"Yasmine ... 24 ... I work at a magazine"
I’d just signed up on a dating website and was having to repeat the same info over and over. After several trials and attempts to avoid full disclosure, I had to upload a clear photo that showed my face; otherwise the photo would not be accepted. In just minutes, I was flooded with messages.
Since I’d joined basically out of curiosity, I chose the matches I responded to based on the biggest variety. In one hour, I felt like I’d entered a completely different world. I met a young man who played the funny flirtation game really badly. I met an Iraqi refugee trying to get from Greece to Europe. The first thing he asked me was whether I was married. I asked him if he is used to meeting married girls on dating applications. He said ‘no’ then he went on to ask me if I had a boyfriend; I found that weird.
There were also a bunch who went straight from Hi to let’s chat on whatsapp. The bold step intimidated me; why would I give anyone my number after the first Hi? Then, there was that too-polite guy who decided to start with “I hope my greeting finds you well my dear,” and another who kicked off with “Hi cute girl.” No need to say that this is where that conversation started and ended.
I found myself in a dozen of those conversations in a few minutes. And of course, there are some sick examples everywhere… Thankfully, I was only approached by one inappropriate user and I blocked him immediately. I literally couldn’t keep up so I muted the application to go to bed… and woke up to find more than 200 notifications.
So who was it that said, ‘We don’t have such things in Egypt?’
A recent online dating study ranked Egypt as the easiest country for men to find women online—not one of the easiest or even among the top 10, but actually the best country for online dating worldwide. According to the study conducted over six months by leisure portal Wogoal.com, and released in December, Egypt has the highest Total Acquaintance Probability (probability to get acquainted with a woman in this country through an online dating website) among the 60 countries covered by the study. “Women are most communicative. They like to reply to messages more often than average, and also love to stay in contact,” the study found.
Although online dating has been around for quite some time, a lot of Egyptians of certain generations or classes will confidently tell you, ‘we don’t have such thing in Egypt.’ Well, we obviously do and we use it extensively in so many forms and for different purposes as well.
Most of our parents, if they do not deny the existence of online dating altogether, think of it as an unacceptable tool for sexual encounters and are not able to see it in any other way. The idea is not totally false; however, it is also not entirely accurate. Some use it to casually meet up; others use it for friendships; for others, online dating has become localized as the natural progression of the traditional Egyptian khatba, who we see in most old movies and who is hired to help in finding a suitable marriage partner.
Online dating in Egypt, in fact, is used for all of the above and more. From our social media accounts that we use every single day to special mobile applications and dating websites, digital romance has become a growing part of our daily life. This month we go into the world of online dating in Egypt, looking into its pros and cons, and asking experts on the best way both users and parents can deal with the increasingly popular trend.
Online dating in conservative societies: far out or a perfect match?
Using a standard profile of a 40-year-old man, the Wogoal study tested the success probabilities of online dating in 60 different countries. “In Africa and Asia, men have the best chances to meet a woman online,” the study revealed. While Egypt came first, Iran came seventh on the list; and only one European country was in the top 10: Ukraine.
Courtesy of Wogoal.com
The results do make us wonder about the perceived contradiction between the whole dating idea and the “traditions” of “conservative” societies. However, according to counseling psychologist and founder of Inside Out counseling Center Najla Najib, these traditions are actually a very good incentive for online dating, and not the opposite.
“It is the only solution for them. … The idea is that I cannot date in reality,” Najib says. “Many families do not allow their girls to even go out for group outings. They don’t accept their daughters to date; therefore, online dating becomes more popular and more applicable for the girls,” Najib explains. “Our problem also is that outings are expensive for most people. I would be online all day and if I received any message, it would be a good way to be entertained,” she adds.
Lina Saad, 23, recounts two different experiences with Tinder, an international mobile dating application. The first time, Saad says, “All the men who approached me would jump in the first few sentences to ‘are you a virgin?’ or ask about my sexual experience. They wanted to see how far I would go.” She deleted the application after only three days but then went back a year later, was “pickier” and “more attentive” and she has been using it for six months so far and “no one even mentioned sex.” Saad is using Tinder for casual chats and dating; and she is not looking for marriage, as she says.
Saad comes from a very conservative family herself, and says online dating was the only way she could meet someone, especially that she is not into arranged marriages and is not looking for marriage to begin with. “In Egypt or Cairo, it is not as easy as the west. … We don’t go out every week, the community is very judgmental. It is not comfortable or easy to find someone. … There was no other way,” Saad says.
Najib further explains that lower social classes, and the ones that are the most traditional, actually resort to online dating even more. “Upper-middle and upper classes go out more and do more activities, which makes it easier for them to meet others. So the online part would not be the first [stage] of the relation but the other way around. Other classes, where it is difficult to go out for traditional and financial reasons, they would resort more to online dating,” Najib says.
Sociologist Said Sadek further underlines the fact that our “traditional societies” experience a lot of sexual problems “because there is no mixing or interaction between the two sexes.” This has led to sexual harassment, which has entailed more alienation between boys and girls, Sadek says. “Dating and the internet created a revolution in intersexual relations, the more important of which is expanding the horizons,” he adds, explaining that online dating has widened the pool of matches, which was extremely limited by “urbanization and conservatism.”
It has been quite challenging to pinpoint any recent studies or researches looking into online matchmaking in Egypt. However, if you simply Google ‘online dating + Egypt’ or any other Arab country, you will find loads and loads of online dating sites, Facebook pages and groups and applications. Online dating is gaining more popularity and becoming easier and more accessible by the day in these conservative societies.
The stigma of digital romance has gradually faded over the years and a lot of success stories have been reported. Mohamed, 24, tried online dating twice. The first was when he was 17 years old through an online game, but he stopped when he started college. The second time, however, is another story. It began with a random message in April 2014, and looks set to end with a lifelong commitment soon.
“She was from Alexandria, in her second year of high school, while I was in my second semester of college. … We started talking in a very official manner but we got so close within a month, until I Skyped her and I fell for her voice. Our talking since then was intimate but we never announced a relationship until I met her in person in the summer of 2015. We actually made it a relationship in July 2017; we know each other’s families and we plan to get engaged in a year,” Mohamed says.
Fatima el-Wahaidy, a Palestinian, and Ahmed Sultan from Egypt, are another success story that started on Facebook and ended up in a happy marriage. “He used to comment on my friends’ posts and his comments were both irritating and exciting. … I wanted to know who this person is. I sent him a friend request and he rejected it; and some time later, I sent him another one,” Wahaidy says. They started talking in 2013, while she was in Palestine. “It was normal talk and we would fight about some of his comments … He would post a photo of girls playing volleyball and wonder why Egyptian girls wouldn’t be like that. I would tell him it is about the environment and culture.” On her way back from a training course in Amman to Ghaza, Wahaidy passed by Cairo and saw Sultan for the first time, in June 2013. On her second trip to Egypt in January 2014, the Rafah borders were closed and she got stuck in Egypt for 12 days, which they spent together. He saw her in Amman a month later, and “up till now, if anyone asks me how we got married, I say I don’t know. It just happened,” Wahaidy says. They got married in 2015 and she moved to Egypt.
Sadek, who himself met his second wife, from Tunisia, online 20 years after he had lost his first spouse, explains that the internet has highly expanded the prospects of finding a compatible match. He underlines how finding a match in our “Eastern” societies had been very limited to only neighbors, college mates or work colleagues.
“Social media opened up a gate for more matches; from different governorates, or countries. … You see their profile, photos and opinions … and the virtual relations then turn to something more intimate, by talking on Skype, meeting in real life; you either develop the relation further or not,” Sadek says.
Dr. Said Sadek (R) and his wife
Najib agrees. “Online sites give you different personalities; and this matching will guide you to a dating partner that might be more compatible with you,” she says, explaining that people today usually meet through common Whatsapp or Facebook groups.
“This [online communication] could be a better or easier way for introverts or very shy persons who have problems with face-to-face interaction … no risks or time commitment. You can reflect your own self and talk as you like,” Najib adds.
Online dating site user Saad says there is one reason she’s resorted to online dating, “I am a bit of a shy person, my circle of friends is not that big and I am not a party animal. Tinder makes it easier; it pushes you as if you are there for a reason.”
The pros and cons of online dating
On the other hand, digital romance comes with a set of drawbacks to bear in mind. Although Najib insists on the importance of communication before marriage, as “most of the problems that happen later on are caused by lack of communication … and would lead to marriage failure,” she also points out that the virtual connection can never replace face-to-face interaction. “Body language is 70 percent of our communication,” Najib says. “Online dating can actually help in making communication … however, as it starts cheesy and nice, after a while, online problems start.”
Another drawback of online romance is that “it evolves much faster than reality,” Najib explains. “On social media, you are not realistic. The relationship can take a faster pace than it would in real life. Then, you meet the person in reality and there is a clash because what you expected was that you would be comfortable and at ease, and when you meet face-to-face, you realize it is very different,” she says. Not to mention that you might get stuck endlessly, as if you are shopping for the perfect partner, which might eliminate “the touch of the click and the romance,” she says. Therefore, even if you do initiate an online romance, at one point or another, you have to take that very intimate relation to real life.
Rawya Ragheb, 24, tried Tinder for six months, until she “got bored of swiping right or left.” “It kind of trivializes what relationships are about (real people not just faces or bios),” Ragheb says. “It subliminally teaches us to be more judgmental (hey, you have to make a decision, you have to swipe left/right) so you start judging people using a criterion that isn’t necessarily realistic—what they choose to show you, some pictures and very brief lines,” she adds.
Another risk of online communication is that you can be easily misguided. “I might present something that is not my personality or lie about my social class,” Najib says. “If we accept to initiate online dating, we need to investigate the person before going deeper into the relationship,” she stresses.
In a 2012 study conducted by global research agency OpinionMatters of over 1,000 online daters in the U.S. and the UK, 53 percent of U.S. participants and 40 percent of British participants admitted they have lied on their online dating profile. There are also numerous reports on online dating scams, rapes, extortion and you name it.
From personal experience, Mohamed believes online dating sets a big challenge, especially for girls. “Girls should be smart enough to tell a sincere guy from an unfaithful one, who is actually in for the fun and wasting time … because healing from an online relationship is actually painful, the person you meet online becomes your life and you isolate yourself from the real world and real friends. You lose them and lose your world,” Mohamed says.
So, if you decide to take that step, you have to consider both sides of the story and you need to be careful at all times. You can check if there are any common friends between the two of you first, check their profile and try to figure out their tendencies and opinions. And if you try it out and want to pass, you can always go for a limited profile or even block.
Into the world of Egypt’s online dating
From Tinder to Grindr and dozens of dating websites, the platforms for digital romance are too many to list. With the technological revolution, each and every one of us might have a different dating outlet on our smartphone.
Martin E. is the founder of Date in Egypt, one of the very first dating websites launched in Egypt over six years ago. He remembers it actually started as a joke, as he was working in Sharm el-Sheikh as a website developer and thought of “connecting more foreigners to Egyptians through relationships to increase tourism and international commitment to Egypt.”
Without marketing and with only one administrator, Date in Egypt today has around 30,000 members. “The big boom was more or less after the Egyptian revolution, as people started going out of traditions,” the Italian expat says. “Before, I would get like five registrations a day; in the past few years, there has been a bloom,” he adds.
“As Facebook became more popular, the hype of dating apps decreased,” the developer says. Nevertheless, by launching his Facebook page and group, he was able to once again redirect people to the website. “I have around 10 to 15 member requests to approve every day,” he says.
When you go on the website, you first need to register with a username and password and prove you are not a bot. Then, you start working on your profile; filling up some basic info about your appearance and ethnicity; personal traits, like your interests, religion and sense of humor; your lifestyle, including smoking, drinking and living situation and your marital status and occupation. You also have to upload a personal picture that clearly shows your face. Then, you have access to numerous profiles to choose from. Like most websites, Date in Egypt is free to join; but you’ll need to pay for a membership if you want to send an unlimited number of messages.
Unlike many international platforms, the thing about Date in Egypt is that it seems to be more adapted to our society. You can see it in the profile questions and the layout; but even more in the hook: “Dating in Egypt, Single & Marriage Chat.” You can use the website both for casual dating and for seeking a marriage partner, the website owner says. Although, it makes no difference whatsoever in the process, as the admin explains, it is a way to adapt to Egyptian social customs. “In Egypt, you have a lot of people who don’t want to date but want to marry directly. They wouldn’t go to a dating site,” he says.
When asked about the security and safety of the site, the admin explains that “harassment and sexual behavior are not permitted. … People who don’t behave in the right way are blocked and messages are deleted.” “We also have a report button; I analyze the message and according to the standards and rules I either delete or block the person, or let it simply be,” he says.
Admins of course have full access to your information once you register. Only an administrator can have access to the backend area; and a normal user would not be able to see any of your personal information.
“Facebook” Khatba: somewhere between the traditional and digital matchmaker
From the international apps to our own local version of digital romance, we talked to an online khatba, as localized a version of online romance as you can get. Although common up until perhaps the 70s and 80s, the oldtime professional relations mediator seems to have found a way back, setting a middle ground between traditions and the new technological age.
Soheir Mansour, known as Khatba Sousou, took her passion for matchmaking to social media only a few years ago. She is now using Facebook and Whatsapp to keep up with her mission that she started over 20 years ago. Through social media, “I met people from new social classes and higher positions, I expanded my horizons and now I have a higher prestige,” Mansour told Egypt Today.
A former public relations manager at Egypt Telecom, Mansour said she first started matching her friends and colleagues as a talent; she later had her own Khatba office; and moved on to Facebook and Whatsapp to keep up with the evolving mentality of the younger generation.
“I found that the way people think has changed. … You have to keep developing with the mentality and the new age to connect to reality and maintain your credibility. People used to come to me at my workplace and I used to stick to what I hear, now I look at the girl, see her image and information [on Facebook].”
The prospective groom or bride, or the parent, reaches Khatba Sousou through her Facebook page, sends a message; they then communicate on Whatsapp; and they have to send her their national ID and a photo to confirm all the information they provide. She sits with them, asks them what they are looking for in their bride or groom and works her magic.
When asked about the age or social class of her customers, Khatba Sousou insisted that they come from all social classes and all the way from 19 to 70 years old. Sousou wouldn’t give us an exact number of customers, but said they were in the “hundreds.” As for the cost, it is a “token” amount that is divided over two payments. The first installment is received before she starts working to guarantee the sincerity of the client and the second after the official engagement. “I offer you a groom on a golden platter; and it is up to you to say yes or no,” she tells me.
to read the full interview with Khatba Sousou.
Dear parents, “there is no choice”
Although online dating is hardly limited to one age group, it is more common among the younger generations and might still be a long way from getting accepted by our parents or elders, especially in an inherently “traditional” society like Egypt. When I first asked my father what he thought of online dating, he said “it is virtual prostitution.” Such a perspective immediately nips any conversation in the bud and highlights a huge “generational and technological gap,” as Sadek puts it.
“My parents have no idea I am dating to begin with … not to mention online dating,” Saad says, with such a cynical laugh at the thought of sharing the idea with her parents.
Mohamed too would never consider telling his parents. Even though his is a happy story, with hopefully a happy ending, the couple have decided to keep the whole online part of their relationship private. “We never told anyone that we met online. We are worried it would be misunderstood. Parents in general have a very negative idea of people meeting online,” Mohamed explains.
For Najib, dating itself, let alone online dating, continues to be a stigma. “Out of experience, parents wouldn’t be comfortable if their kids are dating. Even when parents are open and they did date themselves, when it comes to their kids, they tell them no. It is still not acceptable,” she explains.
That said, dating is a fact, whether online or offline—and parents need to figure out how to protect their kids instead of scaring them away. “There has to be a communication. Parents have to talk to their children about it and assure them that they will protect them from the dangers of dating,” Najib says. “We are surrounded by dangers from all sides, if not online dating, it is terrorism, drugs—parents need to realize they cannot protect their children 100 percent. They have to loosen the restrictions about dating so that their children talk to them.”
“They [parents] are the best advisors and the safest place to go to,” Najib affirms, calling for the older generation to accept “there is no longer a choice. … We are in a new age; we cannot apply the same belief system of 2000 in 2018.”