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     Volume 8 Issue 62 | March 20, 2009 |

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Cover Story

Love @ First Byte

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

By all appearances Nusrat Azim was a particularly happy and well-adjusted young woman. She had always wanted to be a doctor, and was well on the way to fulfilling her dream. A fourth year student of Dhaka Medical College, she was popular among her classmates who knew her as a kind, decent if slightly reserved human being. Nusrat was an active member of Shandhani, a volunteer organisation, and loved to sandwich a bit of social work in between studying and devouring movies on HBO. A safe secure and well-balanced existence. But all that changed in a flash one evening when her mobile phone rang. The male voice at the other end introduced himself as Palash, a final year student of civil engineering at BUET. He had got her number from a friend, he said, and wanted to get to know her. Ami ki apnar shathe kotha bolte pari? She brushed him off. But he called again the next day, and then the next. Grudgingly, she began to talk. Palash turned out to be extremely glib and persuasive. The conversation soon turned romantic, and within six weeks they had exchanged vows of love.

The internet and mobile phones have opened up a whole new social frontier. Photo: Zain Al Mahmood

Palash proposed over fried chicken at a fast food joint, and they become “engaged”. Nusrat's friends, although initially skeptical, were won over and soon she prepared to break it to her parents. Then came the phone call that was to shatter her peace of mind. A man called her and said Palash was not a student of engineering. He was in fact doing a BA at Titumir College. The anonymous caller even gave her his class roll number.

Throughout the tears and recriminations that followed, Palash kept insisting he had lied because he loved her. Nusrat was in the depths of despair. But in spite of everything, she could not bring herself to make a clean break. “I'm too deeply involved,” she kept telling her friends. Torn between loyalty to Palash and anguish at his deception, she became clinically depressed. Her grades went down, and she failed her professional MBBS examination in January 2008.

Rizwan Ahmed, a 31-year-old businessman, thought he had found the girl of his dreams when he met Rosy. She was good-looking, vivacious and fun to be with. They had “met” in a chat room and exchanged phone numbers. After the first mobile calls went well, they met up in a shopping mall. For Rizwan it was love at first sight. He ignored the fact that she always seemed a little vague about where she studied. He showered her with gifts, and spent more and more time in her company. One day, she invited her to his home. Her parents were away, she said, and she had cooked especially for him. Rizwan arrived at the address in Shaplabagh with a box of orchids. The area seemed run down and the house seemed deserted. Rosy led him to the drawing room and asked him to wait while she “changed.” She never returned.

Six men -- local goons -- came in and accused Rizwan of “harassing” a local girl. They forced him to give them his wallet and mobile phone. They took his photograph. If he came back, or called again, they would “take action” they said. Rizwan went away shaken and nursing a bruised ego. He tried calling Rosy's number, but it was always switched off. He never heard from “Rosy” again.

Nusrat and Rizwan are not isolated cases. Focus groups and anecdotal evidence clearly show that more and more people in Bangladesh are looking for romantic love as the preferred route to finding their life partners. This “love boom” -- aided by technology and spurred on by the media -- is pushing at the boundaries of tradition. But for many people these are uncharted waters, and the new era of openness holds unexpected pitfalls for the unwary. Also, the very technology that helps us maneuver between social barriers can sometimes leave us dangerously exposed.

The problem is not the technology or the new social norms but the way in which we use them, according to Dr. Khondoker Mokaddem Hossain, Professor of Sociology at Dhaka University. “Our society is in a sense in transition,” says Professor Hossain. “The influence of the family and that of religion is waning on today's young adults. The cultural influence of the media-- movies, the internet and mobile phones-- cannot be ignored. Our young people see what their counterparts in other countries are doing, and naturally they feel the urge to do the same. But ours is a society still rooted in tradition. Our young people may not yet have the social attitude and tools that their counterparts in the West and even India may have. Therein lies the conflict.”

Attitudes towards courtship and marriage are certainly changing in our society. With the advent of technology, 'spreading the net' in our search for that special someone has taken on a whole new meaning. It is not only incredibly interesting, but for the first time in man's social evolution, distance and locality do not seem to pose the problems they once did. This is liberating, but it can also open the door to deception, misrepresentation and sometimes downright criminal activity.

Theoretically it has never been easier to push the right buttons in search of a compatible partner. Numerous chat sites and online dating sites cater to lonely hearts. If you want to organise your social life online and meet compatible people, you have Facebook or Myspace. Many people are successfully blurring the lines between social networking sites and dating sites and bringing a more sociable, interactive element into online dating. The popularity of FM band radio has also added a new element.

Then of course there is the ubiquitous mobile phone. Mobile phones today are game consoles, still cameras, video recorders, email systems, text messengers, carriers of entertainment and business data-- all rolled in one sensual package. The mobile phone is not simply a gadget; it is also a style icon that is changing our cultural norms and values.

Sania Ahmed, a 24-year-old graphics designer who works for a multinational company, believes the proliferation of communications technology has opened up whole new vistas for young people. “At the age of 16 I would be pretty well insulated,” she said. “Even if I worked, I would have little chance of interaction with others especially men. Now, thanks to email, facebook and my mobile phone I can stay in touch. I have greater control over my life.”

Sania, however, knows of many examples among her circle of friends where the new found freedom has been abused, and she says bad attitudes are to blame. “With freedom comes responsibility,” she says. “I couldn't live without my mobile phone. But a lot of people abuse the mobile. I get so many annoying calls on my phone from strangers-- some are downright scary. When mobile phone operators started offering free calls after midnight, a lot of people just dialed random numbers in the hope of connecting with a girl.”

Sania's colleague Lina says she has received late night calls after she gave her number at a 'Flexiload' shop to refill her phone credit. “They keep calling, no matter how many times you brush them off. There is this strange idea that if they are persistent, the girl might respond. These weirdos live in fantasy worlds.”

Couples in isolated spots are often harassed.Photo: Sajid
Failed relationships can leave broken hearts in its wake.

Such attitudes may be propagated by B grade commercial movies where the guy gets the girl through sheer persistence and muscle power, no matter how wide the gulf in terms of education and social status.

“Most Indian and Bangladeshi commercial movies are built around the idea of romantic love,” says Rajaul Akmal, a student of Dhaka University. “Thanks to cable TV and DVDs, this is having a profound effect on teenagers in particular. If you're not in love, you're missing something. You get into college or uni, and if you're not involved with someone, you're not cool.”

This craving for romantic relationships leaves young adults and adolescents vulnerable. Many make mistakes that haunt them for a lifetime. Saad, 25, was known as a Romeo on campus. He was popular and dated many girls. He also recorded video clips on his mobile and uploaded them to YouTube. Although such activity may not be the norm, experts say there is enough evidence to suggest young adults are often taken advantage of by predators.

Often the problem is the sense of shame many feel due to the fact that mingling of the sexes is still not accepted in society. This opens people up to blackmail. “I was sitting under a tree in the Botanical Gardens with my girlfriend when a couple of guys came up to us,” says Tanim, a student of BBA at a private university. “They handed me a couple of cans of Coca Cola and said I had to pay Tk.200. When I protested, they started to make loud comments about me and my friend. I paid up and left the spot.”

Such risks make a lot of young people stick to cyber space for their romantic interaction. It is undeniable that the internet and mobile phones have opened up a whole new social frontier. But without proper knowledge and safeguards, these mediums can be fraught with peril.

In the anonymous world of online dating and romantic text-messaging, anyone can masquerade as ultra-cool. And more sinister than that, a sociopathic stalker can pretend to be the man or woman of your dreams.

“There is a lot of false information out there,” says Parvez, a student of BRAC University. “A lot of people create fake profiles on the Net, or give false info on the phone. Many of us do it to protect ourselves. But here's the catch: if the person you're talking to turns out to be the special someone, do you want to have to tell them that you've lied from the word go?”

Many say it would be wrong to blame the internet or mobile phones for this situation. “Getting involved with someone via the internet is no more or less safe than going out with someone you met at a party,” says Sania.

With social networking sites, connecting is a breeze.

“In any case, you have to follow certain precautions. In fact, in the case of the internet you often have more information. You know a lot about a person before you even make the first contact, because so much is revealed in their online profile. In the case of social networking sites like Facebook, you know who their friends are, and even what books they read!”

Rahnuma, 29, who works at a private bank, has a different take. She thinks the technology and new social norms that allow us greater freedom also makes it easy to “shop around” and this has had the effect of making “love” cheap. “People have forgotten the real meaning of love,” she says. “They are not in love, but maybe they're in love with the idea of love. People go from attraction to intimacy in the space of a few phone calls. It turns sexual fairly quickly, because the social inhibitions just are not there.”

Certainly the media from movies to FM Radio -- has its fair share of blame for commercialising this basic human emotion. Whole movie industries are built around the idea of romantic love as part of an escapist fantasy. FM Radio channels have “Propose Programmes” where people can phone in and propose on air. There are shows where people are encouraged to talk about their crushes. The Radio Jockeys who preside over these shows have titillating titles such as “Love Guru” and “Romance Guru”.

Peer groups exert a powerful influence. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

“If both parties have an understanding, that can be romantic,” says Rahnuma. “But if someone is saying he has a crush on me with the whole world listening, and I don't have a clue, that can be annoying, not to say damaging.”

“Technology is simply a tool,” says Prof. Mokaddem Hossain “and people will use it in whatever way they will. If they want to play around, they will find a way of doing it!”

Critics say in the current atmosphere, the mating ritual is losing its meaning. Dating means different things to different people. To some it is a way of getting to know someone with the intention of assessing their suitability as potential mates. To others, it is simply a way of getting some no-strings-attached fun.

Serial mobile phone dating has emerged as a new phenomenon. With dates available so easily, some people refuse to work on taking any relationship forward. At the first sign of incompatibility or a minor tiff, they would rather drop their "date" like a hot potato and start searching for partners again.

Serial daters exist among both men and women. “Many guys will date a lot of girls at a time,” says Sania. “It would be Ok if they were open about it. But typically they will try to make each girl feel she is the one! Girls are sometimes guilty too. They will date several men simultaneously, and bask in the attention and gifts they shower on her. If they want to opt out, it's a simple matter of changing your SIM card.”

So is this the state of true love in the mobile age? Or is it an illusion fueled by infatuation and lust? Young adults today are adopting a more casual approach which is reflected in dating habits. Why date when you can just “chill” or “hang”? Flowers and candle-light dinners are oh-so-20th Century. Casual is cool. Commitment is scary.

Relationship experts say no matter how casual, the after-effects of a shattered relationship is always traumatic. Serial daters often leave in their wake broken hearts and bruised egos. “It is a problem when one party gets serious, and the other is just playing around,” says Nadia, a student of BBA at East West University.

Suhrawardy Uddyan is a popular meeting spot. Photo: Sajid

Young men and women are often pushed by peer pressure towards a physical intimacy they are not ready for. Prof. Mokaddem Hossain says those most at risk are adolescents. “They take decisions very emotionally,” says Prof. Hossain. “In many cases boys and girls from villages and small towns are not quite savvy when they come to Dhaka. They lose their bearings due to the culture shock. Often people take advantage of them.”

Sania says a friend of hers had a relationship with a man who was a lieutenant in the army. “She was barely 18 at the time, but her boyfriend was older. But he made her pregnant. She had to have a medical procedure. Her family never found out.”

Prof. Mokaddem Hossain says such emotional trauma can seriously damage lives. “There should be counselling centres in all the colleges and universities,” he says. “Young people often don't know who to turn to and take advice from their peer group. This can be very dangerous.”

Prof. Hossain also stresses the role of the family. “The internet and the mobile are causing the loosening of parental control. A teenaged boy can come home late and say he was working in a cyber café. He goes straight to his room, saying he has eaten with friends. His parents have no idea what he is up to. Teens can communicate through text messages with their boy friends under the very noses of their parents and they wouldn't have a clue. It is important for parents to listen to their children so they can support them and guide them. They must also teach them religious and social values.”

Najmul Alam, a banker, says he tries to be a friend to his 17-year-old sister. “But I wouldn't want her to date,” he says. “There is no sense in allowing it and asking her to be careful. There is too much temptation. It would be like sending her into a minefield and asking her to watch her step.”

The loosening of social taboos in the age of information technology has weakened the role of the family and placed the onus on young people to be responsible and to look after themselves. But many experts fear they may not have the tools to navigate the perilous waters by themselves.

Dr. Mobarak Hossain, General Manager (Services) at Marie Stopes Bangladesh, says a comprehensive plan should be in place to educate adolescents. Dr. Hossain sees a sharp rise in the number of young women seeking to terminate a pregnancy through Menstruation Regulation (MR) procedures. “In 2007 we did about 36000 MRs, and last year it was around 48000,” says Dr. Hossain. Dr. Hossain is keen to point out that the 50% rise may not be entirely due to an explosion in unplanned pregnancies. “MRs have been publicised. People now know it's available, so many people now come to clinics rather than going to quacks.”

Dr. Hossain says Marie Stopes has an awareness plan that seeks to educate adolescents. “Our youngsters are in danger of sexually transmitted diseases, as well as physical and emotional trauma,” he says. “They must receive institutional support, and also receive support and guidance within the family.”

Sociologists say the wheel is turning full circle in many countries, such as the US, where the family is actively promoted, and chastity is once again “cool”.

Mobile phones today are a style icon. Photo: Shafique Alam

“Whether we want to walk the same path and experience those ups and downs is for us to decide,” says Prof Mokaddem. “We could wait for the pendulum to swing back, or we could simply look at them and prefer to preserve what we have.”

What stood out in dozens of interviews was the desire among young adults to have a say in finding their own partners, and having control over their own lives. At the same time, most think it is vital to involve their families along the way. Relationship experts agree that with a healthy dose of judgment, discretion and precaution, you can build rewarding relationships and long lasting romances-- and technology would only add wind to your sails.

And the candlelight dinner may not be extinct after all.
“After the first phone calls and a few rushed meetings at fast food joints, if you begin to get serious, you want something different.” says Sania. “That's when you want more time together and a quieter environment far from the madding crowd. Candlelight dinner? Definitely!”

The fundamentals still apply. Cupid would approve.

Many names have been changed to protect the privacy of interviewees.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2009