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Tinder breaking down barriers in India, one swipe at a time

The majority of young people in India still want an arranged marriage. Yet the "hook up" app is growing more popular by the day.

The US, Australia and much of Europe have already swiped right on Tinder, but the matchmaker is also booming in India, one of the world's most populous markets.

Tinder's Indian user count grew a staggering 400 percent in 2015. Since September last year, the amount of daily swipes has jumped from 7.5 million to 14 million. In a country with a conservative dating culture and high rates of violence against women, an app associated with casual hook ups might not seem like an obvious go-to.

But Tinder is chalking up its success to it giving women more control over romantic interactions. Taru Kapoor, head of Tinder India, boasts that the app allows women to seek connections "without fear of unsolicited attention or judgment."

But how can it do even that, given most of the couples in the country were put together by their parents?

The unspoken rule

Arranged marriages are still the most popular way of meeting a life partner, even among India's younger population.

Getty Images/Blend Images RM

Tinder's popularity may be on the rise, but arranged marriages aren't exactly going out of fashion in India. As of 2013, 75 percent of 18 to 35-year-olds in the country said they wanted an arranged marriage, according to the Taj Wedding Barometer.

This doesn't necessarily shrink Tinder's potential market though, with male user Reem Belsare (who requested his name be changed) from Bengaluru, a relatively progressive part of the country, explaining that Indians have some romantic wiggle room earlier in their adult life.

"India is still conservative when it comes to courtships," he said. "The unspoken rule is that you party while you can, but end up marrying someone of your family's choice."

Tinder user Preeti Sharma (who also requested her name be changed) explains, "the conservative culture takes a back seat when it comes to dating and flings. It is only when you have to take a girl home for marriage all these rules apply."

It's this brief gap in a person's life, where they're old enough to date but young enough to be single, that offers Tinder its market. And for its part, the company is leaning into India's family-oriented courtship process, with Tinder's first video advertisement for the country showing a mother help her daughter prepare for a Tinder date.

But just like technology, the process of arranged marriage is evolving with the times. Dr. Henrike Donner, the University of London, Goldsmith's senior lecturer in anthropology, explains that "expectations about how [arranged marriage] comes about, consent and conjugality have changed."

She says that "love and affection" are the basis of marriage among India's middle-class city dwellers, and that these values "are increasingly integrated in ideas about either love or arranged marriages."

Sharma puts it in practical terms, saying that her grandparents never met each other until the day of their marriage, while her parents were able to view a profile of their prospective partner and give a yea or nay based on it before the big day.

Today, she says that an "arranged marriage" can simply mean parents having the final say. She's not made to marry anyone, but her parents need to approve her partner.

"This is the kind of marriage I approve of," she says. "It feels safer. My parents...are my best friends. Their confidence and approval is reassuring."

So, while family-arranged marriages are still largely the norm, there's room for Tinder to play a part in the process rather than oppose it completely.

The Facebook connection

Tinder's popularity in India is partially due to the influence of western culture, with shows like "How I Met Your Mother" sensationalising the casual dating scene, one user says.

CBS

Online dating is far from new in India, but Tinder has become popular for two reasons: It's connected to Facebook and it's from the west.

The Facebook part is easy to understand. It helps women, in a country where crimes committed against them are reported every two minutes, to get basic information about a person. Education, common interests and common friends are need-to-knows before a meeting takes place.

"There are a lot of creepy men and women out there on Tinder or for that matter anywhere on Earth. I think one has to be prudent while swiping right," Sharma says. "I like Tinder because it uses Facebook...it's easier to build trust when we have a friend in common."

Another Tinder user, student Annabel Alley, said that while she feels the app "isn't very safe," the threat of violence varies greatly from place to place. She pointed to several regions in which she wouldn't dare to use Tinder, but was comfortable doing so in places like Mumbai and Kolkata.

Donner refutes the idea that Tinder is more dangerous than any other form of interaction, however. "Every dating culture bears the threat of violence," she says frankly. "Whether contact is made via the Internet or the old-fashioned means of a letter."

The second factor, it being American, is a bit more peculiar. Our anonymous swiper from Bengaluru explains, "We initially had shows like 'Friends', 'Two & A Half Men' and 'How I Met Your Mother' which glorified the whole dating scene, not to mention countless movies which did the same."

As a result, he says, "there is a whole generation which grew up [watching these] shows...and there are an increasing number of people with smartphones and disposable income who are willing to try out new experiences."

Speaking more bluntly, Tinder user Ajas Mohamed claims "most of us are wannabe Westerners but deep inside we don't know how to escape our cultural upbringing that made us believe attraction towards the opposite sex is something to be ashamed of."

Tinder, being a big name brand from the US, gives those that are west-obsessed in the country a chance to party like the westerners do.

So does it work?

Tinder

For all the talk about Tinder's growing user base, there's still a question as to whether or not it's effective at connecting people.

And though the company boasts about its popularity among women, many peoples' experiences say that female engagement still isn't quite high enough.

"It's overpopulated by guys here," says swiper Archit Garg. "Girls don't sign up that much or the kind I have seen on it are not really interested in dating, it's more of a 'bored in college so let me swipe a little.' Most of my friends who have tried didn't really find it helpful, again because of the low number of girls on the app."

And while there aren't enough girls for the guys, Sharma says there aren't enough genuine guys for the girls.

"Sixty percent of the men whom I had swiped right were married and in a committed relationship," she claimed, estimating that only around 20 percent of the men on the app were single and looking for a partner. And many of these, she says, "were inhibited by various fears [such as] their parents not approving due to [differences in] caste or religion."

Donner was dubious on Tinder's ability to make a sweeping change on the country's dating culture, pointing out that "merely downloading the app does not indicate a willingness to hook up, and simply uploading one's photo does not in any way indicate sexual availability.

"In most contexts, social control by family, neighbours, friends and the public is exercised even where someone has downloaded Tinder," she says.

Tinder's Kapoor thinks otherwise.

"India has one of the largest youth populations in the world who are now defining a lot of trends globally. They are contributing to the evolution of the way people meet in India.

"It's the user that defines their desired outcome," she says. "Tinder is what you make of it."

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