Iran creates a family-friendly Islamic dating app to solve its fertility decline

Winston Churchill called Russia “a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.” That is how Westerners see Iran.

Rarely does anything positive about Iran appear in Western media -- just stories about the troubled politics of the Middle East. Most Iranians go about their daily lives giving nary a thought to international politics or nuclear proliferation. Yet that is exactly what comes to mind for most Westerners when the subject of Iran comes up.

Thus we know little about Iran or the Iranian people. Friends who have visited there are overwhelmed by their hospitality and the widespread fondness for Americans as a people. You’ve got to see it to believe it, they say. 

Not only is Iran a most interesting land with an impressive ancient heritage, it is also quite modern. Too modern, some would say, as the overall Iranian total fertility rate (TFR) is below the 2.1 replacment-level. The government is concerned – and for good reason.

Iran’s TFR declined 70 percent from 1982 to 2002, dropping from 6.52 to 1.92. It has hovered around that level ever since, and is estimated at 1.93 for 2021. Thankfully, Iran has a normal sex birth ratio (105 males to every 100 females), life expectancy is just north of 75, 37 percent of the population is under 25, with less than 6 percent over 65. The younger generation is fully literate, and women comprise a solid majority of university students.

Yet Iran, like so many other countries, is slowly but surely on the path to becoming an ageing society. 

There are the usual reasons for Iran’s falling fertility: rising education levels, careers, urbanization, and universal “creeping modernity.” But one factor has significantly exacerbated the situation: onerous economic sanctions.

There is a long complicated history behind that, beyond the scope of this essay. Nonetheless, the sanctions have hit Iran hard, collapsing the currency, drastically curbing imports of vital medicines, causing a deterioration of public health and increased infant mortality. The sanctions are widely viewed as a contributing factor to the unusually precipitous decline in Iran’s TFR from 1982 to 2002. This is an economic squeeze on steroids. And you think children are expensive in the West…

But life goes on.

In March the Majlis (Iran’s Parliament) approved legislation for “population growth and supporting families” that calls for increased educational opportunities for student mothers, enhanced prenatal care, extended health insurance benefits for fertility treatment as well as financial incentives for married couples to have two or more children. The proposed law also includes a mandate that Iranian education stress the positive aspects of strong families and childbearing and provides for increased support of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to encourage early marriage and children.  It also further limits abortion. 

At press time the law is awaiting final approval by the Guardian Council to ensure that provisions are compatible with Islamic law and the constitution.

An organization heavily involved in pro-family initiatives is the government-sanctioned Tebyan Cultural and Information Center founded in 2001. Tebyan was establised “to disseminate information on religious affairs, introduce rich Islamic culture and promote Islamic viewpoints through information technology.” Given that Iran is an Islamic Republic, such a mission is not surprising.

One of the services Tebyan provides is marriage counseling, which is much in demand for young married couples.

However, out of a total population of 86 million there are approximately 13 million single Iranians from ages 18 to 25.

So Tebyan went a step further with the July 2021 rollout of Hamdam, a dating app that aims to help reverse disturbing trends of declining marriage, rising divorce and falling fertility. Hamdam is the Farsi word for “companion.”

Iranian state television explained that the app is meant to facilitate “lasting and informed marriage” among Iranian youth by assisting them to “search for and choose their spouse.”  Traditionally, families had significant input into the choice of spouse, but today young people usually act on their own in such matters.

Speaker of the Majlis Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf unveiled the social media platform during a news conference where he enthusiastically stated that the app is fully compatible with traditional Islam and family values.

On that occasion Tebyan leader Komeil Khojasteh stated that “Family is the devil’s target, and [Iran’s enemies] seek to impose their own ideas” about family life. In Iran that is understood to be a veiled reference to “Western decadence.” The Iranian government has been harshly critical of the moral relativism prevalent in the West that endorses gay marriage, transgenderism and other “alternative lifestyle” trends. They view such trends as against their religion. And many Christians view them as against their religion as well.

Dating apps have long been popular in Iran, but according to the country’s cyberspace enforcement chief Col. Ali Mohammad Rajabi, platforms other than Hamdam are not state-sanctioned, thus illegal.

Unlike regular dating sites, Hamdam’s website claims to utilize artificial intelligence to find matches “only for bachelors seeking permanent marriage and a single spouse.”

Thus the Hamdam platform is more than a dating service. It offers “an elaborate matchmaking process complete with questions with sliding scales, text boxes and buttons.” Participants apply, and a “psychological test” on the site must be completed before browsing. Then there is a screening process with uploaded forms to complete in order to match personality traits (such as “introverted” or “extroverted”) as well as viewpoints and interests.

Also, Hamdam allows no personal photos. As explained in the app’s FAQ section, “We have experienced many times in matching that the photo was not a good reason to reject or accept anyone… What is achieved in a face-to-face meeting is much more complete than a soulless photograph.”

Once a match is found, Hamdam “introduces the families together with the presence of service consultants,” who will assist the couple for four years after marriage.

Modernity has taken quite a toll on the nuclear family. Governments around the world are devoting increasing resources to fighting the birth dearth. Hamdam is a creative measure, and time will tell as to its effectiveness. But it is something. Social conservatives should heartily endorse pronatalist initiatives such as Hamdam and similar efforts in other countries. This is simply about self-preservation, the survival of the species.

Let’s hope that Hamdam is successful. If not, keep trying.

Do we have a choice?   

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