April 2013: How urban Indians use matrimonial sites has changed, and what these changes mean.
I recently met an old friend, and we got chatting about how he met the person he had married. “We met online,” he said. “Don’t tell me you met on Shaadi.com,” I exclaimed with my usual disdain of arranged marriages. “Actually, we did… I saw her profile, liked what she said about wanting an equal partner and being feminist, paid three and a half thousand to get her number, and called her.” Rajiv and Niharika dated for two years before marrying last November.
Several of my other friends, all around 30, are on online matrimonial sites. All of them: A) claim to be coerced in to registering themselves by friends or family. (“It keeps mum and dad off my back,” one said. Another’s friend made his account, and even shortlisted a few interesting prospects.) And B), will only grudgingly admit it. Because, for a generation that scoffs at the idea of arranged marriage as seeing each other over chai and samosas with hovering parents, the very idea of meeting someone on a matrimonial site is problematic, as an idea.
Increasingly, though, I realise that, to a certain section of urban India, the function and utility of these sites is changing. It seems that being on an online matrimonial site only indicates that one is on the lookout for a serious relationship, and most of my friends who’ve met people through them have dated for a while before settling down—or not. And by filtering matches according to the parameters people are looking for—age, religion, etc—there’s a system-generated adherence to social mores. For some, these ‘self arranged’ matches have the best of both worlds—unlike in real life, where love can happen inter-caste/creed/religion (heaven forbid!), the people one meets here check the right boxes straight off. And then one gets to date a person with similar serious intentions, but not necessarily ready to go straight from keyboard down the isle. “From the start, you know the meeting is not about friendship, which changes the equation of the interaction from the beginning,” says 31-year-old Sangeetha, who married someone she met online.
In other countries, this function would be served by online dating sites. There are a whole host—from those for those looking for casual flings, threesomes and swingers even, to those for those with serious intentions. But simply calling them ‘dating’ websites would make them too Western in the Indian scheme of things; the idea that marriage is the ultimate agenda makes them easier to for families to palate.
What Does this Environment Mean for Women?
On one level, online dating can be empowering for women. Aside from the photograph, a great deal of the initial communication is online, allowing the development of a personality-based connection beyond pressures on appearances. “Meeting online allows two disparate people, who would never exchange numbers at a party, to explore a deeper connect,” says a Jordyn Steig, who met his wife Pamela through Facebook.
Does being allowed to ‘self arrange’ empower women, giving them some degree of freedom to choose their own partners from within a family-approved shortlist? Not really. For the most part, women aren’t allowed to negotiate this world unchaperoned either. Fathers and mothers remain the gatekeepers, dis/approving potential partners. And, unfortunately, the gender inequality of conventional dating rules still applies. “You can’t ask for guys’ numbers; it’s considered too forward,” says a 30-year-old architect. “You can’t be too comfortable or proactive. Guys will be more forthcoming, and the onus remains on them to make the first moves.” The men will—and can—write to a whole host of women, hoping that someone will write back.
Interesting, for an environment that, you would think, demands high levels of trust, Indian matrimonial sites are chock-full of players, and, worst still, scam artists. Players troll matrimonial sites, looking for the gullible and the desperate, with a purely sexual agenda. A Mumbai-based friend has encountered several of those. One wonders at the desperation of the Indian male—in the early days of Couch Surfing, I’ve heard stories of how potbellied sickos would appear for meetings, waiting for the foreign women to get drunk and loose. Are there not enough places for people with sex on their minds to connect with others similarly inclined? My personal experience on this front is a little dated, but I'm sure the internet continues to offer many such avenues.
On serious dating websites abroad, one tends to encounter more scam artists than players. My mother, a young widow, who I bullied onto these sites in India and Australia (where she lives), encountered a fresh-faced 50-year-old in another Australian city, almost too good to be true. In English that raised several red flags, he told her he was soon leaving for Central Africa for a mining contract. He’d be too busy to call her before he left; would she be okay if they spoke once he reached, of all places, Nigeria (another red flag)! I was certain he had never been in Australia—and sure enough, one phone call and my mother knew too. “He’s black, Tara*,” she said, not being racist but simply stating that he wasn’t what he seemed. Mum stopped responding to his plaintive emails, so the expected ‘I’m in trouble, I need you to wire me some money urgently’ email never came. The site soon sent her an alert about this profile. (Incidentally, my friend never managed to get the administrators of an Indian site to take her complaint about a fellow user—with a misrepresentative profile and sex on his mind—taken seriously, and he continues to hold an active profile.)
‘Matrimonial’ sites allow urban Indians to bridge traditional and modern worlds, one click at a time, but continue to bear the unfortunate baggage of gender inequality. With time, perhaps, our culture will evolve beyond needing the subterfuge of dating under the guise of seeking an arranged match; and our players will find enough willing and sexually liberated playmates in appropriate places, without needing to feign serious intent.
An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in April 2013.