This article is the latest in our ongoing series about technology bans in Pakistan. Read about the country’s brief ban of TikTok here.
My Tinder app wouldn’t load. I was sitting in the back of my car in Karachi, the midafternoon sun high in the sky. We paused at a traffic light, and I switched my phone to airplane mode. I had been chatting with a guy who seemed promising, so I tried Tinder again. It didn’t work.
I mindlessly opened Instagram; the posts were crisp and clear. It wasn’t one of those 4G outage blips.
Some part of my brain was already aware of what had happened, but I tried again. Perhaps the signal is better now that we’ve moved? Still, Tinder wasn’t loading. Finally, I opened Twitter and went immediately to the search tab. Tinder Pakistan ban, I typed.
There it was: someone quote-tweeting a notice from Pakistan’s Telecommunications Authority, known locally by its abbreviation, PTA, listing Tinder, Grindr and a few other dating apps I hadn’t even heard of. They had all been banned.
It wasn’t the first time I had frantically searched Twitter to find out if an online platform had been blocked in Pakistan. In 2012, the government blocked YouTube for hosting a film that mocked the Prophet Muhammed, a ban that lasted four years. It meant that while everyone stateside was posting videos of goats screaming over Taylor Swift lyrics, I was trying to find a reliable VPN to join in on the joke. Even then, there was precedent for that kind of censorship: In 2010, YouTube, along with Facebook, Flickr, and Wikipedia, was banned by the PTA after a competition on Facebook for user-uploaded cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed.
But it wasn’t just content seen as blasphemous that was blocked by the PTA, an arm of the government established in 1996 to monitor all information and communications technology in Pakistan. As the country’s telecoms authority, its responsibilities include everything from assigning phone numbers to encouraging competition among cell-service providers and internet companies. It also monitors all user complaints about phones and the internet, and in 2006, it was ordered by the country’s Supreme Court to block any “objectionable content.”
In practice, this meant that any media with even the potential for immorality, often reported by users themselves, could be banned. “Objectionable content” came in many forms: a list of 780,000 websites compiled by a young, devout Muslim man who was horrified by the amount of online pornography he was able to access; assorted BuzzFeed quizzes; late night cell phone packages; for some unexplained reason, all of Slate, whose “Dear Prudence” column I was a ravenous reader of. If you tried to open any of the above on your browser, you would be met with a hilariously tone-deaf message: “Surf Safely!”
In the years since the first YouTube ban, authorities in Pakistan have slowly extended the PTA’s reach. While, before, the PTA’s moral policing took place in a legal gray area, in August 2016, Pakistan’s government passed a law containing a provision specifically empowering it to restrict access to any information it deemed inappropriate. In February of this year, Pakistan’s government added a new set of legal rules broadening their powers. After international outcry, the government suspended them, but it had made its agenda clear: All apps needed to comply or get out
In the past few months, the PTA has gone from trying to protect tender eyes to intervening in what young people are doing in their free time. First it banned a popular RPG game, then the livestreaming app Bigo. Then, it blocked Tinder, Grindr, and other dating apps. A few weeks later, TikTok would be on the chopping block.
I worried about what all of the bans meant for my civil liberties, but I also worried about what they meant for my fledgling dating life.
I left Pakistan for the U.S. when I was 11 and moved back when I was 23. In 2018, after a stint in New York, I returned to Karachi, and that’s when I first got on Tinder. Even with the network of friends and family I had from before I moved, Karachi’s not exactly the easiest place to be single.
Almost everyone I know has been friends since high school. Without the usual opportunities for meeting people I had in the U.S., where work, college, and moving to a new place provided a constant social churn, I sometimes feel stuck.
When it came to dating, I had no idea how to even start. In the U.S., I was able to take certain social interactions for granted. I would know immediately if something was a hang or a date based on small physical tells, like the graze of an arm, a lingering touch on the knee. But in Pakistan, it’s still fairly taboo for a woman to touch a man casually in public. Even couples rarely hold hands out of the house.
This is all to say: Tinder was a lifeline for me. Unlike the ambiguous and guarded interactions I had in my limited social life, the premise of the app meant that I could boldly state what I was doing with my dates before we met up: assessing our sexual compatibility.
Tinder in Pakistan also allowed me to broach subjects that are off limits IRL. For example, I could quickly ask men what they thought of Pakistan’s most recent dictator-in-chief, Pervez Musharraf. If I agreed with their take, I could guess what I was in for.
Of course, there was still the odd mismatch — unsolicited dick pics, aggressive messages, and misogyny exist in Pakistan too — but the app often felt like my only option for meeting new people.
Once I began dabbling in the world of Tinder in Pakistan, I remembered that much of dating has to do with a combination of alchemy and chance, and Tinder improved my chances in a big way.
I had a spectacular evening at a Karachi restaurant, where string lights twinkled in the background. My food was amazing, but his was not. At one point, he reached over and started eating off my plate, a move that could have been presumptuous and annoying but felt right in the moment. We met again, this time during the day for coffee, with similar chemistry. We started the slow slide into casual hangs: masala fries at a roadside vendor, a cup of chai in the morning, a drive to Karachi’s Seaview beach. And then he received a job offer in a different country.
I was disappointed, but I also had a clear takeaway: I should go on more dates. In a city like Karachi, where you’re so limited in places you can meet people in your life, Tinder felt like a way to level the playing field. It was difficult to imagine having met my date any way other than on Tinder, where I’d found a sweet spot for potential matches that weren’t accessible to me in my daily life.
I liked to keep my Tinder matches in the liminal space of the app until I had met up with them in person, only committing them to the reality of a saved contact afterward. Now, I’ve lost all the matches I never bothered to exchange phone numbers with. When the app was first banned, I tried the trusty VPN I have used in Pakistan for the past several years. It just wouldn’t load.
Hija Kamran, Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy, a nonprofit that defends freedom of expression in Pakistan, told me that for every PTA block, Pakistanis tend to find ten backdoor ways around it. On the phone, she laughed a little as we spoke, then repeated an oft-cited statistic: “Pakistan is one of the highest consumers of pornography in the world.” She didn’t have to tell me that every website that loads porn is blocked here. “People will find a way to use Tinder and TikTok and all of these apps again,” she said. Four days after our conversation, the PTA announced it had lifted the ban on TikTok, but only after the app agreed to stringently monitor the supposedly immoral accounts.
But unlike with TikTok, there hasn’t been a popular outcry against the Tinder ban in Pakistan. The likelihood of a dating app returning in a country that’s outwardly moralistic and religious seems slim. Kamran pointed out that an app like Tinder could shock average Pakistanis with relatively low digital literacy. Women who shared their phone numbers might have called the PTA to complain about harassment; men might have called to complain about the images of women they were seeing on the app.
I think about that magical first date I went on, about all the things that snapped into place that night, and about how rare that is to find even without the watchful gaze of a government authority.
While a platform like TikTok can return with the supposedly offensive content removed, I worry that the very premise of an app like Tinder will always fall under the gray area of “morality” in the PTA’s eyes.
By the time Pakistan’s 2012 YouTube ban hit the one-year mark, I thought I had come to terms with our propensity to ban things. It’s only since the unbanning of TikTok that the Tinder ban has felt even more real, its loss cemented further by the feeling that it won’t be coming back, along with a whole possibility of futures lost before I could have them.