Imagine a world where a man posts a picture online and 10 brave young Pakistani women drop down a comment saying "interested".
Now imagine another instance where a young Pakistani woman posts her picture online, lists the qualities she wants in a prospective partner and says she’s looking for a serious relationship.
Who are these women? Where did they come from? Where did they get the courage to seek out partners for themselves in a culture that would otherwise condemn their desires? Are they not afraid of what the world will say? And most importantly, where do they exist?
They exist in a group called 'Skip the Rishta Aunty' (STRA) on Facebook.
STRA is a matchmaking initiative that adds a unique twist to traditional matchmaking by placing the power to choose your partner in the hands of young people. But more importantly, it’s a platform that shatters outdated stereotypes, empowers women and young people in general and revolutionises social norms.
The idea to create a space where young people could look for prospective life partners online came to Areeba Atif, a Pakistani living in Canada, who met her husband in high school. Areeba realised that not everyone can meet their partner while studying and for those who don’t, the struggle can be real.
To help people overcome this struggle, Areeba made a Facebook group called 'Skip the Rishta Aunty' earlier in 2019 and added her single friends and those looking for partners for their siblings or friends.
“It's not a new concept. There are several matrimonial groups and apps online but I felt like this group would attract young people, make them feel comfortable and become more productive. I also wanted to hand the power of decision making to those who are getting married," says Areeba.
"At the same time, I wanted to change the age-old tradition of making young girls and boys sit awkwardly in a drawing room not being able to express who they really are or getting rejected over reasons that could have been communicated earlier," she adds.
This group aims to provide a more effective alternative to matchmaking; it's more time-effective and relaxed, less awkward, transparent and straightforward and helps avoid challenges due to lack of communication.
Four months in and the group has almost 2,000 members, but Areeba admits that it is not one of those groups where the success can be counted by the number of members. In fact, she "cleans" the group every now and then and removes people who violate the rules and are not serious.
Like other Facebook groups, STRA has rules. They are simple, but strict.
People looking for a partner post their profile on the group and then those who are interested comment below with a link to their profile or those of their friends and siblings. If the person looking for a match is also interested in the individual who comments, they take it to private conversation.
An important point is that anyone who hasn’t posted their profile but is found inboxing people will be taken off the group. In this way, everyone on the group is risking something, and there can be no freeloaders.
But despite the rules, things can get complicated at times.
Areeba has received complaints from people who say they've been ghosted — when one party ends a relationship by halting all communication with a partner without any apparent warning or justification, as well as ignoring the partner’s attempts to reach out or communicate.
Most people justify it by saying it’s hard for them to refuse someone. But this is exactly why there are rules in place for when a member is not interested: they are asked to respond under their comment that they have sent them a private message, in which they politely refuse saying they don’t think the profiles are compatible.
Users are also requested to indicate in their profiles that they will get in touch with anyone who is compatible and hit like on all posts that show interest to indicate that their profiles have been seen. This ensures that nobody keeps waiting.
When asked how Areeba deals with ghosting or disappearances, she tells Images that this practice is unethical and strictly unacceptable in the group. “I issue a warning right away and they are made to apologise, but if it happens again, they are banned from the group”, she adds.
Matchmaking can be a complicated process and can sometimes even involve manipulation or gaslighting. Luckily, Areeba hasn’t had any instances of gaslighting and doesn’t have a policy for it yet.
However, all kinds of harassment in the group is taken very seriously. In any instance, if someone is manipulative or causes discomfort to another person, they are banned and their names are taken on the group to ensure others are warned.
But sometimes, that is not enough. What happens in scenarios where banning and public shaming are not effective? Areeba mentioned that it's interesting how she had no support when the group began, but now, some lawyers and cybercrime experts are in the group who have graciously offered to help should the need arise.
Members are also requested to initiate conversations via Facebook Messenger so that there is proof in case anything inappropriate is said.
STRA may seem like any other online matrimonial service, but as it grows and evolves, it may end up revolutionising traditional ideas of what seeking romantic love ought to look like.
In a society where people consider it a shame to admit that they’re looking for a partner or feel embarrassed to not be able to find love, it takes a lot of confidence for young people to express themselves. By imposing rules and standards on its members and asking everyone to take the same leap of faith, STRA creates a safe space for people to express their expectations and desires from a life partner.
Mahwash Ali, who a member of the group, found out about the group from her brother and joined it. It took her a while to gain the courage to post her profile, but when she saw how comfortable the environment was, she was motivated to post.
Mahwash believes matches are made in heaven but can be found on Facebook too. “I’m currently getting to know someone on the group and in a few conversations we realised we have a lot in common including some mutual friends. Had I met him in a traditional drawing room through a conventional matchmaker, I wouldn’t have been able to know him so well,” she admitted.
The fact that members have access to each other's profiles on Facebook makes the process much more real and transparent, allowing for mutual interests and personal preferences to be identified quickly.
Another major positive change is that in the group, women are vocal with their preferences and what they want in their prospective partners. Some women who post their profiles clearly state that they are invested in their careers and are only looking for partners who will support their goals. This kind of honestly would probably not be possible in a traditional matchmaking setup that involves both families and a tea trolley.
As a society, we hardly give women the option to express their desires during the matchmaking process, but to lead successful lives as couples, both men and women should know what they want and consider their preferences while seeking partners. Areeba understands this.
According to Areeba, another great change wrought by STRA is putting the responsibility on men to be likeable too.
In our patriarchal culture, women have to look pretty but not threateningly beautiful, be skinny but not too thin, be well-educated but not too career oriented... the expectations and double standards are endless. But men don't have bear the burden of being exceptional. In fact, they typically don't have to try very hard at all... until they log onto Skip the Rishta Aunty, where they need to do something to stand apart from the crowd.
In one instance, a guy posted a humorous profile on the group marketing himself as a great potential husband by outlining everything that he could offer and his realistic expectations from a life partner. Areeba tells Images that his profile became a favourite among women. He liked someone there, they spoke and within a month they got married in a simple yet beautiful nikkah ceremony followed by rukhsati on the same day. This is the change she wishes to bring in society — making marriages easier, not complicated.
Traditional practices are so deeply rooted that it is going to take decades to change them. Areeba admits that she feels like some of the worst rishta behaviours have tried to creep into the group as well: for instance, there have been people who have had conversations and seen compatibility, but later rejected their picks due to preconceived beauty standards or material reasons.
"Some men have sent their families to a woman’s place only to reject her because her parents were separated or because she wasn't tall enough. It’s going to take a while to change that but we are on that path finally and the entire point of STRA is to change these behaviours and mindsets."
The group also has people who want to find partners without revealing their identities to everyone. For them, there are anonymous posters available, like Farah Ali. Farah tells Images that it's not just women who want to remain anonymous; sometimes, men are hesitant too, but the whole idea is to facilitate them. “A guy who initially requested me to post his profile anonymously recently got in touch again to thank me. He found his soulmate on the group and is now getting married soon,” she adds.
Even though the group is only four months old, Areeba thinks it’s a success. Besides the fact that it has helped 15 people find their partners already, Areeba has heard from so many women who appreciate the initiative and thank her for creating a safe space where they can look for a partner to share dreams, aspirations and goals with.
A 31-year-old teacher from Karachi who wishes to remain anonymous recently found her life partner on 'Skip the Rishta Aunty'. “I was under a lot of family pressure to get married and they had contacted a traditional rishta aunty but I felt like that objectifies women too much, so I decided to take it into my own hands. I posted my profile on the page in the hopes that I would find someone who would want to be my partner because of the human that I am and not judge me for my looks or height or weight.
And it happened! I found my life partner, who is 35 and working in Dubai. We connected, spoke and then he made a trip to come see me and it got official. The rest, as they say, is history," she tells Images.
With a four-month history, this is just the beginning for a group that’s going to help many young people find love and companionship in a hopeless world without going through the hassle of the traditional matchmaking process.
Illustrations by Fahad Naveed, Neha Awais and Rohail Safdar
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