 200 million, out of which almost 49% are those who identify themselves as women, most of whom have lived their entire life behind barriers fabricated by their families in attempts of protecting their honour and reputation. Concepts such as protection and honour impede women’s mobility in society - they not only curtailed their ability to occupy the spaces outside the confines of the home, but also the avenues to interact with others, evident by the fact that most public spaces are largely occupied by men. This left women and men with bleak prospects to find like-minded people who are not their immediate or distant relatives. The protection of honour for women seeps into online spaces where they are discouraged from having their own social media accounts. These restrictions on their digital lives result in women having anonymous accounts or they end up restricting and self-censoring themselves online.

Concepts such as protection and honour impede women’s mobility in society - they not only curtailed their ability to occupy the spaces outside the confines of the home, but also the avenues to interact with others, evident by the fact that most public spaces are largely occupied by men.

The rise of the internet in the form of chat rooms and social media websites like Orkut, MySpace, Yahoo Chat and MSN in the early 2000s revolutionised the dating culture in Pakistan and beyond. But women were still expected to keep away from these spaces because of another layer of so-called security that they were forced to incorporate in their actions and communications, and these have eventually been internalised over the years. Security that demands them to not trust anyone. This lack of trust further perpetuated segregation, but for the most part didn’t contribute towards anything constructive. However, people still found their way to be on these chatrooms through mass media, and the culture of dating primarily started from here. This is perhaps similar to all the other conservative societies across the globe where a man and a woman, unless they are married or blood relatives, can’t be seen together in public.

Two pairs of hands holding cups of chai

Even though this trend of online dating was kept undercover for many years, it has gained visibility and popularity fairly recently, especially since smartphone apps have been introduced. With the introduction of dating apps like Tinder, OkCupid, Grindr and the like, the boom in dating culture is pretty evident in the open proclamation by many interviewed of their desire to meet new people and form relationships.

Sahar Awan, a cabin crew member at one of the international airlines, joined Tinder two years ago to have fun and has not stopped ever since. She challenges the norms in unique ways. “Men are allowed to have four wives, so it’s only fair that us women should at least have the liberty to look at men and swipe right if we like someone.” Awan thinks that Tinder has liberated her and has given her a mode to live her life on her own terms.

Men are allowed to have four wives, so it’s only fair that us women should at least have the liberty to look at men and swipe right if we like someone, Sahar Awan says.

Ruqaiyyah*, an advertising professional, argues that all her life she was forced to watch Disney movies idealising nonsensensical concepts of being pretty (enough) to meet a prince charming when in reality being a woman on Tinder did exactly that for her. Except now she has a whole lot of prince charmings to choose from, and she “doesn’t even have to be in a jungle to find them”.

There is still stigma around meeting someone online and to be in an intimate relationship with them, and this impedes the possibility of having these conversations and opinions in the open. But Fariha* believes that dating apps are fun because of being able to meet a person with apparently similar likes and dislikes, and having an interesting conversation with a new person. This makes the experience worth while - even if it’s for a few days.

Tinder, being the most popular dating app among heteronormative individuals, has opened avenues for people to seek what they have long desired - a culture of flings that they had only witnessed in Hollywood movies. While a lot of people loved online dating based on their experiences, some were disappointed to say the least.

Religion dominates the lives of most individuals, and even though the concept of dating is frowned upon by most of them, let alone online dating, the same or similar concepted is considered ethical and culturally acceptable when supposedly Muslim-centric and desi versions of dating apps like Muzmatch, Dil Mil and Minder are involved.

Religion dominates the lives of most individuals, and even though the concept of dating is frowned upon by most of them, let alone online dating, the same or similar concepted is considered ethical and culturally acceptable when supposedly Muslim-centric and desi versions of dating apps like Muzmatch, Dil Mil and Minder are involved.

Shahid*, a 25 year old entrepreneur, says that essentially these apps are pretty similar to Tinder, but it’s easier to find people who have the same caste and religious beliefs on “Muslim dating apps” as compared to the others.

Women on the other hand believe the threat and consequences of using these dating apps are very real regardless of religion being used to attract and increase the users of these apps.

In Pakistan, women's entire lives are dominated by the patriarchal family structure. From choosing what to wear to what to study and who to marry, all the decisions are made by the elders. Most of the time, women don’t have the authority to choose who they marry. Instead, their family finds who they think is most suitable for their daughter and marries them off as soon as they wish. And in such instances, having a boyfriend and then choosing to marry him is an act of ultimate defiance and betrayal, and Mehreen’s friend who wishes to remain anonymous was guilty of “betraying” her family.

Most of the time, women don’t have the authority to choose who they marry. Instead, their family finds who they think is most suitable for their daughter and marries them off as soon as they wish. And in such instances, having a boyfriend and then choosing to marry him is an act of ultimate defiance and betrayal, and Mehreen’s friend who wishes to remain anonymous was guilty of “betraying” her family.

She met a man on one of the online dating apps, and went out with him for two months before mutually deciding to get married. He sent his family to her house with a formal proposal to which her family agreed. With things turning out in their favour, they decided to “take the relationship to another stage” and decided to have sex. Immediately after, his parents called the wedding off because "their son wasn’t sure". The girl believes that he went to such extreme lengths only to have sex with her - something that she had denied having before. Her family doesn’t trust her anymore, and is marrying her off to a man she doesn’t know.

TRIGGER WARNING - This article or section, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.
Another girl who wishes to remain anonymous, recalls her account of physical and psychological abuse that her Tinder date subjected her to, three years ago. Her date didn’t respect her and didn't care about the safe word, and left her with bruises that took weeks to heal, scars that still haunt her. She suffers from clinical depression, and can't afford to miss a single session with her therapist. Even today, she has not forgotten that day. She says, "I recall it as a day when I lost autonomy on (sic) my own body and someone who was much powerful (sic) than me took control of it as I finally laid there like a vegetable and waited for the atrocity to end." She adds, "That day is still vibrant in my memory as if it was just yesterday, but I feel helpless because I can't speak about it as much as I want to and it kills me everyday."
Trigger warning end

This incident of abuse of power is not one of its kind. Most victims of abuse don't speak out because of the shame associated with it, and because of this such experiences of human interaction stemming from technological correspondence end up in demonizing technology, taking away the positivity that it can bring to people's life.

Most victims of abuse don't speak out because of the shame associated with it, and because of this such experiences of human interaction stemming from technological correspondence end up in demonizing technology, taking away the positivity that it can bring to people's life.

The rise of dating apps has provided women in Pakistan with avenues to take the reigns of their social life in their own hands, but it has also left many broken in multiple ways, at times all at once. Positive stories should make the headlines and the stigma attached to dating should be banished so the culture flourishes in conservative societies. It’s also important to trust the ones who gather courage to speak up about their abuse and extend support to them. This is what is needed instead of moral policing and the demonising of technology and algorithms.