To this day, 32-year-old Salma’s* mother – along with a substantial part of her social circle – still has no idea that she met her husband on OKCupid.
Her mother’s stance on online dating had always been clear: a woman actively seeking a partner implies desperation. Salma, on the other hand, sees it differently and believes the decision to put herself out there was both “honest and vulnerable.”
Vulnerable, it was. When she first created her account in 2012, she had no idea what to expect. Online dating was new to Egypt during the pre-Tinder era and most users were only resorting to it for hookups.
“I was very hesitant on whether this was the way to [pursue a relationship]; I felt like there was no way in hell this would have a fruitful end,” she recalls.
However, her decision to put herself out there paid off, and Salma has been happily married for almost six years.
The stigmatization of online dating in Egypt
The stigma surrounding online dating in Egypt has decreased significantly compared to when Salma first met her husband – particularly with the emergence of the many dating apps now available to users in Egypt – but it has yet to disappear entirely.
Tinder in particular has the worst reputation compared to counterparts like Bumble or Badoo. It is universally perceived as a platform for casual sexual encounters and flings, but that doesn’t mean it can’t lead to more meaningful connections.
In fact, it was where 35-year-old Adham met his wife of almost four years.
Despite being one of the few exceptions to the app’s hookup reputation, Adham admits that the stigma around Tinder is “well-earned.” His own Tinder bio read: “If you want to have fun I’m down to clown,” after all.
It explains why it took him years to tell his parents the real story of how he and his wife met. Like Salma, he simply did not want himself or his wife to be judged. Both believe there is a generational difference; older generations are simply less likely to understand how a love story could blossom through a screen when they weren’t exposed to the same technological advancements when they were younger.
“I didn’t want my mother to think that I sha’att (picked up) my wife online,” he exclaims.
The rising popularity of online dating
At the time of writing this article, Tinder ranks as the fifth most popular app in the App Store in Egypt. Users are swiping, messaging, and often meeting in person, but they aren’t announcing it to the world, even when their connections turn into an official commitment, like the cases of Salma and Adham.
For this reason, finding accurate statistical data about the success rates of relationships that started on a screen is an almost impossible feat in Egypt, or, arguably, the entirety of the Middle East and North Africa region. However, similar data has been collected for countries like the United States, where online dating is less stigmatized.
A 2019 sociological study gathers data collected from surveys conducted in 2009 and 2017, cumulatively surveying a total of more than five thousand heterosexual American couples. The study finds a dramatic increase in couples who met online along with a decrease in conventional ways of meeting, such as through friends or family.
These numbers are likely not as drastic in Egypt, not just because of the cultural stigma surrounding online dating, but also because accessing such platforms requires internet access, which limits the dating pool to an estimated less than 50 percent of the population.
Another limiting factor is language. Most popular dating apps are in English, save for ones branded for “finding a Muslim wife today,” but this landscape changed with the emergence of the first Egyptian dating app Hawaya, previously named Harmonica. Hawaya is advertised as a marriage-oriented dating app for Muslims. In 2019, it was acquired by Match Group, which also owns Match.com and OKCupid.
The argument for online dating
Tinder offers no information about potential matches save for a person’s name, a short bio, and photos. There is no compatibility testing; users aren’t asked about their hobbies, aspirations, or love language, so “swiping right” on a person is based solely on physical attraction – at least at first.
Other online dating apps and websites, like Bumble, address this issue by offering more information about the individual. On Bumble, users are given an option to include more details in their profile, such as whether or not they are seeking something serious or whether they want to have children someday.
Hawaya adopts a similar approach where users include information about their religious beliefs, such as whether they eat halal or drink alcohol.
This model of enabling users to “size up” a potential partner before starting a conversation helps ensure that their decision to strike up a conversation is informed and thought out.
In fact, it is what encouraged Salma to reach out to her husband at first. OKCupid’s compatibility scoring system had shown her that they had an impressively high 82 percent compatibility score.
“The website asks you about religion and how important it is for you, or silly things like whether you are the type of person who keeps the toothpaste cap on or off. It measures compatibility through things that you would experience living with someone, as well as your values and beliefs,” she explains.
Another perk of online dating is how it gives users access to a much larger pool of potential partners compared to conventional ways of meeting new people, such as through friends or at work.
This was one of the most appealing notions for Adham, who – approaching 30 years of age when he first signed up – had felt like he’d simply run out of ways of meeting new people within his social circles.
“You get to a certain age where you don’t meet new people or make new friends as often, and you need a method to supplement this major deficiency in your life. I had to turn to online dating or else my mom would have started looking for wives for me,” he explains.
Even though his love story could be deemed a “swipe of luck,” the reason why Adham and his wife got along so well was also due to common interests, which could have been detected on any dating app or website that runs compatibility tests. Both self-proclaimed geeks, the reason Adham and his wife exchanged numbers at first was to exchange photos of collectibles.
A changing (online) culture
Interestingly enough, both Salma and Adham’s stories, despite differing in time and (digital) place, have many elements in common. In both instances, for example, the women were the ones to make the first move.
Adham chuckles at this fact, joking that he could tell his mom that he was, in fact, the one who was “picked up” online.
This may seem like a rarity in Egyptian culture, where a woman expressing her desire to pursue a relationship would traditionally be perceived as less than demure. The general cultural preference, at a glance, would imply that women would prefer to play hard to get to give their love interest a chance to “prove” their commitment.
However, it seems the online dating culture differs strikingly in that regard, as evidenced by those two couples, and, more importantly, by a 2017 study conducted by leisure portal Wogoal on 60 countries revealing that Egyptian men are the “luckiest” in online dating because Egyptian women are found to be the most communicative on online dating websites.
It is unclear why Egypt ranked so highly on that list, but it could be argued that Egyptian women might feel more at ease online because the situation is in their control. Prior to meeting in person, a woman would feel safe knowing she could block the user at any point and never encounter them again because they don’t have her contact information or last name.
Meeting in person is a different story and requires vigilance, according to Salma, who adds: “Safety is still a major concern. Don’t meet the person for the first time somewhere private, and tell one or two close friends where you’ll be in case sh*t hits the fan.”
Her precautions are warranted; dating apps in Egypt are a hot spot for cybercrime, either through fake accounts or fake apps. A report by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky revealed that cybertheft targeting Egyptians increased by a whopping 447 percent from 2018 to 2019. These cybersecurity concerns also go hand in hand with offline threats since Cairo was named one of the most dangerous places for women in terms of sexual violence.
The dying of the stigma
In the context of its steadily rising popularity and slowly dying stigma, perhaps the future will bear witness to more successful online dating stories like Salma and Adham’s – particularly ones that won’t feel pressured to withhold the true story of how they met.
“I feel like now I meet a lot more people who’ve met their partners online,” Salma muses.
When asked about whether she would consider telling her mother the real story about how she met her husband, she affirms that she would rather maintain her privacy.
Adham, however, did eventually end up telling his parents the truth. He had already been married for a while and his mother and wife were getting along well. He had realized that, at that point, the information did not matter and would not change anything.
On how they reacted to the news, he shrugs: “They didn’t even bat an eye.”
*Name of source was changed to maintain anonymity.
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