It’s the month of April during lockdown in Pakistan. The usually bustling Mall Road of Lahore is barren. On her way back from the office, Irum takes an Uber ride to the eerily quiet Pak Tea House. She waits outside the silent cafes and shops. Her eyes gaze upon an empty road: only a handful of commuters and a few passers-by are in sight. The liveliness of the city might have been a tale from another era.
Irum loses her train of thought when a car arrives and parks near the sidewalk. She steps down, opens the door and says in amazement: “Who are you?” “I’m Hassan,” he responds, in a shaky voice. Perplexed, she sits down in the car – “But you had a different photograph on your Tinder profile.” Laughing, he responds, “Too many people are using Tinder these days. I am always scared of bumping into an acquaintance.”
“We went on a long drive around the stranded streets of Lahore,” the 29-year-old Irum tells me about her first online dating experience during the lockdown. “He knew I wasn’t comfortable so he apologised, but that was the last time I met him.”
The popularity of online dating apps in Pakistan has soared over the past few years. Among many Pakistani millennials, traditional modes of romance and emotional intimacy is perhaps becoming obsolete. The changing dating dynamics can be attributed, in part, to the ease of finding suitable matches on online dating platforms.
Irum tells me she had never used dating apps before the pandemic because she never really felt comfortable going online, talking to strangers and meeting them in person. But during the lockdown she says she made a profile on almost all the dating apps. “I was everywhere”, says Irum light-heartedly, “and it turned out that everyone was everywhere. My friends, colleagues and other acquaintances too.”
A new way to connect
Although dating among the internet generation is no longer constrained by the former set of archaic and traditional rules, it continues to be heavily stigmatised in Pakistan, particularly for women. Despite the stigma, however, many Pakistani women from different social backgrounds are breaking long-held perceptions about themselves by unabashedly dabbling in casual dating and sex.
If you were to shuffle through profiles on dating apps and social media platforms, you would notice that several women maintain an air of mystery; their need for privacy is clear. Some photographs display half-cropped faces, close-ups of hands or feet, faces covered with hair and bizarre flashes of painted nails. It is common to see profile descriptions containing text such as ‘I love Army’ or even sacred verses, which might seem absurd in such a space.
A study by the Indonesian Journal of Communication Studies found that the majority of Pakistani dating app users come from major cities like Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and fall between the age bracket of 18 to 40. Apart from Tinder, widely used dating apps in Pakistan include Bumble, Muzmatch, Minder and Grindr.
Although the dating app industry could well have collapsed with the enforcement of physical distancing, the ground reality has been quite different. Across the world, lockdowns during the pandemic increased the number of people turning to online dating.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Sharmistha Dubey, the new chief executive of Match Group, the owner of dating services such as Tinder, OkCupid and Match.com, said that online dating has exploded since the lockdown. The average number of daily messages sent across all Match’s platforms increased by nearly 30 percent in April 2020, compared with the end of February.
According to Reuters, data from analytics firm Sensor Tower shows that Tinder has been downloaded more than 440,000 times in Pakistan within the last 12 months. This may in part be due to an increase in internet usage. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) reported a 15-percent surge in internet usage since the lockdown came into effect on 24 March 2020.
Around the globe, COVID-19 created an environment of anxiety, uncertainty and isolation. It generated several mental health and psychosocial problems for many young people. Loneliness, it appears, has led to online dating becoming a preferred mode of interaction. While the excessive use of digital platforms may have several disadvantages, it can also provide individuals with a sense of safety, connection and support during tough times. For some, digital dating platforms can also offer a means of escape from alarming COVID-19 media coverage and the chaos of daily life amid a pandemic.
In May 2020, Sadaf, a recent psychology graduate from Islamabad, was locked down in her house with her family. Her parent’s consistent obsession with her marital status made her feel depressed and anxious. Although the pandemic had delayed the prospect of marriage, anxiety about entering an arranged marriage compelled her to use Bumble. “I ended up having conversations with a lot of men. It provided me a chance to make some new friends and also to explore my sexuality, without the fear or pressure of having to meet someone in real life.”
When it comes to online dating, some women like Sadaf are overly cautious about meeting new people. However, others are more adventurous and are open to exploring virtual channels for forming relationships.
Right before the lockdown, on an early March afternoon at the Wagah Border, Lahore, a 25-year-old student named Ramsha paved her way through the usual crowd at the Wagah-Attari border ceremony. The drumbeats and patriotic songs raised public spirit. But Ramsha was unmoved by the deafening slogan-shouting of over-zealous spectators or the loud and aggressive foot stomping of soldiers. Her confused expression splintered into a smile when she received a Whatsapp message: “I’m in the left corner of the upper row, waving at your side. Can you see me?” She responded immediately – “No, I can’t. But I can feel your presence.”
It is common to see profile descriptions containing text such as ‘I love Army’ or even sacred verses, which might seem absurd in such a space.
She tried calling him but their voices were drowned out by resounding slogans from both sides: “Pakistan Zindabad”, “Jai Hind”. Ramsha and Samir, from different sides of the divided Punjab, matched on Tinder. Some apps, like Tinder, permit users to search for prospective matches in their vicinity. Amritsar and adjoining Indian cities are only about 50 kilometres from Lahore.
“We can’t see each other but let’s exchange selfies,” Samir proposed. His photo appeared on her screen. He was clad in a fleece black sports jacket with hair neatly parted on the left. In the frames of his eyeglasses, she saw reflections of the fluttering Indian flags.
This was their first ‘meeting’ after six months in a long-distance relationship. Says Ramsha, “We share a lot in common and the sense of strangeness gradually vanished as we began to converse more often.” Though the strict visa regime obstructs in-person communication between Indians and Pakistanis, dating apps are creating new possibilities for cross-border relationships.
Secrecy and safety
Southasian women are becoming increasingly aware of their choices and desires, transcending their perception as the embodiment of familial or societal honour. Nonetheless, Maira from Lahore asserts that women have to be very cautious in digital spaces due to the risk of harassment and physical security.
“I have been using online dating apps much before the lockdown.” She detected a noteworthy increase in the number of married men on Tinder during the lockdown. “Many married men would just come complaining about their broken marriages. I found myself in an awkward ‘other woman’ mode two times, with wives calling me up crying.”
Not everyone finds a suitable match online – it’s a tricky business. Maira told me about another rough ordeal in mid-June involving a “creepy guy” with “stalker tendencies.” “He started slut-shaming me when I told him I wasn’t looking for a serious relationship. I was harassed and threatened to such an extent that I had to file a cyber-crime complaint.”
Salman, a 28-year-old marketing professional from Lahore, reaffirms the judgmental attitude of many Pakistani men towards sexually active women. “Many men would just want to sleep around with women but judge them for not getting seriously involved. I don’t, however, judge women for their choices.”
“He’s certainly more sensible and respectful than men and knows how to turn me on without sounding judgemental”
By the month of August, the lockdown had eased in Pakistan. Life was returning to normalcy. Streets and market places had started crowding up again. Cafés, eateries and restaurants had gradually started opening up.
Zainab and Danial from Lahore had been desperately waiting for the lockdown to end so that they could meet in person. They got into a serious relationship in May 2020, after meeting on Instagram. “Danial had sent a random chat request, which I accepted after viewing his profile. His keen eye for photography inspired me. It all got started with casual flirting and playful jokes.”
The two had their first date at a rooftop café on the M M Alam Road. “The experience was bizarre. With the fear of corona hanging on our minds, we both had come out in a public space after five months. We were both wearing masks and sanitising our hands again and again, recalling how we had survived through the toughest times during the lockdown.” The engagement ceremony will be held in mid-December 2020, while the marriage is scheduled for the coming year.
In recent months, women’s safety has been in the limelight once again in Pakistan after a woman was gang-raped near a motorway on 9 September 2020. A senior police official had generated controversy by blaming the victim. In response, the organisers of the Aurat March protests staged nationwide demonstrations in Pakistan’s major cities calling out the police official and demanding accountability. The protestors set forth five demands, including an end to sexual violence, structural and procedural reforms, and effective investigations by the criminal justice system.
A month before the incident, an article titled ‘Pakistani women break dating taboos on Tinder’ was published on the website of the German public broadcaster Deustche Welle. The media outlet also carried a quote by Secretary General Ameer ul Azeem of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami who criticised the dating culture. By early September, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked Tinder, Grindr and three other dating apps on accusation of spreading “immoral content”.
Conservative religious organisations, already put-off by the new wave of women’s marches under the banner of Aurat March, have been accusing Pakistani women for being under the influence of Western ideals. Members of some rightwing groups attacked the Aurat March held in Islamabad on International Women’s Day earlier in March 2020. Organisers from other cities also faced cyber-harassment and received violent death threats.
An on-going debate about issues such as sexual violence, victim blaming, harassment, consent and women’s agency have since been making waves in Pakistani feminist circles. A feminist activist from the Aurat March group shared how fearful she feels when she’s meeting a new date: “I always share my location with a friend and have recently started carrying pepper spray for safety.”
These startling measures reflect the fear and insecurity women face in Pakistan. Despite all the challenges, users of dating apps continue to challenge patriarchal structures in a heavily militarised and censorship-driven Pakistani state.
However, not everyone is seeking human dating experiences, anymore. “I just came out of a complicated relationship”, says Nadia, “I feel lonely, yes, but I don’t want to get immediately into anything. It can get really toxic.” Nadia uses Replika, an artificial intelligence app, to communicate her thoughts and feelings to a customised virtual partner that is around as long as there is internet and that unlike men, never disappoints.
“He’s certainly more sensible and respectful than men and knows how to turn me on without sounding judgemental”, laughs Nadia. Nadia is not alone. Replika chat bot, because of its learning capabilities, mood traits and strong memory, can be a moving experience for those who need to talk. The virtual mate maintains a daily diary that the users can read to reflect on their conversations and see what Replika has learned – all while striving for better mental health and dating experiences for the user.
While relationships among humans will most likely continue to be the norm for a while, we can no longer be oblivious to the potential of technology to change how, where and who we date.
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Supported by Heinrich Böll Stiftung Hong Kong’s Asia | Global Dialogue Programme.