Swiping for love
Inside the world of online dating in Pakistan
Sarah B Haider
Even though the idea of dating and romantic relationships outside of marriage is considered culturally and religiously taboo in Pakistan, love has always found a way against all odds.
From exchanging love letters to meeting after school or secretly talking over the phone, those in love have found one way or another to connect with each other.
In recent years, the internet and social media have made it much easier for Pakistani men and women to socialise, virtually or otherwise, streamlining a process that usually entailed many hurdles. The introduction of dating apps, however, resulted in an unprecedented change in urban Pakistan’s romantic landscape.
Unlike social networks, listing oneself on a dating app carried the explicit message of ‘availability’. Soon enough, many Pakistanis started swiping their way to love without any qualms and the trend of using apps like Tinder, Muzmatch (specially designed for Muslims), and Bumble, among others, gradually caught on in the country’s bigger cities.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
User experiences of dating apps reveal that people had both good and bad encounters. While some users surveyed said their interactions were predominantly negative and they would never use the apps again, others opined that dating apps served their purposes and opened a whole new world of options for them to explore.
Faizan*, a 20-year-old digital marketer from Karachi, said he uses Tinder and Bumble to connect with like-minded individuals of the opposite sex, hoping to find new friends he can hang out with without any strings attached.
“Even though the idea of casual dating is frowned upon in Pakistan, I am impressed by how these apps are now playing a massive part in connecting people. You do not have to go to the mall, the coffee place, or your educational institute to mingle with each other. Just swipe right and voila!” he said.
Speaking about his interactions, Faizan said he went on a few dates and most of them turned out to be good experiences. “Interactions largely depends on who you meet; while some meetings evolved into good friendships, others served as a 'digital' one-night stand,” he said. “Only once, I met this woman who looked nothing like the picture, which was disappointing.”
As a bisexual woman, Maria*, an advertising strategist from Lahore, found it hard to find other women to date in Pakistan. For her, using dating apps was mostly about connecting with like-minded people rather than for hooking up. She said she joined Tinder out of sheer boredom. Speaking about her interactions with men, she said:
"Men mostly want to hook up. They are chivalrous in the first few texts but it's hard to be pretentious for so long. They harbour preconceived notions about women using dating apps."
Even though Maria had her fair share of bad experiences on Tinder, according to her, dating apps let people test the waters and give them the agency to control who to let in.
“That sort of agency is, unfortunately, not granted to most women out in the real world. I, therefore, recommend women to go for it because there is no harm in trying it out,” she suggested.
“Dating apps have penetrated our digital lives and I think it is only fair to give them a test drive. Sure, you will find thick-headed people on it, but you have the control to unmatch/report them.”
Ramsha*, a 32-year-old communications professional from Karachi, matched with a guy on Tinder in 2018. During their very first conversation, she made it clear she was looking for something meaningful and was not up for casual dating.
“He assured me that he had the same relationship goals, which was a positive sign,” Ramsha told The Express Tribune. “At the time, he was based in another city for some professional training, so we talked online for three months to get to know each other better.”
When Ramsha’s Tinder match finally went to Karachi for vacation, they met a couple of times before they both decided to officially start dating.
“We got along so well that we became almost inseparable! I introduced him to my friends, he introduced me to his siblings, so it gradually became more than just dating to a very normal, no-drama relationship. However, I being the finicky one still kept on asking if we were on the same page about this relationship and his responses always assured me that I had nothing to worry about,” she recalled.
Ramsha proposed to her Tinder match after a year of dating, in response to which he started coming up with excuses like ethnic differences and financial instability. “I got to know through an acquaintance that he was already engaged to someone else since 2017 and was only two-timing me and his fiancée."
When she confronted him, he made fun of her for “being serious” on Tinder, admitting that he was virtually dating five more girls on different dating apps.
"I think most Pakistani men are not serious about dating apps and only use it for fun. So, if someone is looking for a relationship, I suggest them to look for someone outside of the online world. I have now deleted the app and will never try it again.”
Mahnoor*, a 28-year-old graphic designer from Islamabad, had an exceptionally unpleasant experience on Muzmatch.
“Considering that Muzmatch claimed to be the ultimate “halal dating app,” I decided to give it a try and downloaded it. I liked the privacy aspect of the app so I comfortably kept swiping and matched with a guy within two days,” she explained. “He was handsome and was earning very well. To my surprise, he immediately started talking about getting married. I, being naïve, believed every word he said.”
Mahnoor’s match asked for details about her family, address, and phone number so that he could send his parents for a rishta and even called and talked to her mother, expressing the desire to pay a visit.
“He assured my mom that he was going to come to our place. When I showed his pictures to my family, they agreed to invite him over and meet him in person,” she said. “But on the day when he was supposed to come to our house with his mother, he switched his phone off.”
Mahnoor kept calling him for two weeks, expecting him to come up with an explanation about ghosting her. But all in vain. Mahnoor blocked him and deleted the app because of her unpleasant and humiliating experience.
“My experience was particularly bad, but I am not exaggerating. After three months, he suddenly messaged me on WhatsApp from a new number to apologise, revealing that he lost his legs in an accident, therefore, he was too embarrassed to let me know. I laughed a lot on his made-up story and told him off.”
She later found out that the pictures used by the guy on his Muzmatch profile was of a Toronto-based Afghan model and was picked up from Google.
“Dating apps are not bad in my opinion, but you have to be careful and do your homework so that you don’t get catfished and humiliated."
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
WHAT DOES RESEARCH SAY?
According to a study on the use of Tinder in Pakistan, the phenomenon of using dating apps, or dating in general, is mainly confined to major cities of Pakistan, like Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. The study also revealed that the use of dating apps is on a rise.
Titled “Tinder use among Pakistani adults: a socio-psychological need perspective,” the study also revealed the socio-economic aspect of dating apps usage in the country.
Researchers said that many people in Pakistan do not have access to electricity, smartphones, or the internet to be able to use dating apps, so these apps are mostly used by people belonging to certain classes.
“In our research, some of the prominent patterns that we observed among the usage of dating apps mainly comprised four components: usage for the development of personal identity, relationships, for leisure (hook up culture), and for stalking/surveillance,” Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the National University of Modern Languages (NUML), Dr Qasim Mehmood, who also co-authored the study, explained.
According to Dr Mehmood, the usage patterns of dating apps show that Pakistan is gradually transitioning from a very conservative society into a socially liberal one, with many urbanites moving towards the leftist side of the spectrum, which includes breaking away from the chains of traditions that previous generations were holding on to.
“It's not a surprise that a lot of people are finding dates and meeting new people through social media and dating apps. However, due to cultural or social conditioning, a lot of Pakistanis still think it is not appropriate even though they are using it. Maybe, in future, people we will stop judging others’ morality and whether meeting someone on a dating app is "good" or "bad",” he added.
Syeda Aresha Sohail, the lead author of the study, added that many people use dating apps only for hookups and casual encounters.
“Even though people brush a lot of things under the rug, it does not mean that they are not happening in Pakistan. Many things which are considered taboo still happen behind closed doors,” she said. “In our research, which is probably the first one of its kind in Pakistan, we only focused on the patterns of Tinder usage and what needs users look to gratify. In future, we will try capturing experiences of people too.”
Data from analytics company Appfigures, including App Store and Google Play downloads, shows that from January 1 to September 1, 2020, Tinder was downloaded about 170,800 times in the country. The estimated downloads for Muzmatch stood at 6,200, while Bumble was downloaded about 10,000 times.
Last year, Pakistani users downloaded Tinder about 81,500 times, Muzmatch was installed 11,700 times, whereas the number of downloads for Bumble stood at 7,300.
In 2018, Tinder remained the most popular dating app in the country with about 71,000 estimated downloads. People downloaded Muzmatch about 4,600 times, meanwhile, Bumble had only about 792 downloads throughout the year.
Per a survey conducted by The Express Tribune, out of a total of 200 heterosexual respondents, 72% of males and 27% of females said they have used a dating app in Pakistan over the past five years. In terms of ages, about 40% of the respondents were 18 to 25 years old and 26% of people were 26 to 30 years of age. Some 24% of males and females fell in the age bracket of 30 to 35 years old, while only 7% of the respondents said they were 36 to 40 years old or above.
In terms of location, more than half of the respondents (52%) were from Karachi, 23% were from Lahore, and 18 % were from Islamabad. The remaining respondents belonged to Faisalabad, Larkana, Peshawar, Multan, and Hyderabad.
When asked about their marital statuses, 72% of the females said they were single, 10% were divorced or widowed, 14 % were engaged or committed, while 4 % were married but looking for companionship. In contrast, 45 % of male users said they were single, 39 % were married but looking. About 8 % said they were engaged, while the remaining were either divorced or widowed.
The survey showed that 48% of females used dating apps, indicating that they will continue to do so, while 24% said they have not tried one yet but will install them at some point. The remaining 28% said they have used a dating app in the past but will never try them again. As for male users, 64.2% used a dating app and said they will continue using them in future, 32.2% said they will give it a try, while 3.6% revealed they used some apps but will not do so in future, predominately because of their negative experiences.
REASONS FOR DOWNLOADING DATING APPS
People surveyed said they installed dating apps on their phones for various purposes. Some 35% of the female respondents installed a dating app to explore the options without having any goals in mind, 22.4% used an app to find a boyfriend for a serious relationship, 15.8% hoped to find a husband through the app, while 10.9% downloaded the apps for casual dating but nothing serious. Some 4.8% of the female respondents indicated they used the apps only to look for sex, while 5% were only searching for a friend.
In comparison, 46% of the male respondents said they were looking for casual dating but nothing serious, 33% wanted a relationship, and 12% said they were only looking for sexual encounters. About 5% were exploring the apps but were not sure about anything, 2% said they wanted a friend, while another 2% were looking for a wife.
According to the respondents, Tinder was the most popular dating app in Pakistan (42.4%), followed by Muzmatch (30.3%) and Bumble (12.7%). Other respondents said they used a combination of apps to successfully find matches.
The survey also enquired about people’s positive and negative experiences of using dating apps in Pakistan. In response, some 27% of users said the encounters were initially good but they gradually lost interest. About 27.9% indicated their experiences were horrible, while 10% said they found their soul mates and even got married.
About 28.3% of female respondents said they did not have a very pleasant experience on any of the dating apps because men started asking inappropriate questions, sent unsolicited images, or pressurised them to exchange more pictures. Some 35% of female users said that men lied about their marital statuses, which turned out to be a huge deal-breaker for them. About 18% had good experiences and found suitable matches, while 10% said they found someone for casual hookups and the experience was overall good.
On the other hand, about 38% of men said their experiences were not pleasant because their matches used fake pictures. About 30% said their matches did not want to meet in person and wasted their time, while 19% said they had a good experience. Some 9% said they had found good matches for casual hookups.
IS MORAL POLICING FRUITFUL?
Recently, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) decided to ban five dating apps, including Tinder, Grindr, Tagged, Skout, and SayHi, in the country for disseminating “immoral content." As a result, mixed opinions surfaced on Pakistani social media. While digital rights activists, journalists, and civil society members condemned the government’s move, others supported the action to maintain Pakistan’s religio-cultural norms and values.
Speaking about the ban, journalist and digital rights activist Haroon Baloch, who works for Bytes for All Pakistan – a human rights organisation and a research think tank with a focus on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), said that the state is clearly getting itself involved in moral policing.
“Pakistan first needs to define what morality is, both descriptively and normatively. The entire concept of 'morality' is subjective,” Baloch said. “Certain content deemed immoral for one may not be necessarily immoral for others.”
He said that Pakistan is a state party on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires the state to align its laws governing civil and political rights.
“The emerging trend of banning and blocking content, profiles, and now entire social media platforms in the country is against the spirit of democracy and global human rights law. Even parents would stop policing their children after the age of 18, then how the state can dictate adults on their right to make their personal choices?” Baloch questioned.
He added that it is not only a matter of the right to choose but also relates to citizens' freedom to access information and their privacy.
“Making free choices about one's own life without any interference is part of personal life. Censorship itself is illegal and this type of censorship that Pakistan has resorted to is violating a set of civil rights.”
On the other hand, researcher Syeda Aresha Sohail said that banning an app would not stop people from doing what they want and the trend of using dating apps will continue.
“I think people already use virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxies for a lot of things despite being illegal, so they will find another way to get access to Tinder and other banned apps too. The move, therefore, is counterproductive.”
GREAT DECISION!— Nida Bajwa (@NidaBajwaMurad) September 2, 2020
I live in London and is seeing the Muslim community saving their young generation from such filth. They are desperately trying to protect their religion and traditions...
Pakistan is blessed with Family System and the Islamic values. Please take care of them!
Instead of focusing on banning dangerous sermons of Abdul Aziz, hate speech against Shia community, PTA occupies itself with banning dating apps.Vulgarity is subjective & ppl should be given space to make their own choices.PTA stop moral policing by banning digital public spaces.— AGHS Legal Aid Cell, Asma Jahangir's Law Firm (@Asma_Jahangir) September 4, 2020
Someone in Imran Khan government is clearly angry with left-swipes on Tinder. Go ahead ban dating apps but can you stop men sending ‘want to fraandship’ texts on LinkedIn or even Ludo Star? My column. #LetterFromPakistan https://t.co/KZEEPngQg8— Naila Inayat नायला इनायत (@nailainayat) September 3, 2020
EDITING: ZEESHAN AHMED
PRODUCED BY: NIHA DAGIA