In 2018, Alina, an 18-year-old resident of Lahore, downloaded Tinder. The dating app gave her a way to date away from the scrutiny of her family and the omnipresent “rishta aunties” — elderly women who charge a fee to find suitable matrimonial matches. Alina, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym because of the social stigma attached to dating in Pakistan, was discreet about using Tinder and feared repercussions from her family. It was fun exercising her choice for a while, before the option was taken away.
In September 2020, the Pakistani government banned five dating apps — Tinder, Grindr, Tagged, Skout, and SayHi — for promulgating “immoral” content. By that point, Tinder had become the most popular dating app in Pakistan and had been downloaded more than 440,000 times in the 12 months preceding the ban, according to data from analytics firm Sensor Tower.
So Pakistani youth turned to an unlikely alternative: Facebook groups.
Matchmaking groups on Facebook, exclusively catering to Pakistanis, erupted during the pandemic, garnering tens of thousands of members. That includes groups like Two Rings, Soul Wonders, and People of IBA and LUMS – Rishta Edition. Pakistan’s most prominent Facebook matchmaking group, Two Rings, was started in 2019 by Fakiha Khan, who had earlier created other well-known Facebook communities, such as Salons in Pakistan and Careers in Pakistan. Two Rings, which is volunteer-run and does not charge its users any fees, currently has nearly 228,000 members, and at least 335 couples have found spouses through the group, according to Khan. Facebook Dating, an in-app feature that the company launched in 2019, is not available in Pakistan.
Around 64% of Pakistan’s population is currently under 30, and the ban on dating apps left people with limited avenues to find partners. The only option for most was the traditional arranged marriage process, which can be patriarchal, limiting, and expensive, as the rishta aunties charge anything between 20,000 rupees (about $100) and 100,000 rupees (about $500) for each match.
Khan said she launched Two Rings because she was routinely being approached by family members and friends to match them or their children, and she had a strong dislike for the traditional matchmaking culture.
“They [rishta aunties] have made it so difficult to find a match. First, you must pay them, then they would degrade you by pointing out flaws and weaknesses in you,” she told Rest of World. “I did not want to become a rishta aunty, nor was matchmaking something that I did for a living. … So, I thought, I’ll just create a community and work on that.”
The success of Two Rings has inspired several other similar Facebook groups.
In March, Muhammad Hassan Khan, a graduate of the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) in Karachi, co-founded a Facebook matchmaking group to cater only to the alumni and current students of the two leading business schools in the country: IBA and Lahore University of Management Sciences. In a little over two months, People of LUMS and IBA – Rishta Edition, has attracted over 3,800 members. An average of four new profiles are posted on the group each day.
On other matchmaking platforms, there are expectations, “like fair skin, the guy should be tall, these sorts of things,” Hassan said. “But over here, people are more restrained. They don’t focus that much on physical features; they focus on personality. Obviously, considering that, a lot of people are comparatively woke.”
Anaum Janjua, a single mother from Karachi, said that Facebook groups are far better at matchmaking than dating apps. After a “terrible” experience looking for a partner on Tinder and Bumble, Janjua joined Two Rings in 2020. “I was kind of apprehensive, initially,” she said. “Once I joined [Two Rings], I did not post my profile. For six to eight months, [I] was just observing.”
She finally posted her profile on the Facebook group in January 2021 and was overwhelmed by the response. “From the moment my profile went up till my profile was present on the group, the messages didn’t stop. In the beginning … I would have to sit down for an hour and a half to clean my message requests and spam.”
Through Two Rings, Janjua met Hasan Jamshed, a 35-year-old single father living in Australia. The two began speaking over the phone every day and got engaged within six months. On February 14, Janjua and Jamshed got married.
Users told Rest of World that Facebook groups are often more secure than dating apps, and moderators ensure some level of digital hygiene. When Alina was using Tinder, men would often search for her name on Facebook and Instagram and send unsolicited messages. Once, after viewing her Tinder profile, a stranger tracked down her phone number through a friend who went to the same university as Alina and sent her a voice note on WhatsApp. He said he had seen her at a café with her friends. “It basically meant that I was being watched; like, this guy was stalking me,” said Alina. Rest of World reached out to Tinder for comment and, as of publication, did not hear back.
On Two Rings, each profile is vetted by a team of moderators. Strict rules weed out disrespectful members. “If there is anybody who is being harsh, we suspend them for 28 days or block them. I think we have blocked over 15,000 people on the group,” Khan said.
Amna Kashmiri, the co-founder of the People of IBA and LUMS – Rishta Edition group, said that Facebook matchmaking groups are also culturally more appropriate for Pakistan, given their focus on marriage instead of dating, which is not widely accepted in the country. “[Matchmaking groups] are for people who are looking to get married in a shorter span of time or their end goal for sure is marriage,” Kashmiri told Rest of World.
Some observers say these Facebook groups are still similar to the arranged marriage experience, in which women are judged based on their physical traits and men on their salaries.
“When you post your profile, you’re seen as a commodity. Do you fit the checklist? Are you 5-foot-7? Are you, you know, 27? Are you a Sunni or a Shia?” said a 27-year-old MBA graduate from LUMS, who requested anonymity to maintain the confidentiality of her information. She believes that instead of focusing on personality traits, the users of these groups are often evaluated on certain physical criteria.
Facebook groups are a “hybrid version” of matchmaking for Pakistani people, Kashmiri said: a sweet spot between the arranged marriage process and getting the freedom to choose your partner. “It’s so nice to see [people posting] instead of waiting on their parents or family to find somebody. They are actually now just doing it out all on their own!”