Hale, a physician in her 40s, met her husband, the financial director of an international company, on the internet. She’d die rather than admit it.
“I just tell people that I met him when he came in as a patient,” said Hale (not her real name), unaware that in many cultures dating a patient would raise more eyebrows than meeting through online dating sites.
“Not in Turkey,” Eren Erkalkan, the CEO of Siberalem, Turkey’s largest online dating website, told Al-Monitor. “We have many thank you letters by people who have met and married through us. But very few of them want to make it public.”
Reading the local newspapers, a Turkey-watcher would think that Turks are spoiled for choice when it comes to methods of finding a spouse. Marriage programs, despite tighter controls and a partial ban that is yet to be implemented, continue to be broadcast on almost all of the TV channels. Politicians include matchmaking in their campaign speeches, and the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs helps couples obtain a marriage loan, free of interest, with most state banks. Only a week ago, the Army Aviation Command prosecutor’s indictment quoted by daily Hurriyet on June 2 claimed that US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen’s organization had a catalog of suitable wives for male members to choose from. Add to this the long-standing tradition of arranged marriages in Turkey — the way more than half of the Turks marry, according to a 2013 report by the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs, which also says in 8.9% of these cases the person who will marry is not consulted. One would think that everyone, from the president down, wants to ensure that Turks do not stay single too long.
But few of the matchmakers in the 80-million strong country can claim to reach as many people as Siberalem, at the service of keyboard-happy Turks, since the start of the millennium. “There are 18 million profiles registered in our database,” Erkalkan said. “But we think some people have double or multiple profiles. The number of active users — people who have been logging in over the last 12 months — are between 700,000 and 1 million.”
Given that Turkey’s population above 18 is around 55 million, does that mean that one out of every five Turks has used Siberalem, for dating or for marriage, one time or other? “It certainly proves that there is a wide usage and that the people who log in are the same people who pass by on the street, sit in the same cinema theater and work at the same office,” Erkalkan replied. “That's why I think the attitude toward online dating is bound to change.”
Online romances in Turkey started in the 2000s, mainly through ICQ. Despite rumors that it was a Mossad invention to monitor what the world was talking about, ICQ has been widely used and abused by the Turks in their encounters with the opposite sex. Stories of romance-turned-swindling have found their way to the newspaper headlines, particularly one that involved a university dean who loaned 135,000 Turkish lira (roughly $38,000) to a woman he encountered and got engaged to on the net but never met face to face. His “fiancee” told him that she was a model and needed money for her cancer treatment. The highly publicized court case revealed that she had used the same trick several times, using as bait an attractive photo of a famous Turkish model, Yuksel Ak, whom the unworldly professor did not recognize.
“There is always this perception that people are not who they say they are on the internet,” Erkalkan admitted. “But it is neither rational nor sustainable to present an alternative persona if what you are looking for is companionship.”
He also stressed that he has a support team working around the clock. “We want our users to feel safe. We have guidelines that teach people how to use Siberalem, including on protecting their privacy. Our team is there to help them if they feel threatened, insulted or when their privacy is invaded while they are using Siberalem,” he said, adding that there had been a large percentage of complaints in that direction.
Siberalem asks its users to create a detailed profile that includes weight, height, monthly income, marital status, expectations in a relationship, and favorite writers, poets and composers. It charges a fee for men but no fee for women. Despite that, on a Saturday afternoon, the number of men online is four times as many as women.
The polarization in Turkish society — between the secularists and the conservatives, and between the fierce republicans and the liberals — are widely clear in the profiles as well as the statements by the users. “If I see that the man sending me a wink has said in his profile that his favorite poet is Nurullah Genc [a poet much admired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other AKP intelligentsia], I block him right away,” said Asli (not her real name), 30, who works in a social democrat publication house. “Nicknames also give you an idea. I would dismiss 'Suleiman, the Magnificent' as one of the avid Ottomanists and 'goodhuman' as a conservative.”
Siberalem’s conservative sister, Gonulden Sevenler, is an online marriage site for a more conservative audience that focuses on marriage only, rather than dating. The site refers to the “sacredness of marriage” and strongly warns users from using it for any other means. It is far from being the only one.
Asli, a regular user of Siberalem, laughed when asked whether she would consider another method, such as marriage programs. “These are reality shows,” she said. “About 12 people sit through the same program for an average of six weeks, and very few of them get married. I have more of a chance of being discovered by the film industry than finding a spouse in such a program. Besides, I do not know whether they will be able to continue.”
On April 30, Turkey banned some TV dating programs in a cryptic decree. "In radio and television broadcasting services, shows where people are introduced and/or brought together to find friends … cannot be made," said the Official Gazette, the state publication in which official decrees are announced. The decision has been in the pipeline for a long time, as Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said in March that these programs conflicted with Turkey's faith and culture. But Turkey’s broadcast watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council, is still pondering on a set of rules to implement the decision as the shows rage on.