August 18, 2019

From love at first sight to love at websites

When you riffle through profiles on Tinder, you see the former army chief’s photograph, or the Pakistani flag, on a profile that identifies as a woman. A lot of times, she’s just ‘Haris ki doll’, ‘mysterious pari’ or ‘anmol mehak’. That’s how Tinder in Pakistan vaguely looks like: a blend of nationalist pride with suppressed sexuality. But it’s empowering nonetheless: even by remaining anonymous, young women from different backgrounds have begun to digitally express their romantic desire.

The idea of romantic relationships has changed tremendously, over generations, from the traditional practice of courtships, publishing personal ads in newspapers, and owning private letterboxes to chatrooms, networking websites and more recently the countless mobile dating applications across the digital landscape. The widespread Internet availability and the increased use of smartphones in urban areas of Pakistan have exerted a huge impact on the way people communicate and maintain friendships. Though the modes of communication and concepts of dating have changed, what remains intact is the continued persecution and prejudice that women face for claiming their agency.

In the ‘Pakistani culture’ – a culture which is still a recent and an evolving phenomena in the post-partition scenario – a new commercial business paved its way where mostly independent women or ‘marriage centers’ operated as intermediaries to connect people in matrimonial alliances. In the recent past, these services have led to the creation of several matrimonial websites. Although, these websites started emerging in India much earlier, the Pakistani matrimonial websites have a distinct flavor of the ‘Pakistani culture’ with an emphasis on Islamic values. Despite their claims to find you a perfect match as per your choice, these services mostly have to offer the most cliched ideas of a life partner. Wrapped around sexist, male chauvinistic, and sometimes religiously bigoted, racist words, these websites remain loaded with descriptions that bring down a woman’s worth to conventional physical attractiveness. This is how a girl’s profile at one of these matrimonial websites looks like:

“She is tall, fair and slim. She had done job in a medical college. Alhumdulillah, she is a practicing Muslimah who fears Allah ..prays 5 times ..fasts in ramadhan ..recites the Holy Quran with translation

Twenty-seven year old Nimra, a medical student from Lahore narrates a traumatic experience she had to go through because of her parent’s insistence on using a matrimonial service. “We were connected to a family through a matrimonial website. The family came over to my place to see me. The moment the boy’s mother first saw me, she said: ‘The girl is very dark. Let’s not waste our time here.’” These are the kind of experiences that women dread but are frequently pushed into in the guise of arranged marriages.

Online dating applications are becoming more women-driven in Pakistan. Though women have been hesitant about making the first move in the past, some have progressively moved a few steps ahead.

While the majority in Pakistan still follow the conservative norms, many women in the Pakistani urban space are exploring new avenues. They are taking charge of their major life choices, be it education, career or relationships. Thus, independent-minded women are also seeking to break free from the traditional set up of arranged marriages and occupy spaces where they can interact with people who they truly connect with beyond society’s criteria of what a perfect partner looks like. And since Pakistan doesn’t offer many public spaces for singles to interact with new people, so this is how dating applications like Tinder, Bumble, Woo, Muzmatch, and others are picking up the slack.

“I come from a comparatively liberal family but my mother started looking for rishtas for me as soon as I approached 28. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of a traditional marriage. I’ve been hearing too many bad experiences about bad marriages. This is why I decided to download Tinder to find someone interesting. Though I have connected with a few people, my struggle to find a perfect partner still goes on,” says Sarah from Lahore.

Online dating applications are becoming more women-driven in Pakistan. Though women have been hesitant about making the first move in the past, some have progressively moved a few steps ahead.

“Why can’t women make the first move in case they find someone interesting? Women are labelled as desperate, frustrated and what not, if they dare to express their interest in a guy. Sadly, it’s life and not a cartoon series produced by Walt Disney that we keep waiting for a prince charming to arrive. I’m pretty cool about making the first move,” says the 25-year-old Mahnam from Lahore.

I didn’t want to fall into the trap of a traditional marriage. I’ve been hearing too many bad experiences about bad marriages. This is why I decided to download Tinder to find someone interesting.

Sarah, from Lahore

While a lot of women opine that Tinder is their window to express their desire to seek partners – casual or otherwise – some despite being single and lonely, don’t find it worthwhile to tap into the online dating space. They largely believe that Pakistani men use dating applications only for casual hook-ups and one-night stands and neither do they take women Tinder-users seriously. Zara, a sociology student from Islamabad shared a horrible experience she had to go through. “I found this guy on Tinder and we were together for eight months. After a few months passed, I noticed him getting increasingly fixated with sex. I won’t give in so he promised marriage but later on dumped me.”

Recently, a similar case in India led to an arrest of a 29-year old employee of a tech firm in Bangalore. The man was immediately put behind bars after the girl accused the man for luring her into having sex by promising marriage.

While Pakistan still struggles to deal with the notorious Hudood Ordinances promulgated during Zia ul Haq’s regime which require rape victims to produce four male eye-witnesses to prove the crime, Indian Supreme Court has recently upheld a law that makes it illegal to have sex on the pretext of marriage. The Indian Supreme Court had ruled that sex on the pretext of marriage is rape and a blow to a woman’s dignity.

Lots of my female friends in India use Tinder without any pressure and fear of being judged. More people from the modern cities of India are now not as judgemental about bold and outspoken women as they’re in Pakistan

Minahil, from Lahore

An interview with Tinder India’s head, Taru Kapoor, published in Economic Times, suggests that India is Tinder’s largest growing market in Asia and continues to grow rapidly. The app attracts over 14 million swipes each day in India – an increase from 7.5 million in 2015. The Indian youth is mobile first –Indian youth is driving Tinder’s growth.

Minahil, a 27 year-old woman from Lahore, thinks that Indian men on Tinder are slightly more genuine than Pakistani men. Lahore is located at a distance of only 50 kms from Amritsar. The close geographical proximity, interestingly, results in several profiles from India showing up to Tinder users in Lahore. And, that’s how, Minahil, met and befriended an Indian guy on Tinder. “We became friends instantly. There was a lot in common to talk about and laugh at. Our friendship is almost a year old and we have recently finalized a plan to meet up in a third country.” She goes on to say, “Lots of my female friends in India use Tinder without any pressure and fear of being judged. More people from the modern cities of India are now not as judgemental about bold and outspoken women as they’re in Pakistan.”

Women in Pakistan have been bearing judgments and misogyny for too long but the power-packed Aurat March could be seen as an expression of feminist revolt by thousands of women in several cities of Pakistan. The emergence of third wave feminism in Pakistan, built on intersectional insights and sex positivity, could also be derived from the witty and humorous slogans such as “mera jism meri marzi” (my body, my consent), “tu karey to disco, mai karun to mujra” (when you do it, it’s disco; when I do it, it’s Mujra) and “band karo yeh dicktatorship”(stop with this dicktatorship), that women raised during the march. This was the first time ever in Pakistan that women demonstrators publicly spoke about their sexual desires and choices. They were also vocal about owning their sexual identities and challenging the unhealthy power dynamics in marital relationships. The severe backlash and reaction in particular to these slogans that expressed women’s agency is suggestive of the issue of power structures that normalizes men’s contempt for women. It’s also symptomatic of men’s insecurity with liberated women.

The society that has been morally policizing women for their romantic choices has had a rich history of epic romance sagas. These romantic tales have encompassed the folklore of the subcontinent with powerful, headstrong women heroes. Many academics and folklorists believe that Heer, a feminist icon from Punjab broke all the barriers of tradition to stand for her choice. Heer and Ranjha’s epic is not only a tale of tragic romance but carries nuances of a woman’s subversion. It essays Heer’s struggle against a society that detaches women from their romantic passions, feelings and desires and transforms them into a subdued remnant. Heer remains the strongest reminder of defiance against the patriarchal norms.

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

Despite the judgments and gender-based bias, Pakistan also has a fair share of women who fully embrace their sexuality and want to explore it. Some years ago, a Pakistani writer Zahra Haider wrote about her pre-marital sexual encounters as a teenager in Islamabad and how her parents “threw a completely irrational and melodramatic fit” when they found out about them. The heated reaction that Haider’s story invited is the reason many women do not openly talk about their sexual experiences in Pakistan. Most of these sexually active women include wives in dysfunctional marriages, and divorced or single women.

A 44-year-old teacher based in Lahore talks about being a single woman in Pakistan, saying how she is usually seen upon sympathetically as an unhappy being: “I’m single by choice. Education and career has always been my first priority, I never thought I could pull off a traditional marital relationship. Friends and relatives often pressurize me to get married or else I would end up lonely and frustrated. It’s hard to make people understand that being unmarried doesn’t mean that one is lonely too. I have gone on several Tinder dates. One of those was with a boy 11 years younger than me. The relationship went on for a few months until he got too serious and brought the topic of marriage.”

About a decade ago, dating and friendships through chat-rooms had become quite common and popular. These chatrooms didn’t require sign-ups or real identifications and thus, gave women the guarded freedom to explore their desires and fantasies by chatting up with strangers. However, the men in the chatrooms would generally consider these women as immoral, lewd objects of desire or simply men posing as women. In an interview with The News on Sunday, Salim Akhtar, Pakistani author who has written several books on women and psychology, claimed that majority of the men do not acknowledge female sexuality; compulsory sex within marriage may be satisfying for men but it is the very opposite for women. This situation can result in dissatisfaction and psychological distress.

Most women experience a certain freedom with being able to do all that which is not otherwise culturally and socially acceptable; approaching men themselves and being able to explore a range of preferences

Yasmin, a therapist

Shahnaz, a 40-year old married woman divides her time between USA and Lahore. “It’s been slightly more than a year that my husband has moved to Malaysia for work. I am a fashion designer and often travel to USA for exhibitions. I have been using Tinder for past one year and I believe it’s empowering for lonely women and housewives.”

Having extensively worked with adults and couples, Yasmin, a therapist from Lahore, thinks that sexual repression is one of the leading causes of infidelity. “More often than not individuals feel inhibited in the bedroom with their spouse and choose to engage intimately in only appropriately perceived preferences to avoid judgment. This leads to seeking out a space outside the union, which allows for judgment free intimacy to exist.”

Women empowerment has a long way to go in the country but the online dating applications are playing their role in normalizing dating and giving women more control over themselves

She has recently noticed a steep upward trajectory in the trend of women using dating websites in Lahore. “Most women experience a certain freedom with being able to do all that which is not otherwise culturally and socially acceptable; approaching men themselves and being able to explore a range of preferences from casual hook ups to looking for serious commitment – all in a relatively assumed judgment free space, which comes more easily with each user choosing their level of anonymity or intimacy.” While there are numerous success stories she has heard from using such avenues, she believed it isn’t yet taboo free either with many choosing to keep their involvement in these online worlds hidden. “Many might have preferences against this style of dating, but I would still see this avenue as empowering women with more freedom to express and choose, in a climate that otherwise has very stifling dating culture,” she expresses.

According to Jessica Valenti, founder and editor of the blog feministing.com, most of the fourth-wave feminism across the globe is taking place online. While hashtag activism with the popularity of movements such as MeToo, BringBackOurGirls and TimesUp, is making digital spaces more women-friendly and misogyny-free, the proliferation of dating websites and applications are enabling women to explore their choices and sexual freedom.

While many argue that online dating comes with its set of problems concerning safety and security of women, these issues are global and not only specific to Pakistani women. Women empowerment has a long way to go in the country but the online dating applications are playing their role in normalizing dating and giving women more control over themselves.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

Written by

Sehyr Mirza is an independent journalist and activist. She writes on culture, socio-political issues and southasian affairs. She tweets at @sehyrmirza

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