On the morning of September 1, 30-year-old Sana* awoke to find she could no longer swipe right on Tinder. The popular dating app didn’t seem to be working. On Twitter, users were already discussing if the app had been blocked by the Pakistani government.
Sana, who lives in Islamabad and has been using Tinder since 2013, told VICE News that the ban did not surprise her. “I thought, of course, they banned Tinder. Over here, when men can’t control something, they take it away.”
Later that day, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) announced that five dating apps including Grindr and Tinder had been blocked to curb the dissemination of “immoral content”.
This is the latest in a series of bans on apps in the country. YouTube remained blocked from 2012 to 2016; mobile gaming app, PUBG and video streaming app, BIBO Live got banned in July this year.
According to data from analytics firm Sensor Tower, Tinder was downloaded more than 440,000 times in Pakistan in the last 12 months. Grindr, Tagged and SayHi also got around 300,000 downloads each.
After “lurking” around the app for a few years, Sana said that she became active on it in 2015 when she returned to Pakistan after completing her Bachelors in the U.K. As a fresh graduate working from home, she was struggling to meet new people. “Tinder allowed me to meet guys in a space that seemed free from usual societal restrictions,” she said.
Sana understands the cultural context in which the apps have been banned, but she finds the act “paternalistic” and doesn’t like “the idea of the government dictating what I do in my free time”.
Usama Khilji, Director of digital rights advocacy group Bolo Bhi said that the ban is the government’s way of making tech companies follow its orders. “The regulator is flexing its muscles to get social media companies to comply with requests for user data and content to be blocked or removed on the government’s request,” Khilji told VICE New.
Khilji noted that following bans and warnings, PUBG and TikTok appeared willing to comply with the Pakistani government’s requests. “By going after softer targets such as these apps, the regulator wants to set a precedent and later use it to go after bigger platforms such as Twitter and YouTube,” he said.
Twenty-two-year-old Zainab* met her boyfriend of two years through Tinder. She said she’s sad knowing that others will be unable to do the same. “I always thought I would meet someone organically, but I attended a women’s college and wasn’t able to befriend many men,” she said.
Two years ago, during a summer break from college, Zainab was browsing Tinder out of boredom when a guy she had matched with sent her a message. The two talked for a few days before meeting at a coffee shop. Now, they are planning their marriage. “If there was no app, we would have never met,” she said.
For people like 33-year-old Dawood Mehmood, dating apps open up the possibility of meeting people outside their social circles. “Most people prefer getting married at a young age. By the time you reach your thirties, there are not many single women around,” he said.
Through various dating apps, Dawood was able to meet a few women he found “interesting”, “cool” and “independent”. The majority of women Dawood came across were looking for a good conversation more than anything else. “This is because interaction between opposite genders is a challenge in our culture,” he said.
For gay Pakistanis like 30-year-old Imran*, trying to meet people in offline spaces comes with added risks. “I am fearful of approaching someone or flirting with them because most people are not open about their sexuality. I know people who were badly beaten up for mistakenly approaching straight men,” he said.
Imran has been using Grindr for over 10 years and before that used social networking sites gaydar and ManJam. He discovered that even online platforms are not without risks. In 2014, a serial killer confessed to have killed three men he had met overManJam in Lahore. “Online space may not be entirely safe, but for queer young people, that’s the only gateway to connection and acceptance,” he said.
Imran is hopeful that the ban on dating apps will not stop people from connecting. “Those who know about VPNs will continue accessing the blocked apps,” he said.
*Names have been changes for subject’s protection.
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