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Seeds of a cultural revolution

December 11th, 2020

By Talha Hashmani

It started back in 2013 when I heard of the cautionary tale of a boy meeting a girl for a casual hangout, in Pakistan’s former capital of Karachi. The facts of the tale were simple: 

A boy messaged a girl asking if she wanted to go out. The two then met up, got food, and went back home right after.

As mundane as it was, the story managed to garner enough chatter and infamy that ultra-conservative Muslim clerics began rampantly preaching against the temptations of the devil and the evil of sin. Frantic mothers soon reached out to one another over WhatsApp, followed swiftly by sermons circulating across social media, warning of the impending end of times.

You see, as a kid on the cusp of hitting puberty I didn’t think much of the story. I’d nod along as my tutor would curse the two kids for going out with each other, agreeing in unison with the other kids about how sinful it was to ever meet up and talk to someone from the opposite gender. But I’d later learn that the tale of the boy and the girl was more than just a tale. 

It was the face of a rumoured underground dating culture that inspired many others to indulge and take part in. It soon became the start of a reckoning against the nation’s deep-rooted connection to the fundamentals of religion that call for the segregation of sexes until the lawful marriage between husband and wife. If broken, one faced penalties that ranged from long prison sentences to corporal punishment.

r/Pakistan is a popular forum on Reddit. Anonymous users can post questions and comments, such as the one above.
Note: The names of the Reddit users have been removed for privacy concerns.

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Soon after I left my country (and the identity that came with it), the cautionary tale gradually slipped out of my mind. A love for chai became an obsession for coffee and I even started listening to country music, boldly flipping off the constant warnings from my community that music was the gateway to Hell. In a sense, Pakistani society was behind me and so were these so-called cautionary tales about the sinful deeds of those before us.

However, I recently came across an article on the banning of online dating apps in Pakistan. It brought with it memories of classroom chatter and hallway gossip and got me thinking once again about the movement I had heard of when I was just 13. 

So I sat down with a freshly brewed cup of coffee and skimmed through the article. I learned that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) banned users from accessing Tinder, Grindr, and other dating apps in an effort to control what they called “immoral” and “indecent” content.

Now, internet censorship by the PTA is not uncommon and, as personal experience can attest to, various attempts at blocking access to sites such as YouTube were short-lived. Normally, the solution to accessing censored or blocked sites is to install a VPN that would allow users to remain anonymous, undetected, and be able to access banned websites without the fear of government repercussions. I would later find out, right as the caffeine rush subsided, the PTA had announced that all internet users wishing to use a VPN would have to register their encryption software with the agency.

It isn’t surprising to read about a Pakistani government agency going through the trouble in controlling what people use and how they go about their private lives. It’s been done before with their relentless attempts at blocking YouTube and refusing to allow music streaming services like Spotify in the country. So you either comply with societal rules or you face the consequences. There’s no dating in a system like that.

You’re married to someone you’d have to learn to love, even if the most you know about them is a tiny passport photo shown to you in the weeks leading up to the wedding ceremony.

We famously claim that this cultural phenomenon, something that’s lacking in Westernized culture, is connected to our religious teachings. The way I see it, it’s more like a big fuck you to individual choice and freedom.

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Still, the culture of dating isn’t dead. There are always ways to navigate the system. Understandably, the more you restrict people’s movements, thoughts, and freedoms, the more they rebel. Those who are still able to use their VPNs to access dating sites are ever more careful with their usage. Girls tend to hide their faces and identities, unwilling to meet up with their matches unless they know for sure that it’s safe to do so. Guys… well, guys will be guys – swiping right on every profile till they get a match. It’s safe to say, for guys, dating apps aren’t as dangerous as they are for girls.

“…everyone does it hidden from everyone but its [dating] quite a normal thing. At least among teens now.”

A friend I know used to date a Pakistani girl before he moved to Canada. Against all the odds, they made it through a year of long-distance dating before the girl cut it off. Her reason was that she knew dating would lead to nothing substantial. She also knew that if she was ever found to have conversed with a guy, let alone dated him, she’d be shipped back to Pakistan and let out only after she was married to a guy whom her community deemed worthy. She’d now be on her way to living an imagined fantasy where life would be pure and uninterrupted by temptations to know someone else.

It goes without saying that not every Pakistani has the luxury to unlock a phone and secretly converse with the guy or girl on their Tinder match list. For some, reality is often disappointing and even the innocence of dating can become too big a hurdle to overcome. Maybe, it’s much easier for me to talk about this, as a guy living with the freedom to use the internet without government interference and the fear of familial dishonour.

The current generation of Pakistanis isn’t the type to take LSD to protest and engage in civil disobedience. Rather, they’re the ones taking to social media and online forums to try to create a space and converse uninterrupted and uncensored by the government and its telecommunications authority.

For some, the underground movement may just be that – an underground movement. It may not swell to initiate public change and it may even die down over the years. But as long as it persists, it is a movement that has the potential for real change.

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Even as I type this now, I switch between various tabs of online forums and anonymous Reddit threads. People talk about their experiences using dating apps and learning how to navigate through various obstacles to find someone to talk to online. Reading everyone’s experience, I can picture myself once again as a 13-year-old listening attentively to the tale of the boy and girl. And although I’ve long tried to leave that part of my life behind, at the end of it, I’m just a Pakistani native observing the potential roots of a cultural revolution.

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