My ex-boyfriend and I had a longstanding joke at college about who officially asked the other out.
He’d teasingly claim it was me who posed the question and each time — despite the innocuous intent — he managed to get under my skin. I couldn’t grasp why. Was it because I feared I may be coming on too strong, rushing him? How would the story sound to other people?
Was I dismantling a sacrosanct power that men conventionally held; might he have felt emasculated? If I jumped the gun now, would I regret it down the line, not having a great first relationship anecdote to relate?
Much later, I understood my discomfort was symptomatic of a myth, which, over the years, I had internalised: that for girls, “going-first” is an unsettling prospect, the signal of a voracious, lustful and perhaps “loose-charactered” desperation. If I suggested courtship, that might make me “fast” — a suitable time-pass but not marriage material.
On the other hand, if he popped the question, possibly on the basketball court during half-time, his signal to the world would be clear: that he’s all in, ready to take the plunge. Such possibilities, far-removed from his mind, plagued me incessantly
After my father’s death, my brother imposed a house-rule: no rishtas requiring trolleys and feigning timidity were welcome.
One time, we let the directive slip; as I toyed with the possibility of spending my life with a stranger from Philadelphia, graciously met the family and followed up with pleasantries over email, he disappeared off the face of the earth, leaving me to deal with his ambiguous rejection and my tripping self-esteem.
When he reemerged — ironically the week of my engagement — I realised the blunder was self-inflicted: by giving him the liberty to sack or select me, I had surrendered my dignity and self-worth to the whims of a stranger.
In a country with limited avenues to meet new people, where unchaperoned interaction among the sexes isn’t an everyday affair, finding a soulmate appears fantastical. Isn’t there anyone at work? Can’t your friends introduce you? My mother’s questions would prick, making me wonder if it was time to make new friends.
But seriously, as the years passed and the biological clock ticked, I realised how narrow the window to meet potential partners in Pakistan really was. Despite no rigid boundaries limiting my social interactions, opportunities rarely appeared.
Now imagine what that lattice looks like for girls in tightly controlled homes, where movement is restricted: virtually vacant. That’s how the indispensability of match-makers — middle-men and rishta aunties — arises.
Match-making, much like a contract, involves a calculated risk on investment. Romantic attachment, testing compatibility, experimenting before deciding on “the one”, are considered damaging western influences. In such a context, throwing the possibility of “going first” into the mix, is forbidding.
The result: we settle for life-long companions after ticking boxes of Shia-Sunni, Punjabi-Sindhi-Urdu speaking, bank-balance-dowry and that too, if the opposite party chooses us. That, then, is accompanied with the illogical expectation of instant mutual attraction.
The rishta process mirrors a segment out of a beauty pageant, leaving little that doesn’t objectify the girl. A demure, preferably passive portrait of the candidate, the infamous trolley rolling, followed by “The Waiting”. Did she speak too much? What if they prefer the sister?
Did we leave a striking impression, because first impressions are everything? Questions haunt until the verdict arrives: you’re either selected or rejected. Occasionally, you enter a short-list but the final decision gets revealed once taster sessions with alternative contenders happen.
I don’t know what feels more alarming: the fact that the rishta system rests on such barefaced misogyny or that people at the receiving end haven’t rebelled in significant numbers yet to overthrow the system. The former is probably more terrifying.
The concept of searching, attempting, failing before finding a partner you are introduced to over a screen is new to Pakistan.
Similar to trials and errors in any match-seeking process, this too isn’t hassle-free, nor does it offer guarantees. Stalking, gas-lighting, manipulation and disappearances pose risks. However, it’s a start.
These aren’t random, unverified, free-for-all dating groups. Instead, they are closely monitored, bespoke platforms — regularly gleaned, following strict rules, administered by enlightened individuals — emerging as safe spaces and witnessing early successes.
Through emboldening public expressions of interest, they are redistributing power between the sexes and normalising “going-first”. Crucially, they are toppling the myth of the “ideal” woman.
Online portals, if operated responsibly, can revolutionise traditional notions of seeking romantic relationships. Possibilities for boosting women’s voices and regaining control of their sexuality are wide-ranging.
Women utilising such platforms are conveying a loud and clear message: there’s no shame in expressing choice and society can no longer treat them like real-estate property — viewed, sized up, pitted against competing market options before being purchased or shelved.
I think back to the time a dignified stranger proposed to my sister at the park; they were sitting on the same bench. I recall giggling at women in burqas, furtively attending dates, shielded by canopies at Village Metropole — it seems less amusing today.
My mind wanders to my best friend, forced to welcome a weekly suitor, witnessing “The Waiting” repeatedly; eventually, she stopped counting and married a man she was unlikely to stumble upon whilst serving trolleys.
Then something tells me, by suppressing women’s choices, by assuming “going-first” corresponds with immoral character and by showcasing girls as items on a flash sale, we are closing a dynamic window: of potentially seeking love in a world rapidly filling with hate.
Given marriage involves complex human emotions, multiple lives and vows that partners hope to stick to for life, it’s unfair to treat match-making like window shopping.
In retrospect, my ex had a point: girls, “go first” and unapologetically own it.
Saba Karim is author of the forthcoming novel Skyfall and works at New York University’s global campus in Abu Dhabi. She tweets at @SabaKarim.