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     Volume 6 Issue 41 | October 26, 2007 |

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Cover Story

Professional Cupids
At Biye Shaadi, profiles of members are neatly organised according to their profession, religion and requirements.

Everyone wants to find that certain someone to spend the rest of their lives with. But it is not always as easy as it seems. There are many obstacles along the way and various matchmaking agencies have come up with ways to help the lonely hearts of Bangladesh live happily ever after.

Srabonti Narmeen Ali and Hana Shams Ahmed

Farhad and Tamanna’s marriage has some elements of a fairy tale. For them it was love at first sight. When they met for the first time they both knew that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with each other. In a month’s time that dream came true and the couple got married in March 2006. But theirs wasn’t a chance meeting. They did not stumble upon each other accidentally like in a conventional fairy tale story. Their successful union came about with the help of a marriage agency where they registered to find their ideal candidate.

Squadron Leader Farhad Bashar and Nuri Sabiha Tamanna, a fourth year medical student at Salimullah Medical College became members of a marriage agency called Biye Shaadi and laid out their individual requirements for a spouse. Why this unconventional method of finding a partner? "The main reason I chose to get married through an agency," says Farhad, "is because I don’t have any relatives in Dhaka, which is the main way people get the word around that someone wants to get married." Farhad's parents gave his CV to the agency and he was given a registration number as a member after paying a fee of Tk. 2,000. "I filled up their form which had details about my education, work etc and was shown CVs of prospective brides." Tamanna was the second girl Farhad met through the agency and liked her instantly.

It is fair to say that the majority of the human population will, at some point, find a life partner -- someone who they come home to at the end of a long, tiring day at work, someone who they can share themselves with minus any inhibitions, someone who they will start a family with. It is also, however, a reality, that most people spend half their lives looking for that special someone with very little success. Girls dream of their Prince Charming from their rooms, boys make conscious attempts to talk to that special girl, but what comes out of it? A slew of unfulfilled dreams and the very acute realisation that one might just say the completely wrong thing, or worse, get rejected.

A prospective bride and groom usually meet each other with their guardians in a public place and decide whether they want to take the relationship further.

Aside from these every day issues there are also scores of other obstacles that come in the way of women and men finding their life partners in Bangladesh, the main one being that ‘dating’ is still culturally frowned upon. It gets increasingly hard to meet and get to know members of the opposite sex without constantly worrying about being discovered. On the other side of the coin, even arranged marriages (at least the modern ones in which the boy and girl usually meet a few times 'to get to know each other') pose a slight problem -- what if you hate the person and then have to go through the embarrassment of rejecting him or her? In most cases these matches are made by family friends or people who somehow know or are connected to each other in some way, and as a result, having to go home and say that it is not going to work would be a nightmare.

So what are the options for the singles who are ready to mingle, but perhaps do not have the opportunity to do so? In the last few decades a number of matchmaking organisations have come into business solely for these singles -- those who want to find their one and only, but neither do they have the chance nor the time.

Gazi Ashraf Hossain popularly known as Pakhi Bhai has been involved in the business of matchmaking for more than 40 years now and is a pioneer of sorts. Sixty-twp-year-old Hossain claims to have successfully sealed more than 8,000 marriages. But Hossain says that people still feel they will be stigmatised by others if they knew that their marriage was arranged by professionals. "They somehow feel disgraced by it," he says, "although more people are taking help from agencies these days than ever before."

Pakhi Bhai is a pioneer in the matchmaking business

Hossain says that because people are so busy with their work they don’t have the time to meet people and find a partner for themselves. "These arrangements used to be made by relatives in the earlier days," continues Hossain, "but relatives are also too busy with their own work as well."

Hossain was very young when he got into this business. After finishing school he got into a job but arranged marriages for his friends and acquaintances. When he came to Dhaka he realised that there was a need for such a service in a much bigger way. Ghotok Pakhi Bhai Pvt Ltd has been running successfully ever since independence. After his Old Dhaka office started to get too crowded he took an office at Eastern Plaza and has been operating from there for 16 years now.

People come to Pakhi Bhai's marriage agency and ask for a bride and groom with certain qualities and qualifications. The agency then provides them with the CVs of people who have such qualities. A bride/groom (or their guardians) narrow down the choices and the agency calls the other party up for a possible first meeting. The parties who agree then meet each other in a 'viewing room' attached to Pakhi Bhai's office. After a satisfactory first meeting the talks and negotiations take off from there.

Syed Khalilur Rahman thinks that it is a shame that people still stigmatise the concept of marriage agencies while the demand for the service keeps going up

A big risk in arranging a marriage in this way is that parties may lie about their qualifications or hide certain negative information about themselves. Hossain, pointing to a huge stack of CVs of doctors, engineers and army personnel is adamant that those who come to his agency are highly skilled professionals and would never lie about their qualifications. But he also agrees that it is ultimately the duty of the members and their families to find out information about each other. "We just give them the choices," he adds.

But how relevant is such an agency in a society where young people prefer to fall in love and get married? Hossain thinks that this is a very narrow view. "There are still thousands of girls in the city who don’t go around much and are not capable of finding their own partners," he says. "There are fathers who can't eat or sleep because they have sons and daughters who they can't marry off. They need a medium that can lessen their troubles. They come to us and we relieve them of their tension."

The silver screen might still portray the typical matchmaker or ghotok as a bent old barely educated man with a walking stick and black umbrella going from house to house in a village looking for beautiful young girls to trap into his net, trying to convince her parents that a 50-year-old divorced shady businessman with two earlier marriages and four kids is the perfect 'catch' for their 16-year-old. But the reality of the modern-day ghotok couldn't be further from this image as can be seen from 35-year-old Syed Khalilur Rahman.

After completing his M. Com in Management, Rahman worked in an ad agency for sometime. A relative of his came from the US and wanted to give an advertisement through his firm for a possible doctor husband. There was an overwhelming response from doctors in Dhaka. After his relative found her match from among them, Rahman also got involved with finding matches for the respondents who were turned down. This made him realise what a huge need there was for such a service and started the matchmaking agency Biye Shaadi eight years ago.

"Initially we did not take any charges, we took whatever was given to us," says Rahman, "but then when we started doing it on a larger scale we decided to charge a fee." Now the agency charges an initial registration fee of Tk. 2,000 and after a successful marriage both parties have to give a closing fee of Tk. 10,000 each. For someone living outside Bangladesh the closing fee is Tk. 20,000.

One of the many successful marriages that have taken place through Biye Shaadi

According to Rahman, almost 90% of the weddings taking place in Dhaka these days are arranged through some form of media. But there is still a huge amount of prejudice and stigma surrounding such professional matchmaking. Although a few people invite the matchmakers to the weddings, still too many don’t. "They think that if I get my dues it is not necessary for me to be present at the wedding itself," says Rahman. Even if they are invited, no one introduces the matchmakers as what they are. Rahman laments that most people still ask him to pretend to be a relative or friend and keep his identity secret. This not only deprives the matchmakers from getting their due credits and also the opportunity to spread the word about the company for prospective clients.

Even if it is not an agency, Rahman believes that most marriages have to be negotiated through some kind of negotiator. "If the two parties negotiate with each other, that marriage will never materialise, because there will be obvious misunderstandings," he says, "although the wedding takes place between a man and a woman, in our society the negotiations still take place between their guardians, and the two parties will invariably want to dominate and put each other down."

Although the sorting process may seem offensive to many people the end results in many cases seem to be two satisfied customers, which ultimately justifies the means. "There is no end to people's requirements," says Rahman, "but it is when a person understands his/her limitations that an ideal match can be made."

Many unsatisfied customers who come to the agencies with unreasonable demands according to Rahman spread a bad word about them. Rahman tells the story of two men who once came to Biye Shaadi and wanted to get married to foreign citizens. One of them had completed his HSC and was unemployed and the other was a graduate and doing a small job. "When I told them that they couldn’t marry foreign citizens with their qualifications and refused to register them, they walked off saying that my agency was a fraud!"

Although it is impossible to check every detail about a member, some supporting documents are essential to be submitted, especially in case of those who live abroad. "They have to show their passport if they claim to be citizens of a certain country, and if they say they are doing a PhD from a certain university they have to show proof of that."

The real frauds, Rahman says, don’t have any offices. They ask the prospective groom to meet at a restaurant and hire a girl saying that she lives abroad and would take him with her after marriage. "These simple people come all the way from the villages in the hope of going abroad," he says, "and the frauds make off with the registration fees and come on again with a different cell phone number."

It is commonly believed that it’s only those who are too old or too unattractive or have some sort of impairment, that go to marriage agencies as a last resort for help. "But when I started working," says Rahman, "I found out that in fact highly qualified professionals come to the agencies for help because they are too busy to find partners for themselves."

Ishrat Jahan Jui got married this month with Biye Shaadi's help. Twenty-five-year-old Ishrat believes that the social set up of our country is such that an arrangement is the best way to get married. "I can choose from prospective grooms for someone who is the best match for me."

Ishrat's sister approached the agency and went through some CVs and when she found someone she thought was a good match, asked her to meet him. "We both liked each other instantly and got engaged." Her husband, 30-year-old Jahirul Islam Riyaz who lives in Canada, recently came back and the formal ceremonies were held.

Although Ishrat, who is studying for an Honours in Philosophy from Eden College, says that there is nothing wrong with falling in love and getting married, she also adds, "it's very important in our social set up for parents to be involved in a marriage and that does not always happen in a love marriage."

A 'viewing room' at Pakhi Bhai's office

Aside from the social requirements of family members being directly involved in marriages, many people also feel that it would be easier to have a professional do the so-called heavy-lifting job of finding someone. People like 31-year-old Jamal Hossain, for example, who met his wife, Shazreen Farooq, through Biye Shaadi, learned about the organisation through an advertisement in the newspaper.

"I saw the ad in the paper and I contacted the organisation," says Jamal. "I wanted to know exactly what I was getting into. Many of these organisations take your money and they do not do deliver so I wanted to make sure that it was legitimate. They gave me a book with a number of women's pictures and their bio data and I chose the girls that I thought were the best suited with me. They have a similar book for WOMEN with all the guys’ pictures."

Jamal initially found about five or six women that he liked -- women who were all from a good background, well-educated, presentable and well-mannered -- before he met 28-year-old Shazreen. They met at the agency itself so as to avoid public outings and within 15 to 20 days, they were married.

Although going to the agency was a success for him, Jamal feels that it is an individual choice. "It is not for everyone," he says. "I mean, the reason I went to the agency is because I just did not have the time to find someone. I was always busy and I guess for people like me it is easier for someone else to do the job for you, especially if they do background checks and make sure that the person is legitimate."

However, many agencies feel that time is of the utmost importance when dealing with such a matter. For example, Mostafa Shiblee, CEO of Badhon.com, does not believe that any relationship can be made overnight and therefore tries to discourage his clients from getting into a relationship too fast. Shiblee started Badhon twelve years ago in 1995 with his then business partner Monika Parveen. Originally, Badhon used to offer 'manual services,' in which a staff of 20 would make all the arrangements between the two people concerned. However, as the agency grew, so did the number of customers, making it near impossible for Shiblee and his staff of 20 people to manage everyone.

"Because it was beyond our capacity and also, everyone wanted me to be personally involved in all the cases, which is impossible for me, we converted to online services in 2000," says Shiblee. "Badhon.com is now an interactive site on which people can meet each other. It's quite simple, you do not have to be a member of our site to view other people's profiles, but if you want to contact anyone on the website, you have to get a scratch card, with a PIN number which activates your membership. Membership fees are Tk. 300 for a one-month scratch card, Tk. 500 for two months and Tk. 1500 for a year. However, discounts are available year-round. Interestingly enough, when we were offering manual services, 70% of my customers were women and 30% were men. When we became a website the ratio switched. "

The reason for this switch may be because fewer women have access to or are familiar with the internet. Or perhaps women are just wearier of putting up personal information on the web. The switch to the internet may be easier for the organisation, but it has also made it more difficult to be able to tell whether people are being honest on their profiles. Like Pakhi Bhai and Rahman, Shiblee also recognises that the main hurdle of matchmaking is making sure that all the clients involved are legitimate and telling the truth. It is also harder to determine whether someone is being honest when dealing with an interactive online website such as Badhon.

"I agree that this is a huge issue, and when we are asked to do background checks, we try to help out as much as we can," says Shiblee, "but it is also true that people can be dishonest even when they meet face to face. It is definitely easier on the web to hide certain things, but that is why I keep saying that no one should rush into any relationship. This is a huge decision, something that will affect you for the rest of your life and you cannot just decide in 12 hours that you want to marry someone. You have to get to know people and take your time before you come to that decision."

Some agencies, in order to avoid matchmaking disasters, hire counsellors who will not only do background checks but also attempt to match people according to similar backgrounds. Such an organisation is Biye Point, part of the parent company WebBangladesh.com which was running an interactive site called Deshi Love for the last seven years. Under the leadership of CEO Masud Ahmed, Najneen Sultana, Chief Operating Officer (COO) and psychologist Sultan Ahmed, the company decided to move forward and start a matrimonial services site when their users, 30,000 of whom were living abroad, requested them to do so. The process begins by having the customer fill out a detailed questionnaire, which then gives the agency an idea of the person's personality and preference. This is followed by a private consultation between the person and the organisation. After this consultation the person may become a member and the introduction phase starts. Once the counsellors have found a prospective bride or groom they will charge the member Tk. 2,000. If the couple decide to get married it is an additional Tk. 10,000.

Farhad and Tamanna have been happily married with the help of a marriage agency.

Like Badhon, the majority of their online users are men, and they also face many problems because the internet is not as widely accessible as they would have liked. "For many people, it is really just a concept," says Ahmed. "Many of them do not know how it works. Many probably think that we are just like regular ghotoks. Thankfully we are overcoming these misgivings and day-by-day the response is improving. The biggest obstacle is promoting the concept of a matrimonial centre in Bangladesh because the general public seems have a natural distrust for anything related to the media. These are obstacles that will take time to overcome but I am sure we will be able to with our special care, honesty and transparency."

Like Shiblee, Ahmed also stresses the importance of not rushing into anything. We believe that the process of finding the right partner is too important to rush," says Ahmed. "Some successful pairings occur within a few months, others after a year, and sometimes it takes much longer. To meet the right person, one must be prepared to be patient, realistic and a little vulnerable. It is a growing process, but once they make the decision to go forward, the rewards are immeasurable."

Meeting the right person is always a struggle, especially because marriage is not something to be taken lightly. In a culture such as ours, where many people have to live in joint families and where marriages are not just between two individuals, but two families, there is a lot of pressure to find the perfect match. But what happens when people either do not have the time or the resources to do so? It is in these cases that marriage agencies step in and take the very heavy load off of our shoulders. Despite all the negative stereotypes attached to these agencies, the legitimate ones are making a difference in people’s lives.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007