India's Dating Sites Skip Straight to the Wedding

The online dating scene in India is primarily matrimonial websites, predicated on the idea that the first meeting between two paired users will be to chat about their wedding. It highlights a false dichotomy between modern arranged marriages and fairytale love.
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(Parivartan Sharma/Reuters)

Last week, I joined Shaadi.com, India’s oldest and most popular matrimonial website.

Call it anthropological curiosity; call it a metric of my own narcissism. Call it acclimating to the Indian single life after coming of age in the West, where India is often seen as a country of arranged marriages and impenetrable glass ceilings. If there’s truth to caricature, then call my joining the online matrimony network a modern-day leap onto a bandwagon of millennia-old social custom.

“Shaadi” is the Hindi word for wedding; Shaadi.com is, intuitively, a wedding arranged via the Internet. It’s one of more than 100 Indian websites that comprise the country’s thriving online matrimonial market, where an individual can browse for his or her ideal spouse among a catalog of potential candidates organized by the personal information that apparently matters most: religion, caste, income, fairness of skin, family background, and so on.

Imagine eHarmony if it cut to the chase. Unlike online dating services, which at least superficially foster some sort of romantic connection, and which are effectively nonexistent in India, matrimonial websites are predicated on the idea that the first meeting between two paired users will be to chat about their wedding. They succeed for the same reason every online resource does: They offer convenience and expediency in an arena with high demand for it.

It’s connubial bliss for a 21st-century India, where, by some estimates, 90 percent of marriages still classify as “arranged”—in other words, established on factors other than mutual love and attraction between the bride and groom. What those factors are, exactly, has changed as the country has, but the crux of the matter remains constant: if you’re an Indian woman, it’s statistically likely that your parents will choose the man with whom you spend the rest of your life.

More than 22 million Indians—around one of every eight who use the Internet—use the country’s matrimonial sites, according to a recent review of India’s Internet Economy Watch Report. In June, the Delhi-based Economic Times valued the online matrimony market at around 5.1 billion Indian rupees (roughly $81 million)with an annual growth rate of 30 percent: a rose in the snowdrift of the Indian economy, whose recent erratic nature has shaken everything from exchange rates to onion prices.

For those in the West, it probably isn’t particularly surprising that Internet matrimony is one of India’s most lucrative and omnipresent online industries. A few years back, a media psychologist named Srividya Ramasubramanian examined 24 American and British films about India for the prevalence and portrayal of certain tropes and saw little more than a country “consistently portrayed as backward, uncivilized, savage, and traditional.” The Western notion of “Indian-ness,” Ramasubramanian writes, is predicated upon a sense of Occidental superiority, complicit with a sort of “cultural imperialism… by establishing Indian peoples as inferior and incompetent who need to be civilized.”

Ramasubramanian’s study qualitatively confirms that the India offered to us in the West is an India of “inept subordinates” who deserve either our scorn or sympathy. It is a caricature consisting of the most cartoonish and visceral stereotypes—child marriage, bride burning, snake charmers, etc.—that reinforces the idea of the country as a pitiably primitive slum, especially when it comes to Indian women.

The movie Slumdog Millionaire presents female love interest Latika’s sexual slavery as an inevitability of her birthright as an orphan. Bend It Like Beckham finds its central conflict in the struggle between Jess, our 18-year-old British-Indian protagonist, and her traditional Sikh parents’ ideas of womanhood and marriage.

“It’s just culture,” says Jess, who the movie leaves us to assume has never been to India. She later concludes that the only way to deal with Just Culture is to get farther from it, heading, naturally, to America.

I made my Shaadi.com profile as an American in New Delhi, where I have been since June, who has watched from both places as this caricature of a backwards, misogynistic India evolved over the last year from comedy fodder to a target of international criticism. This happened after one night last December, when five men drank whiskey in south Delhi and boarded a local bus, where, joined by the driver, they used iron rods to sexually penetrate and fatally maim a 23-year-old physiotherapy student heading back from a movie with her boyfriend.

The fallout was unprecedentedly huge. The collective outcry by the country’s long-silent women amplified and confirmed the clichéd association between India and sexual violence. In December, Delhi’s Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit described her city as a “rape capital;” in June, the New York Times reported that visits by female tourists to India had dropped by 35 percent in the first months of 2013.

I joined Shaadi.com to explore the “labyrinth of complicated patriarchy,” as Time Magazine recently labeled India that has borne the brunt of global criticism in light of the Delhi gang rape last winter and the string of publicized sexual crimes since. You can blame the inefficient government bureaucracy and you can blame the understaffed Delhi police, but patriarchy, the article said, teaches Indian men to hate Indian women. It teaches them to disenfranchise women and to rape them without guilt. It renders women a commodity, and marriage a property transaction.

This is why matrimonial websites attract controversy. They operate at the awkward nexus in modern Indian society between intracultural custom and intercultural connectivity, a conflict-prone junction built by a sudden 20-year economic boom that came without a societal user’s manual. The average Indian man is likely more financially successful and socially engaged than his father—more likely to have a car and a Facebook page—but the popularity of matrimonial websites might suggest that he is simply using these resources to preserve an antiquated and gender-prejudiced conception of marriage that’s counterintuitive to modernization, at least by the Western definition.

The popular Western view of things is tricky, though, because we generally anticipate a “false dichotomy” between arranged marriages and love marriages. In other words, you marry someone because you’re in love with them, or you marry someone because your parents tell you to.

By this binary logic, my Shaadi.com membership should have been a tragic failure. This was not the case. Within 12 hours I’d received two Matches, the website’s term for a member who has returned your attention with a fellow click of the Send Interest button. Deepika S., 18, is an undergraduate at a top Delhi university; Nishita B., 22, has a graduate degree in molecular biology from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.

If we take the traditional Indian conception of marriage at face value, the biography on my profile—three or four sentences, much shorter than the extensive personality inquisitions demanded by Western dating sites—should have kept me out of the matrimonial running. Sure, I’d have my points of appeal, namely in the sections reserved for Education (Bachelor’s) and Complexion (Very Fair). A college degree is increasingly synonymous in India with financial success, and colonialism has left the country with the belief that the lightness of one’s skin is directly proportionate to his or her existential well-being—a notion so entrenched in the Indian psyche that, as The Atlantic reported in August, television commercials for skin-bleaching creams like Pond’s White Beauty claim to secure you a better husband.

But the traditional idea of marriage here is an ethnocentric one, designed to preserve the social taxonomy of the caste system that first calcified with the dawn of early Hinduism in the fourth century. I belong to no caste; I am not Hindu; I have no Indian heritage. By those standards, I had nothing to offer.

My initial experience on Shaadi.com tempted me with optimism. These women, I thought, don’t care about my background, and they’re hardly victims of misogynistic enslavement. For them, matrimonial websites simply seemed to be a matter of convenience, a casual way to meet other singles online in a country where dating sites haven’t really taken off.

India is a country where sex is “something that’s both sort of resented and incredibly desired,” Kevin, a 20-year-old college student in Delhi told me, and the Internet provides a sort of parallel community respited from traditional restrictions on the libido. There are 44 million Indians who now have smartphones, giving casual-encounter-driven “hookup apps” like Tinder a huge market. Tinder’s CMO said in September was seeing a 3 to 4 percent daily growth in its Indian user base.

Kevin is a gay Indian who grew up in Europe before returning to a country with a long tradition of oppressing homosexuals. Informal hookups, he said, were once reserved for “roadside motels or crowded and neglected parts of the city,” and more serious relationships faced a pervasive public stigma.

Today, he said, most of his gay acquaintances use networking apps like Grindr and GayRomeo. They’re good for hush-hush hookups, yes, but also offer a genuine opportunity for social networking in the purest sense, and their nascent popularity—Grindr has more than 11,000 members in India—gives some previously unseen cohesion and credence to India’s fledgling gay community.

While matrimonial websites might offer a wider forum for interaction, it’s all in the service of a specific goal. Shaadi.com’s recent advertisements offer love as a selling point, but at the end of the day, it and other matrimonial sites operate on the premise that a lifelong partnership can be built on a quick list of bio-data. Unlike Western dating sites, which boast lengthy personality surveys and algorithms for optimizing compatibility, a Shaadi.com profile consists of a paragraph-long biography that takes about five minutes to fill out.

This, according to political scientist Dr. Amit Ahuja, is the underlying “principle of exchange” that defines the arranged marriage market in India. You’re marrying someone for the biographical perks of association. His use of the word “market” isn’t accidental. When Indian entrepreneur Anupam Mittal created Shaadi.com in 1996, all he was really doing was modernizing a millennia-old operation, rendering the professional marriage broker almost obsolete in urban areas and posing competition to Indian newspapers, which have long turned a profit on matrimonial ads in their classified pages. 

In a recent examination of the Indian marriage market, Ahuja and a Berkeley graduate student named Susan L. Ostermann focused their attention to the Internet, collecting around 1000 profiles from the country’s three most popular matrimonial sites: Shaadi.com, BharatMatrimony.com, and Jeevansathi.com.

I imagine the initial data collection was quite easy: on Shaadi.com, for instance, all one requires is an email address to make a free Profile, which gives one quick access to the site’s 20 million Members. Upgrade to a Gold membership—3390 rupees, or around $50, for three months—and you’re able to send a direct Email or Instant Message to a potential Match to express your Interest. Shaadi.com likes proper nouns.

While the Indian government struggles to successfully document its population—of the 26 million Indian babies born each year, only about half will receive a state birth certificate—matrimonial sites collectively boast one of the country’s most comprehensive identity databases. They are so accessible that the Indian Mujahideen, an Islamic extremist group, has turned to online marital profiles for photos and information when forging identification cards for its foot soldiers.

Ahuja and Ostermann’s results affirmed the most superficial interpretation of my Shaadi.com experience: that even arranged marriages are no longer a device to perpetuate the rigid Indian social hierarchy. Sixty percent of individuals gave no regard to their desired partner’s caste. So if marriages no longer serve a wider societal purpose, then shouldn’t individuals have greater say in whom they marry?

The short answer is no; the long answer spans the last 22 years. The vast majority of Indians who use matrimonial sites, Ahuja told me, belong to the country’s urban middle class, a demographic that was virtually nonexistent until 1991, when the liberalization of the Indian economy prompted the explosion of the domestic consumer market. An exploding consumer economy created a swath of service jobs that lifted literally hundreds of millions of Indians from rural poverty to economic betterment in urban areas.

This subpopulation stands at the intersection of tradition and modernization with some evident difficulty. It was the middle class that lashed out after the Delhi gang rape, but it was six middle-class men who committed the crime, emboldened by whiskey and comfort in the fact that police were too ambivalent and women generally too subdued to respond. “Not to worry, nothing will happen,” Ram Singh, the leader of the attack last December, is reported to have said as he prepared to disembark the bus.

As the Indian middle class continues to grow, its identity will rely more and more on a common “relationship with the state and society,” as anthropologist Henrike Donner puts it. Or, in other words, the manner in which it adapts to a changing India. Urbanization has reduced the dependence on caste identity, but whichever identity replaces it serves the same function in social institutions. The traditional conception of marriage—“arranged, heterosexual, and lifelong unions,” by Donner’s definition—remains firmly intact, and even for middle-class women who can get a college degree, “motherhood is destiny.” The financial luxury of staying home from work is a tool of good parenting, as is access to medical technologies like selective Caesarean sections—which allow parents to arrange a more astrologically favorable birthday for their child.

I deleted my Shaadi.com account after a brief conversation with Nishita B., whose sophistication and advanced degrees seemed to indicate a standard of romantic and social independence, a paradigm of the modern Indian woman. I’d only glanced at her profile once before, but after we talked—she seemed skeptical of my plans to stay in India—I looked at it again, curious as to what she was really seeking in a spouse.

“We are looking for a suitable match for our daughter,” Nishita’s information section read. “We want our future son-in-law to be humble, kind, compassionate, and a well-settled person… someone who is a good mix of traditional and modern values.”

In two weeks, I will return home to the U.S. for the holidays, where the idea of India likely persists as little more than the hovels of Slumdog Millionaire and “relentless sexual harassment.” If India’s middle-class is indeed charged with the task of creating the country’s ethos, then I’m leaving a country whose ethos suggests that the path to development might be cumbersome. I’m returning to the U.S., which gave me this narrow and imperial conception of “development;” I’m leaving a place where the “Indian Century” is still in its dawn. I’m returning home unmarried, and quite happily so, but I’ll be back.

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P. Nash Jenkins is a Baltimore-based writer and holds a Louis Azrael Fellowship in Communications at Johns Hopkins University.

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