Middle East

Iran: Internet dating website launched by state

Woman adjusts a wedding dress in a shop in tehran (file photo)
Image caption Most divorces in Iran occur between couples under the age of 30

With a high rate of divorce among a large, youthful population, authorities in Iran have stepped in to play Cupid with the launch of a state-run internet dating website.

Some 22% of marriages among Iranians end in divorce - a rate which is even higher in the capital, Tehran.

The vast majority occur between couples under 30 - the age group which makes up most of country's population. It is a statistic which is worrying officials.

Announcing the plan earlier this year, Mahmoud Golrazi, the deputy minister for Sports and Youth Affairs, said he hoped the new site would help create "100,000 marriages" and thus "solve the problem of marriage amongst young people".

It was a bold claim, but a sign of the government's determination the reverse the trend.

Hidden profiles

The new site is called hamsan.tebyan.net and is run by the Islamic Development Organisation, an institution under the supervision of the Supreme Leader that promotes the Islamic lifestyle.

It is integrated in tebyan.net, an Islamic lifestyle portal, now catering for its audience's love life.

Hamsan.tebyan.net is run by about 100 people and although it is currently only operational in Tehran, there are plans to expand to other Iranian cities.

Image caption The personal profile section seeks information including parents' marital status and occupations

Users searching for true love are asked to enter basic details, such as height and weight, but also parents' occupation and marital status.

Conventional questions about hobbies, music tastes or favourite films do not appear.

Unlike traditional dating sites, candidates cannot view other users' profiles or even photos of potential matches, as religious authorities deem this immodest.

Only the web administrators can access these and start matching up "compatible" couples.

Whether the site will successfully entice single people, it is too soon to tell, though it has aroused curiosity.

"It is so hard to meet people in Tehran, and this is a good option for people who come from traditional families," a young resident of the capital, Kaveh, told BBC Persian.

However, others sounded more wary than willing.

Ali, also from Tehran, said he would not join, as [his] "matches would be chosen by the people running the website, and I can't trust that they would make the right decision".

"Other websites have arithmetic that match candidates according to their likes and dislikes, but this one is entirely arbitrary," he said.

'Thirty-minute' unions

In a country where internet access and social media is tightly controlled, it seems an unusual step for the government to jump on the online dating bandwagon.

But with around 300 Western-style dating websites operating within Iran, according to Mr Golrazi, the new sanctioned site is meant to draw users away.

Image caption Sex before marriage is illegal in Iran, leading some couples to enter into temporary unions

The existing sites contain what Mr Golrazi called "illegal and immoral" content. Authorities worry that such sites encourage sex before marriage - illegal under Iran's strict application of Sharia law - sometimes through temporary marriages known as sigheh.

Indeed some websites are set up to exploit the practice as a way to circumvent the law specifically for individuals solely interested in sexual relationships.

Under sigheh a union can be as short as 30 minutes, or as long as 99 years. No official papers are required - all that is needed is a simple blessing by a mullah.

It is a mechanism which is permitted for married men who want a second partner, but not for married women, who can face flogging or stoning if caught with another man under Islamic law. However in practice the severest punishments are seldom carried out.

Clerical supervision

Attempts to regulate illegal dating websites have previously been tried and failed. Where sites have been shut down, others have sprung up.

However there are some online matchmaking sites that are run by religious clerics and have the blessing of the government.

The main aim is to encourage marriage and give young Iranians from more conservative backgrounds the comfort they seek in using internet dating by adhering to the traditional concept but with a modern twist.

One example is the Amin Family Center. Singles in search of love enter personal preferences in a partner, and once an online match is found, both parties are invited to an initial face-to-face meeting, which takes place under the supervision of a cleric in a "safe atmosphere", like their office.

To make sure the pair is harmonious, a counsellor is brought in to give an assessment.

If all concerned are happy to take the next step, parents are then invited into the equation.

However, despite the growth of government and private dating sites, there are still plenty of Iranians who do not want to take matchmaking out of the real world.

"I would like to date someone I meet in person," said Mohamed, a young single, from Tehran, "not on the internet". For the state-run site to reach its target, it clearly has some way to go.