Ethar El-Katatney

Posted in Egypt Today by Ethar El-Katatney on July 1, 2007
Egypt Today
July 2007
Cover Story

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Cartoon By: Tamer Youssef

With the traditional ‘salon marriage’ fast becoming a passé way to meet a prospective wife or husband, a new breed of tech-savvy youth are turning to matchmaking websites to find a partner. But is it socially acceptable?

By Ethar El-Katatney

AS FAR BACK as anyone can remember, this is how marriage usually went in Egypt: Family hears of a good guy through their friends or relatives. They ask about him, find out where he works, how much money he makes, where he went to college, and so on and so forth, down to his shoe size if necessary. He meets their criteria. Satisfied, they invite him and his family over for canapés, tea and cake. Guy and girl sit together. Guy likes girl and girl likes guy. They get married, have babies and they live happily ever after. Back then, matches were made ‘within’ the family circle, with friends of parents introducing their eligible offspring or relatives to each other. The meetings usually took place at home, and became known as salonat marriages since the couple would traditionally sit in the salon or formal reception area to talk to each other.

That was then. This is now.

With youth becoming increasingly exposed to the outside world, interacting with the opposite sex in universities, cafés and outings, salonat marriages are starting to become a thing of the past. Youth have become pickier in their demands and their list of criteria for a spouse is becoming more and more extensive, making them less likely to settle for anything short of their expectations.

But in a country in which marriage is one of the most materially exhausting undertakings one will ever go through — and not something most would care to have to go through more than once — choosing the right person with whom to spend the rest of your life has become more important than ever. The 10, 20 or 30 people your parents might have selected for you to meet are unlikely going to have all the characteristics you want in your partner.

Stepping in to fill this demand for a larger pool of candidates in which to fish out prospective partners, marriage websites are fast becoming today’s alternative to the salonat of yesteryear. Qiran, Bentelhalal, Zawgaty, Habibi-Habibtee, Mr. Egypt, El-Khatba — the list of matchmaking websites targeting mainly Muslim youth living in Middle Eastern countries seems to be growing faster than Facebook. Membership in these outfits is increasing rapidly, as more and more people turn to them as an alternative route to explore in their quest for a spouse.

As Habibi-Habibtee puts it: “Your mother can no longer find you the perfect match. It’s time to take matters into your own hands.” And now — for a price, naturally — you can. With thousands of profiles, searchable by age, nationality, religious sect and even eating preferences, the internet has become the sharpest and newest tool in the box to help people search for soul mates.

So how do these websites really work? Are they legitimate? What are the pros and cons of using them? Do people really get married through them? Are they becoming socially acceptable? We set out to talk to those who have used the websites, parents, website creators, website agents, a sociology professor and even Dar El-Iftaa (Al-Azhar’s authority for the issuing of fatwas) in search of answers.

Spouses in Site
Religion-specific networking sites are nothing new. A Google search for “religious social networks” returns over 51 million links and hundreds of sites. The Christian singles service Adammeeteve has over 70,000 members, while Jdate, a 10-year-old site that caters to the Jewish community, has over 600,000. But both pale in comparison when put alongside Muslim-based websites, the majority of which are set up with Saudi financing.

Two-year-old Jordanian-founded Bentelhalal — literally meaning “a daughter [born] legitimately”— has over 600,000 members, equal to Jdate, while the dominant player, Qiran (literally, ‘marriage contract’) has become the largest online platform for Muslims seeking a spouse, attracting almost 2 million profiles in less than three years.

Most websites typically take the form of a set of profiles created with basic personal information and a description of physical appearance. Some post their pictures. Each website offers its own unique selling point, but all use Islam as a tool to position themselves. And since the majority of their users are Muslim — only three percent of Qiran’s members are non-Muslim — this makes perfect sense. Most are available in both Arabic and English, although the majority are dominated by one language or the other.

An example would be Naseeb (destiny), which markets itself not simply as a matrimonial site, but “a way of bringing people together for different purposes such as marriage, friendship, socializing and a way of getting closer to the Muslim community.” It has a chat room known as “nassenger” which welcomes you with the Muslim greeting ‘Al-Salam Alaykum.’ It even includes a store where you can buy T-shirts with slogans asking, “Do you Naseeb?” With 12,000 new members signing up each month, it is hugely successful in the United States: 60 percent of its users are US citizens, many of whom find it difficult to meet like-minded Muslims in their local communities.

Most of these websites operate based on levels of membership. Basic membership allows users to browse profiles, but most require you to pay to send messages or get in contact with those whose profiles interest you. For the majority of Arab websites — including Qiran, Bentelhalal and Zawgaty (My Wife) — prepaid cards must be bought before members can send messages, paving the way for these outfits to make a profit.

In the majority of Arab countries, the prepaid cards are ordered through distributors and delivered directly to homes. In most non-Arab countries, a credit card option is available, as are bank transfers, PayPal, wires and agent collections. In Egypt, the biggest distributor of these cards is the Arab American Center, owned by Ashraf Abou Elfotouh, the agent for several websites. According to Abou Elfotouh, the cards are valid for one month, delivered to your house, and differ in price according to the number of profiles available on the website. A prepaid card for Qiran, for example, costs LE 120, compared to only LE 30 for seven-year-old Mr. Egypt. The only website that is 100 percent Egyptian, Mr. Egypt saw a rush of business after owner Sherif El-Gamal was featured on the popular Hussein Fahmy talkshow El-Nas we Ana (The People and I).

What is interesting to note is that for the majority of these websites, only males have to pay for the prepaid cards. There are two reasons for the gimmick, explains Abou Elfotouh, one being from a marketing perspective, and the other based on an understanding of human nature. The marketing aspect is derived from the simple fact that there are more males than females on the websites: 71 percent of Qiran’s members are males. Most importantly, men tend to initiate contact more often than women.

“If I am a man, I [will] send a message to a number of women,” notes Abou Elfotouh. “For X to answer, she has to be a member. If she doesn’t register [because she has to pay] and I don’t get a response, then I will say the website is a failure.” But if women are able to reply for free, then the man gets a reply and is more likely to buy another prepaid card once the month is up.

“The other reason,” continues Abou Elfotouh, “is that for most [women], either they work and they have a limited salary, or they don’t work, or are students, [and so don’t have enough money to buy cards].”

While there is a common perception that those who use the websites are either desperate 35-year-old spinsters or sleazy men looking to ensnare girls into having sex, the reality is quite different. A browse through profiles on different websites reveals a wide range of demographics; different ages, social classes, professions and educational levels, to name a few. There are graduates of upper-end private universities, people who have completed their PhDs and those who work in multinationals. The biggest age group is 23-35, and members aged 30-40 are those who are usually most serious about finding a spouse.

The psychographics are just as complex.

“The websites are like the real world,” explains Abou Elfotouh. “There are people who are very honest and those who are big liars. Someone online can be wearing a mask [just] like those in real life. You’ll find all types — people who are very serious, those who enter for fun, those who believe if something comes out of the site then great, and if not, then no harm done, and those who put all their hope in the site.”

Big Hits
Websites such as Naseeb are hugely popular in countries where Muslims are a minority, because of the difficulty of meeting other Muslims. But in a country such as Egypt, where the overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim, why would it be the number-one country visiting a website such as Qiran, with over 150,000 Egyptians with profiles, and nearly 350 new members signing up on a daily basis?

Dr. Madiha El-Safty, affiliate professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo (AUC) with a special interest in gender issues, believes the increasing use of matrimonial websites is linked to the rise in technology.

“There has always been a way of matchmaking,” she explains. “It used to be the press. Rose Al-Youssef used to be famous for their marriage ads [Websites] are the development of new technology.” In her opinion, salonat marriages are obsolete, and have been so ever since women started working and leaving the house.

The distinguishing feature of salonat marriages is that although parents know some details about the other party, the couple meet for the first time without ever having laid eyes on each other or knowing anything about each other’s personality. Matchmaking websites are a step further from salonat marriages. The couple still don’t see each other, but this way, they get to know each other before they meet. An advantage of these websites is that, to an extent, they allow you to judge others based on their personality rather than looks.

Meeting people online is also undoubtedly easier, does not take too much effort and is suitable for busy people who have no time for socializing — and therefore no opportunity to meet potential mates. It’s a perfect setup for many Egyptians, who don’t get a chance to interact much with the opposite sex in their professional or personal lives.

That’s not to say those who do get the chance to meet and interact with the opposite sex in their daily lives don’t find the websites as useful. As El-Safty notes, “Having access to the other sex does not [necessarily] mean that you will find [] the right partner. We [go] online because it’s another channel of possibly meeting the right person.” Clearly, the pool can never be too big.
Nourhan Lokman, working in Premier Services and Recruitment, uses the internet to search for friends and soulmates alike. A number of her best friends are those she met online, and three months ago, the 27-year-old almost got married to someone she met through a website.

“I got a message from a doctor [telling] me that we [were alike]. His details were interesting. I don’t usually go for people who say, ‘I like your picture, you’re beautiful etc,’ [and his] was a decent message. He didn’t even have a picture. A month later we started talking on the phone [and] then we met. We became good friends. Then he said he was traveling abroad and told me that he liked me and wanted to marry me.”

Part of the reason these websites are so enthusiastically received is religious influence. Dating is considered by many Muslims as prohibited by Islam, and the online service provides what one press agency called “a culturally sensitive middle ground,” allowing Muslims to find and meet acceptable partners through legitimate channels.

Another source of reassurance to the more religiously oriented is that some websites even allow your relatives to post profiles on your behalf, be they your parents, siblings or cousins. It is quite normal to find a profile written by a woman’s father or by a man’s mother on behalf of their children. And although not an opinion commonly voiced, some people assume that these women or men are more ‘respectable’ since they did not post their own profile.

Is there an official religious sanction for all this? A phone call to the Dar El-Iftaa hotline — Egypt’s Islamic authority for issuing religious edicts — had us leaving our question and receiving a fatwa all within 12 hours. Was it permissible to use these websites? Our fatwa, in the form of a recorded message on the line explained, “It is permissible to exchange information [without marriage] through these websites. This information must [then] be verified [by the family] and all details should be confirmed, [in addition] to asking about this man or woman. And if there is acceptance and compatibility [between the couple], then there is no problem in them getting married.”

The conclusion? Perfectly halal.

It’s a reassuring finding for 21-year-old AUC graduate Nesma El Milligi, who met her husband online, albeit through a Yahoo online group for charity work and not a matchmaking website. Coming from a religious family background, she stands her ground and defends her decision, explaining that the relationship between her and her husband progressed much along the traditional lines, with the only difference being where she met her spouse.

“Usually, I don’t meet people I meet online, but even when I met him [for the first time] I was with my stepfather, not even with my friend. It was very respectable.” she says. “[My parents] were understanding — they treated him like anyone else proposing. They asked me about him, and if I was interested, his mother called mine. Then they told me we would meet him, and [that I would] sit with him. And then we met and so on [in the traditional Egyptian way].”

Her father, quality assurance consultant Sameh El Milligi, found no fault in his daughter’s behavior. “I raised my children in a certain way and in a certain style,” he says. “They possess a maturity in thinking about relationships and [in their] choices. It was OK that they met online, as long as things [were] moving in the normal way and within the limits allowed [by] our culture and traditions.”

Although finding a spouse online may seem very avant-garde, it just might turn out to be the setup most accepted by families who look favorably upon salonat marriages, since the premise is essentially the same. This is the scenario Dar El-Iftaa put their stamp of approval on — it’s important to note that there was an earlier fatwa branding chat rooms haram, so the online ‘relationship’ is assumed to be platonic for it to be deemed permissible.

According to the administration at Qiran, “In Islamic/Muslim culture, 80 percent of the marriages are [orchestrated] by elders. 60 percent of all successful marriages on the site involve a profile entered by a relative or parent; this allows parents to talk to each other for their sons or daughters and use the old tradition with [a] new style.”

Twenty-year-old Bosayna Abdelkader’s story is similar to Nesma’s, only her experience was through a matchmaking website.

“The person wrote to me, and when I saw their profile, I wrote back, and then they wrote back, and it just went back and forth like that. Then [he] added me on MSN [messenger], and we started talking. Just friends. Then he told me he wanted to take it a step further and I told him that I don’t date. And I said the only way would be if he came and saw my parents. After that, he asked for my hand in marriage.”

They spent a whole year chatting before he proposed, and Abdelkader maintains that her parents had known the entire time. When her online friend proposed, she told her family all the information she knew about him, which was later verified when her parents talked to his parents.

An online courtship has one other major advantage, notes Abdelkader: a reprieve from society’s judgmental eyes, which start tracking you the moment you are seen in the company of a member of the opposite sex alone. Online, you can meet people as often as you like for as long a period as you like, without anyone being the wiser.

“[When you meet someone] outside, [the] first thing is that society hits you in the face, culture hits you in the face [and then] religion [hits you in the face]. All of that combines in one big ball and then smacks you with it. And so it kind of made people anxious and pressured, they got fed up with it, so they took the alternative online,” says Abdelkader. “The same person you could meet outside once and [then] have to wait again to meet because [of parents and society], you can see every day online and talk to more and more and for longer periods of time without having people see you, without having the whole melodrama.”

It’s safe to assume that as the internet becomes more readily available to the public, and awareness of these websites and what they offer increases, more and more Egyptians will turn to them. This might prove true especially in the case of social classes where youth do not get much opportunity to interact with the opposite sex socially, and their community might see it as morally wrong if they do.

At present, Mr. Egypt reports that its efforts result in 80-100 marriages every month, while Qiran says it sees between 100-120 marriages every week. These figures are tallied from the number of members who ask to unsubscribe because they have found their soul mate.

Profile Predicaments
It is obvious that matchmaking websites have much to offer. Mr. Egypt even offers its premium members a large section on sex education, written by three doctors, one of them a specialist in sexuality. The section gets 800-1,000 visits daily, and 90 percent are by women.

However, there are a number of drawbacks to searching for a spouse online. The most relevant and evident is the safety issue. How does one know if the people whose profiles they browse and who they may meet can be trusted? With the exception of Naseeb — which verifies the legitimacy of its members by allowing you to see a profile of someone you don’t know only if you have a common friend — there is no way for people to know if the users posting profiles are trustworthy.

A prime example is Mr. Egypt’s embarrassing case back in 2005. A member calling himself Hossam posted a picture of himself in a pilot’s uniform, claiming he was one. He would meet women in upscale restaurants and after the meal he would ask to borrow their mobile phone, claiming his was out of battery. He would act as though there was no signal and then walk out with the phone, leaving the women without their mobiles and having to foot the bill. Eventually, one of these women filed a complaint. Hossam was arrested and later confessed to having stolen over 30 phones from the women he met online

Mr. Egypt creator Sherif El-Gamal, a lawyer by training, has a master’s degree in psychology and also runs a real-world matchmaking agency by the same name. He explains that even though websites have a lot of benefits, they also have a lot of drawbacks, and this is one of them.
“A girl has to be cautious because [the internet] contains all kinds of people, thieves, crazy people, respectable [people],” El-Gamal says.

But short of interviewing every single person who posts a profile, website owners have no way of knowing the difference between a Nobel Peace prize winner and a serial killer. Bentelhalal has a section of people who have been blocked for nefarious behavior, such as sending inappropriate messages, and Qiran investigates the dozens of abuse reports sent every day, but other than that, there is not much more that websites can do to stop users abusing the site.

El-Gamal adds that he has a filter on the site and reads the members’ descriptions before posting their profile. “I sometimes get profiles from married women who say they want to meet [male] friends. And when I call one [to make sure], she tells me with [no shame] ‘So what?’ There is a woman from the Emirates that is currently causing me a big problem. She is a lesbian and she enters the site posing as a man and talks to women.”

There is also no way for websites to judge or verify any information posted online. Even success stories are based on either party taking what the other party says at face value, and only verifying it much later on. This is a major downfall, because whatever anyone claims online can’t be confirmed. Most of the time, you accept what they say and you trust them — it clearly requires a serious leap of faith.

It’s pretty much the same problem with people you meet through chat rooms and online groups. The question is whether such problems occur to the same degree. Many would assume that matchmaking websites are safer than meeting someone in a chat room, citing the fact that chat rooms are extremely diverse, with no boundaries and anyone talking to anyone, with nothing at all in common. That just may be an illusion. As easily as someone could tell you that they are a blond-haired, blue-eyed 18-year-old girl in a chat room when they are actually a 45-year-old man, people can post any information online. El-Safty agrees, saying that in her opinion, the risk is the same in both cases.

Another issue with meeting people through these websites is that one has no way of telling what they are like in real life. Personalities online can translate into something very different in person. You do not get to see how the person in question deals with people or reacts to various situations. “Body language says a lot,” begins Abdelkader. “When you meet someone, you don’t know what they act like in front of people. I can see what they type like, and I see that they can say funny stuff and they can crack jokes online, but that’s not enough. How you act in front of people says a lot about you. Your reactions to things. What you look like. These factors aren’t seen when you talk to someone online. They’re put in an envelope and they’re covered and you can’t get to them.”

There is also the obvious problem of harassment, which usually applies to women, especially if they put up a picture. It’s not unusual to find someone sending you unpleasant messages and attempting to initiate sex talk.

These websites also greatly increase expectations. Lokman believes that they are actually worse than chatting, because “if you meet someone through chatting, and you think they’re a good person, you can take the next step and meet in real life. If it doesn’t work out, then no harm done. But matchmaking [websites] make you think that this is the person you’re going to marry.”

In other words, your expectations are so much higher, and when they don’t work out, the disappointment increases tenfold. Lokman’s online experience eventually didn’t work out, namely because of differences between the two families, although she is quick to point out that the man she met online presented himself exactly the way he was in real life.

El-Gamal’s advice? “When a woman meets a man [she likes], she should meet him at once, so she doesn’t build up an imaginary picture of him, which could be different from reality.” Unfortunately, by the time one reaches the stage of ‘liking’ someone, they usually already have that imaginary picture wafting in their minds.

Last, but certainly not least, is the significant stigma attached to those who find their significant others online. Many people who do are hesitant to admit to it, for fear of the way society will perceive their actions.

“We’re in a community where our social standards aren’t that open yet,” affirms Lokman. “We still have some restrictions concerning the internet. [People would exclaim]: ‘You met him online!’ They consider it as us playing the field, which is silly, [because] we meet people everywhere.”

Keeping the fact that you met someone online hidden only makes it more difficult to come out with later on. Doing anything secretly in Egyptian society, especially when it concerns the opposite sex, will always be perceived as the wrong thing.

“We are a very conservative, traditional society and that takes time to change,” stresses El-Safty. “One important factor [for us to note] is that there is a reversing trend in our society. We are becoming more conservative than before.” She does not believe that the majority of parents would accept their offspring finding their spouses online anytime in the near future, seeing it as “too westernized and not suiting our culture.”

While it is unlikely that meeting people online will ever replace meeting them in real life, it would be unfair to say that these websites do not have a viable alternative to offer, because they do. Right now people may be embarrassed to admit to using them, but it’s obvious from the staggering number of hits on the sites that this won’t stop them from turning to the internet to find a spouse.

As these websites become more and more popular in Egypt, and as more couples meet online successfully, it seems that there will come a time when society will look at a couple who met online without batting an eyelid. et


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