Published in Spider (Dawn Group of Newspapers) – March 2014
“Muslim, Sunni, Syed, Pakistani, Pashtun, moderate, hailing from upper middle class, living in Dubai in a nuclear family, never married before, no children athletic, no physical disabilities, 6 feet 1 inch in height with a very fair complexion and non-vegetarian (halal) diet.”
This is one of the many descriptions of the eligible men on the countless Pakistani matrimonial web portals such as Pakistanimatrimony.com and Mehndi.com. If you have set your relationship status as “Single” on Facebook, you will see many ads and sponsored links offering to pair you up with the most eligible Pakistani Muslim man or woman.
Much like an eager and pestering rishta aunty, these websites typically ask you a thousand questions about yourself, including religion, social status, physical appearance, geographic location, cultural background, hobbies and interests. They give third parties, such as parents, siblings, relatives or friends the option to make a profile on someone else’s behalf, which is uploaded on a searchable database on the website.
After registering and updating your details, you can either wait for suitors (or their parents) to visit your profile or search for the “ideal” partner by entering the desired characteristics, in tools such as advanced search or auto matchmaker, and voila, you have at least a thousand plus matches available. These websites further promise that you will get better matches if you update a good profile picture. Arranged marriage just got easier with modern technology – no dependency on the not-so well wishing neighbours, relatives and friends to recommend someone – or so one would assume.
Sadly, the reality is quite far from this. While matrimonial sites are sometimes regarded as an Indian e-business success story, one rarely hears of any marriage in Pakistan that has been initiated through one of the local matrimonial websites.
Salman Siddiqui, a Pakistan PR professional residing in Singapore, is cynical about these sites because of the numerous stories he has heard in his social circle. “I think matrimonial websites are for either perverted men who sign up for the sole purpose to exploit others for their own indulgence or ‘kitchen-bound aunties’, in desperate hope to find a complete stranger for their inexperienced children. Marrying someone off the Internet is quite deplorable. Sure, one can meet another for dating and to see how it goes from there, but if your prime objective is to wed the person sitting on the other side of the screen, then my friend, you need psychotherapy.”
Too harsh and judgmental, some would think. But Salman’s opinion is based on a friend’s experience, who was “a victim of such heinous motives… it happens in Pakistan and even in India on daily a basis,” he says.
Harris Siddiqui, whose work revolves around web development and social media, reveals that many owners of these websites create them for the sole purpose of earning money through premium memberships, advertising and affiliate programs. For this they need to build a community for six months and therefore create many fake profiles of women and advertise “success stories”, luring people facing social pressure to tie the knot, especially women (as the proverbial clock is supposedly ticking!). Harris thinks these sites in Pakistan are rarely authentic and the matrimonial sections in newspapers are more effective.
Revenue generation does seem to be the main focus of these sites, some of which were also offering discount deals on Valentine’s Day. The commercialization of marriage seems to have no bounds!
Matrimonial sites seem to have more success in India or for South Asians living abroad. While researching for this article, I came across a few real success stories. Zehra Farhan, a freelance writer, shares, “Matrimonial websites may not be of much use here in Pakistan but are useful for desis living abroad. One of my cousins in Canada got married through www.shaadi.com. Her mother searched for suitors on the website and found her husband, a Muslim of Indian descent from Singapore who was living and working in the US. So their experience has been great. You just need to be serious and look for other serious people. Most of the time, you can judge the seriousness on the other side, especially when parents are involved and operating the account. My relatives did not go for a Pakistani website, however, as most users there seemed to have registered for stalking rather than serious matchmaking.”
An Indian doctor, Amir Husain, shares how his family found his young sister’s second husband through shaadi.com after her divorce. He says there are many such Indian websites, with some exclusively for people who are divorced or widowed. Users can choose the level of confidentiality in account settings and find someone without the concerns and suggestions of all and sundry.
“Of course we were extra cautious while narrowing down the possible matches the system generated,” Amir says. “After selection you start communicating. It’s a time consuming process and ultimately takes a leap of faith, but then aren’t all marriages the same?”
Clearly South Asians living abroad are getting ideas based on the success of websites like shaadi.com. A new website called Hipster Shaadi – http://www.hipstershaadi.com – created by a group of American Muslims, seems to be a step in this direction. It has been defined by The Guardian as “the matchmaking site for hip young Muslims”. It gives people the option of making a unique profile, based on their individuality and preferences, rather than focusing on social status and visual appearance.
If you live abroad and can fathom the concept of online marriage-broking, these websites may be the route to go for a non-traditional arranged marriage, which might actually be less embarrassing and nerve-racking than the typical drawing room setting option.