Online dating has become increasingly popular in Pakistan, but it comes with its own set of risks and dangers for the vulnerable segment of society. The challenges of online dating, especially for women, mainly stem from the cultural and traditional roles that a patriarchal society such as ours assigns to its women. They are seen as the carriers of family honor and are often expected to fulfill unrealistic expectations. While the majority of women lack agency in most aspects of their lives and rely on male family members to make important decisions for them, one area where they must adhere to societal norms and values is the existence of romantic life.
As a Muslim-majority country, most people in Pakistan believe that any romantic relationship before marriage is immoral and “unIslamic”, and can bring dishonor to the woman and her family. Many women are killed in the name of honor for exercising a right as fundamental as choosing to decide who they want to spend their lives with. Therefore, dating as a concept in itself remains taboo and is frowned upon even in some progressive circles in Pakistan. Since most women rely on their families to choose their partners, those who do choose to make this important decision on their own are often seen as possessing questionable character.
A society, where women occupy little public space and constantly have to navigate through patriarchal barriers, makes it even more difficult to find a safe place where they can seek a partner. With gender-based violence on the rise, both online and off, dating applications become hunting grounds for perpetrators of violence due to the nature of interactions taking place.
In such situations, dating apps and the authorities concerned are needed to form a partnership in order to protect the user which, in Pakistan, can be a massive challenge. The government’s continuing failure to protect women and the marginalized paint a clear picture of the dangers that they face on online platforms, not to mention the rampant culture of moral policing and victim blaming. For instance, in September 2020, Pakistan banned several dating apps, including Tinder and Grindr for “immoral content”.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) explained following the ban that the decision had been made to bring the management of these platforms into a “moral and legal realm”. The watchdog had also said that it might reconsider the action if the apps agreed to moderate what it viewed to be “unethical and obscene” material on their platforms. Responding to the ban by PTA in Pakistan, Tinder said that it invests significant resources into monitoring and removing inappropriate content and “welcomes the opportunity to discuss our product and moderation efforts with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and look forward to a meaningful conversation.” It is not known whether further discussions took place between the PTA and the management of Tinder. The application remains banned but is accessible via a VPN.
Factors Contributing to Lack of Safety
One of the hurdles for dating apps in Pakistan to ensure user safety is the absence of a sex offender registry or access to law enforcement databases through which they can deal with complaints and remove potentially dangerous users if needed. However, this also requires the government to adopt a cooperative approach with these apps and provide information when needed. It will also place a responsibility on the law enforcement agencies to investigate serious complaints by women against perpetrators on these apps. This will not be possible if the state continues banning any application or website that it deems “immoral”. The bans do not prevent anyone from using these platforms but rather increase the risks of dangerous activity as there is no recourse to justice or checks and balances provided by the state or the apps and their policies.
An unmarried woman facing abuse from her partner is even less likely to report the incident due to the stigma attached to romantic relationships outside of marriage.
Even if dating apps were to be unbanned, reporting incidents of abuse and violence that might have occurred through them would still be uncommon in Pakistan. Gender-based discrimination and victim blaming is rampant in the criminal justice system where the victims of gender-based violence are routinely denied justice. It is a well-documented fact that intimate partner violence in the country often goes unreported due to many cultural and religious reasons, with a heavy emphasis placed on “preserving” the honor of the families involved by resorting to resolve the matter outside of the courts and police stations.
An unmarried woman facing abuse from her partner is even less likely to report the incident due to the stigma attached to romantic relationships outside of marriage. Laila Khan, a woman living alone in Islamabad, explains how she was hesitant to report abuse from a partner due to the backlash she would have faced.
“In my last relationship, my partner was abusive and would torture me mentally. But due to the growing attacks on women who report such incidents and the fact that my family and community would not support me, I decided not to approach the police regarding this abuse.”
This adds to another issue of the lack of data indicating the number of women who have faced sexual violence over dating apps. This is also due to the refusal to accept dating apps as a part of many young people’s lives, and the current ban, which creates the assumption that if an online platform is banned at the state level, people will not be using it and, hence, will remain “safe”. However, considering research and surveys conducted in other countries, such as Australia, it would not be incorrect to assume that sexual violence is prevalent through these apps and that its extent can be greater in Pakistan given the higher rates of gender-based violence in the country.
Dating Apps and Perpetrators of Violence
Dating apps have, over time, become a tool that perpetrators of violence used to target women in multiple ways. An example of this is using images or screenshots of a woman’s dating app profile to blackmail her since her mere presence on such a platform can be weaponized against her and her family. Aisha Ali, a young professional from Islamabad, talks about the steps she takes to protect her real identity, while at the same time, giving herself the chance to explore her options for a partner. “I use a fake photo and name and try to delay giving my real number as much as possible unless I am absolutely sure that the person I am speaking to is trustworthy. If my family finds out I am on a dating app, it will have very serious consequences for me.”
Alishba, another woman living in Islamabad, talks about how her friend encountered Zahir Jaffer – the murderer of Noor Muqaddam – on the dating app, Bumble. “My friend showed me a man she had just matched with and I recognized him to be Zahir Jaffer. I knew him because he had been physically abusive to one of my friends. I told her to unmatch with him since he was extremely dangerous.” Jaffer was sentenced to death in February this year for the murder of Noor Mukkadam, a diplomat’s daughter. “Dating apps are full of people like Zahir Jaffer, and it makes me very nervous about the safety of my female friends using these platforms,” Alishba adds.
Users have reported that once a complaint is launched, the chat history is erased, and with it, the evidence that the victim may need to build a case against their perpetrator with the law enforcement agencies is also removed.
Even though corporations that own dating apps have resources needed to protect users, reports from women around the world who have experienced gender-based violence on these platforms and complained to the companies, are evidence of the fact that women’s safety is of little priority to them. Users have reported that once a complaint is launched, the chat history is erased, and with it, the evidence that the victim may need to build a case against their perpetrator with the law enforcement agencies is also removed. Women have also reported that despite getting rape threats from a man they met on Tinder and sending evidence to the management of the applications, the perpetrators were not banned or removed from the platform.
Many dating apps contribute to this abuse through in-built features such as geo-fencing and estimated distance of users, which can result in serious harm by allowing the real-time location to be tracked. In Pakistan, this is especially dangerous for individuals belonging to the marginalized communities that are constantly targeted because of their identity.
Another potentially dangerous feature of dating applications, including Bumble, is the option of linking your Instagram account to your profile which can often lead to these images being used inappropriately. However, predators routinely search women they see on dating apps on other social media platforms, even if those accounts are not linked to their dating app profiles.
Sabah Bano Malik, a journalist and RJ based in Karachi, shares how a man she met on Bumble found her Instagram account and kept harassing her with repeated messaging after she blocked him on the dating app following a disagreement. Whereas, Sara Moneeb, another user from Lahore, also reported that men often find her Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts after seeing her on a dating app, even though she never matched with them. “They insist on speaking to you, despite the fact that I never swiped right on them or consented to speak on any other platform. The constant messaging and stalking is extremely disturbing,” Sara added. The users have also shared concerns about how, in a country like Pakistan where privacy is often infringed upon by both private and state parties, it is easy to track someone in real life, and this translates to stalking and threatening behaviors in offline spaces where a person’s life is put at risk.
Lack of Safety Policies
Dating apps have often come under fire for their lack of safety policies for users. The multi-billion-dollar online dating industry has no meaningful standards for responding to reports of offline harm and removing those responsible from its platforms, Columbia Journalism Investigation found in research. Despite pledges to shield users from sexual predators, the companies have done little to abide by them. Most apps have content moderators with no training or experience to deal with cases of gender-based violence arising on or through these platforms. A significant amount of reliance is placed on the judgment of the user granting them options to either “block” or “report” harassment on the app but there is little evidence to suggest that the companies take any long-term actions against the perpetrators of violence who are reported for abusive conduct.
Tech corporations have argued that their policies cannot be changed or amended to suit the needs in different regions. However, in Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) demands all companies operating in the region comply with its privacy policies, and even the largest companies like Google and Facebook have changed their policies in order to suit GDPR compliance. Not only this, the companies have actively answered calls for accountability whenever they failed to comply. In recent years, popular dating apps have been investigated for violating the provisions of the GDPR. For instance, in December 2021, Grindr was fined approximately €6.5 million for not complying with the GDPR rules on consent by the Norwegian Data Protection Authority.
In the case of GDPR, a regional data protection document is being used to force compliance by tech companies so it makes little sense as to why the same cannot be done to prevent gender-based violence facilitated by dating applications. But once again, this requires clear, concise, and active demands by the states in question, along with agreements and cooperation on part of the private companies.
In the Global South, when countries like Pakistan often fail to protect their own citizens, one may look up to tech companies operating here for online protection regardless of whether the state participates in creating these safety measures or not. This could also be due to the fact that countries like Pakistan are still catching up to hyper-digitalization with a lack of digital resources and knowledge to provide necessary protection to its internet users. In such situations, tech companies can take steps on their own to make sure there are stringent safety policies in place to protect vulnerable gender groups at risk in these countries.
In 2021, Tinder announced it would be adding a background check feature to its platform in the US. There is a fee to use this service that goes directly to Garbo, a non-profit company that carries out background checks. The company collects “public records and reports of violence or abuse, including arrests, convictions, restraining orders, harassment, and other violent crimes” to create its reports. This service is not available in the UK and many other countries. The lack of compulsory identity verification and background checks on free dating services has led to the creation of paid platforms, such as Safer Date. It carries out an identity check and thorough global criminal background check on every member, According to Safer Date, this eliminates fake profiles, catfishes, and criminals from the platform.
Many free dating apps and platforms do not carry out mandatory identity verification, which means that anyone with a phone number and email address can sign up. While some dating apps, like Tinder and Bumble, have rolled out the option to verify accounts, it is not mandatory. However, background checks and verification cannot be a policy suited to all geographical locations and poses enormous security threats to users as well. Such measures could prove harmful to vulnerable populations who may not be comfortable sharing their real identity on the internet. This is true in the case of Pakistan as well where many women are not allowed by their families to have social media accounts in their own name because of patriarchal control and surveillance. It could possibly exacerbate issues of honor killing or negative judgment from a society where it is not acceptable for women to use dating apps.
In order to ensure that women and other marginalized groups are protected on dating platforms, their parent companies should take into account the different and conservative cultural practices and notions in South Asian countries where vulnerable groups require special policies for their security. This might require companies to work harder in such regions, where law enforcement agencies are already weak, and put in place mechanisms that require each case to be dealt with separately, also taking into account the privacy and safety of the victim involved who may be under additional threat from their families and community. Having said this, the government is not absolved of its responsibility to protect such victims either and must do so by working alongside social media and dating app companies without subjecting victims to moral policing and victim blaming.