Online dating has become a popular way of meeting a romantic partner over the past decade, with many couples often publicly sharing their experiences — both positive and tragic — on daytime TV shows like Oprah and Ricki Lake.
Dating site eHarmony claims it is responsible for approximately 5 percent of the marriages in the US.
Strangely, though, not very much is ever said about online dating in Egypt, to the extent that one might believe that it doesn’t really occur. But after spending hours on the net inquiring — for the sake of the article, of course — it appears online dating is also extremely common in Egypt: either for a friendly date, a one-night stand, or even to find a spouse, with some users opting to decide to get married even before meeting in person.
Reasons for discretion about finding love on the internet include antisocial stigmas that surround online dating, as well as prevalent socio-cultural norms regarding dating. But ironically, it might also be the socio-cultural stigmas surrounding actual dating that have pushed Egyptians toward online options.
To look at the different aspects of online dating in Egypt, several users of online dating facilities agreed to share their stories with Egypt Independent, although most requested some form of anonymity.
Online dating is a rather general term referring to a variety of places and interactions on the web that lead to meeting and forming some sort of romantic relationship.
It could also mean meeting through online chat rooms like ICQ chat (yes, it still exists), or social networks like Facebook and Twitter. But more newly, and impressively, it could mean using partner-finding smartphone apps such as Smartdate that allow online daters to see their relative distance to other registered users, of any sexual orientation, highlighted on a map.
Users can view profiles and communicate with other users, bringing online interactive dating to the street, in public, without having to initiate visible communication until privacy is achieved.
One online dater, 29-year-old Nadia, who wished to not divulge her full name, found her husband of two years on dateinegypt.com. They met only a handful of times before deciding to get married, which was her initial goal in using the service.
Nadia says that in some families, “there’s so much pressure to get married by a certain age, but then again, society frowns on you for having a close boyfriend or meeting someone outside of your close social circle.”
She says that online dating made it possible to interact with men based on shared interests and looks while keeping it non-physical, but also secret from the family.
“You can do this for as long as you like, whenever you like, and then, when or if you feel certain about the person, explain to your family that you met at a close friend’s party and clicked, if you must,” she joked, though seemingly with some truth to the statement.
Using online dating to get married seems to be one of the most common reasons Egyptians sign up for such sites. Based on searches of various sites, some of the reasons often stated have to do with religion, especially for minorities such as Copts searching for a member of their faith outside of the small number of Copts that they know. Others — sometimes seemingly conservative Muslims, with profile pictures showing a complete veil — are stuck at home with their parents until they get married and are looking for someone to help them move out.
Other users are often looking simply to meet someone new of the opposite sex who they can hang out with and engage in conversations that they are unable to have with their friends.
Khaled, 17, who wished to also not divulge his full name, is a young example of this sort of user, though he hates the term “internet dating.” His young age is not that strange for the dating websites — he says many other young people do it — as they grant users access at ages as young as 12, and anybody can simply lie about their age to get on to an adult site or social network.
Khaled told Egypt Independent that being in one school all your life limits who you know and who you can know, and that using Facebook or online chat rooms is very useful to make friends or meet girls who share similar tastes in music, movies or books.
“Then if you want, you can meet up and go to the cinema or something,” he says. “It’s more fun than just sitting around with the same people that you’ve always known from family, school or the [sporting] club.”
When asked about issues of safety or fear of being targeted, by a pedophile, for example, he admitted that his parents “would kill me if they knew,” but that with Skype, there is enough time to see and know who you are going to meet.
According to the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, one in seven youths who log on to the internet are sexually solicited by an online predator. Out of these, one in 25 get "aggressive" sexual solicitations that include attempts to contact the youth offline.
Other people — myself included — are often curious to read some of the funny romantic posts that one might find on classified pages such as Craigslist, a site on which users publicize themselves and connect through communal posts and advertisements, much in the same way one would if selling a refrigerator.
“One day whilst surfing, I stumbled on a post entitled, ‘77 Reasons I’ll be the best boyfriend you ever had,’” says a woman in her late twenties who wished to remain anonymous. “After reading through the list, written in perfect English, and being impressed by some of the reasons, I was curious to know who this person was and what they were doing on Craigslist.”
Some of the reasons that caught her attention were: “I will sneak out of the bed and brush my teeth before you get up so we can have hygienic morning sex,” “I watch TV on DVD so I can get the whole season in without commercials,” “I hate the phone, but I’d love you to call,” and “I memorize strange facts and will offer them up at random moments.”
“After some online conversation, we finally met and he was everything he claimed to be and more — even educated and very handsome,” she says.
Another very important aspect of online dating that is the most prominent and is forced to be confined largely to the internet here for cultural reasons revolves around issues of homosexuality.
Despite there being no law criminalizing homosexuality, ambiguous laws concerning “lewd conduct” and “general depravity,” which have allowed both men and women to be jailed for being gay, have forced some gay dating initiations into the online community.
“The same motivations that have forced people to take gay dating online also exist in the heterosexual community, just to a lesser degree, and with different factors,” says Adam, using a pseudonym.
Adam explains that through online dating, he has been able to meet many other men and form lasting relationships.
“There are important divisions between the individual and the society at large that have yet to be realized in Egypt,” he says. “By restricting people’s freedoms, you simply force people to seek other means, however possible.
“The internet and technology has enabled people, not only with dating, but with everything else, to attempt to break out of restrictions imposed on them by their physical surroundings and culture,” says Adam. “It has created platforms for people to be the person that they are unable to in their homes and local communities.”
Many stigmas remain about online dating and finding a match through the internet, but in a society riddled with traditional barriers to dating and social pressures to marry, online dating might be a very practical solution.