How Do Dating Apps Work in Places Where Dating is Less Than Legal? - Atlas Obscura
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How Do Dating Apps Work in Places Where Dating is Less Than Legal?

Traditional, ultra-conservative societies like Saudi Arabia are learning to swipe right.

Taking pics or Tindering? You can probably answer that one. (Photo: Tribes of the World/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Saudi Arabia’s infamously conservative society, interaction between single, unrelated members of the opposite sex is off the table, both culturally and legally. Being caught alone with a man who isn’t kin can put a woman in some serious hot water. Her reputation and marriage prospects could be out the window. As for men, they are forbidden from approaching women they don’t know.

With all these restraints, how’s anyone supposed to Tinder?

The internet has opened new doors for single women in highly traditional societies, allowing them to chat with strangers discreetly from their homes, away from the eyes of family members. Saudi Arabia currently has the world’s densest population of Twitter users, and in books such as Girls of Riyadh (2007), written by a Saudi woman, you’ll discover how central and empowering internet communication has become.

But internet chat rooms are one thing and dating apps another. How do you date in a country like Saudi Arabia, where a woman’s every move is monitored?

Turns out that singles in Saudi Arabia don’t use Tinder or Badoo, which are currently the world’s two most popular dating apps. Instead, they log into WhosHere, the most popular meet-up app in both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Nikia Johnson, who works for WhosHere, said in an email that Saudis use the app to make and meet new friends who are in their area or when traveling, as well as to chat and meet with people for dating purposes.

Once married, couples can walk together in public. This family is visiting the Sacred Mosque. (Mohammed Tawsif Salam/CC BY-SA 4.0)

With the help of Susie Khalil, an American blogger living in Jeddah, we conducted a Facebook survey of current Saudi Arabia residents to get their views on dating and the apps that enable it. Most described a culture seemingly incompatible with a service such as WhosHere. In their view, older generations are mostly unaware of such apps and disapprove of dating itself.

“Earlier, even Facebook was taboo,” wrote a 20-year-old Jeddah resident. Two different respondents, both Muslim and married, wrote that those who use apps are not serious or honest. Though these two had not dated, the rest of the respondents had all either nearly been caught themselves, or had heard about less fortunate instances.

One respondent, 33 and married, who has lived her whole life in the country, wrote that dating is not allowed; she does not know anyone using any such apps or websites. Another, a 29 year-old British expat who is Christian, married and has lived in Saudi Arabia for two years, says that she and her husband had to sneak around. “Before I was married, I only saw my husband on the one-kilometer-square compound I lived on,” she wrote. “Going anywhere outside of the compound would risk being deported. We initially got married so we could actually date properly.”

Hold hands at your own risk. (Photo: Muramasa/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Singles eager to mingle in Saudi Arabia may be hoping the country moves in the direction of its northern neighbor, Kuwait, where both locals and expats use official dating sites like WhoseHere, Skout, OKCupid, FriendFinder, Badoo, and Match.com. An American woman who has now lived in Kuwait for 19 years and runs a blog called Desert Girl wrote in an email that she has used them all. She mentioned the same sorts of instances you’d encounter elsewhere—misleading men, hidden polygamy, the development of unexpected friendships.

Kuwait, like Saudi Arabia, is an Islamic society, and when Desert Girl first arrived in 1996, she says that no one would ever date out in public—though that rule didn’t apply to foreigners and married couples. Most marriages were arranged, and any actions a woman took that might be deemed uncouth could bring instant shame on her family. One way that Kuwait got around this was to have restaurants equipped with “cabinas,” private dining rooms where dating would take place behind literal closed doors. Men and women would enter and exit separately and travel in separate cars.

Kuwait’s next generation of dating app users! (Photo: Eric Guzman/Public Domain)

“Now, things have changed dramatically,” writes Desert Girl. Kuwait’s divorce rate is about 50 percent, there are many more women in the workforce, and Kuwaiti women are now marrying foreign men—something that was completely unheard of 10 years ago. Though young people no longer sneak around inordinately, she says, the concept of dating is still new. Older generations (which includes those in their 30s and 40s, she says) still prefer that couples date under supervision or over the phone. And no one wants to admit to their parents that they met online.

India is a little further along the dating-as-acceptable-social-practice spectrum, but safety and verification are still significant issues. Members of India’s number two dating app (after Tinder), called TrulyMadly, must have a “Trust Score” of 30 percent or higher in order to get a match or initiate contact with another user. The Trust Score is created and improved by linking to Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, as well as uploading copies of photo ID such as their passport, voter I-cards, employment verification, and PAN card. The app also rejects any user whose Facebook profile status mentions “married,” to ensure only singles are using the platform. According to Shirin Rai Gupta, a company employee and PR representative, TrulyMadly rejects about 12 percent of the profile photos uploaded each day. Keeping out imposters and married men seems to be the main problem and priority.

India has got some slightly different attitudes towards public hand-holding. (Photo: BollywoodHungama/CC BY 3.0)

User quizzes on values and adaptability allow the app to leverage what they call “psychometric profiling” to determine compatibility. TrulyMadly’s average user age is 23, and India’s top 10 cities account for around 70 percent of their total user base. According to Gupta, research shows that though young people in less urban areas of India are not as open to online dating, social attitudes are rapidly shifting. “We have come a long way in the last few years and dating is slowly getting socially and culturally acceptable,” Gupta wrote in an email.

Cultural acceptance towards modern-day dating and the apps that accompany it falls along a spectrum. In many places it’s become a norm. In places like India, urbanization and increasing use of technology are catalyzing new social and romantic trends. And in Saudi Arabia, companies like WhosHere are trying to tap into a new market that the society doesn’t seem set up for.