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Cheap 3G and VPNs to navigate censorship have opened up a world of dating opportunities for single Iranians

 Tinder, the dating app phenomena that since its 2012 inception has made more than six billion matches across the globe, like me has Iranian roots. After several months of matching, messaging and arranging meet-ups through Tinder, I was surprised to learn that two of its Los Angeles-based founders, Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, are both of Iranian descent. But back in Iran, a country that is considered the world’s most internet censored nation, let alone a place that restricts interactions between unrelated women and men, is such an app accessible?

I recently returned to Tehran after two years, defying incessant and increasing calls from my family to marry, and had the opportunity to find out firsthand. During my time in Iran’s capital, I noticed that dating had evolved from being a covert operation to something quite commonplace. Even though on several occasions I’d been stopped by the patrolling moral guidance authorities who questioned my relationship with the woman I’d been walking with, in many other ways dating is no longer as complicated as it once was.

Aside from illicit parties while mum and dad are out of town (or even illicit parties while mum and dad are in the house), an increasing number of cafés, restaurants and parks are popping up, making meeting and subsequently dating so much easier. But I wondered how much easier things might get for Iran’s young hopefuls with the introduction of dating apps. Having just arrived from London, staring down at Tinder’s familiar red flamed icon on my mobile, I was excited to find out if the app would work in Iran, and if so, how many here would be using it.

Even before mobiles got smart, their increasing presence in the socially conservative Islamic republic seemed to bring about a profound cultural shift. For the nation’s bulging post-1979 Revolution baby boomers – the under thirty-fives that still account for nearly half the nation – mobile phones allowed individuals to interact with one another with less interception from moral authorities, be it the paramilitary militia known as the Basij, the Moral Guidance authorities or parents. But with my recent visit I noticed that things had shifted up a gear, with the nation’s largest network operator offering cheap and widely available 3G and its closest competitor advertising a new 4G service. It is with the introduction of services like these that Iranians can more freely access app-based, location-sensitive dating services.

With Tinder, Facebook details are selectively displayed for others to swipe right to show interest or left to reject – mutual interest gets a “match”, allowing for messaging and then more.Tinder has shaken off its reputation as a hook-up (read casual sex) app since going worldwide, representing itself more as a game for which users are asked if they want to “continue playing or chat” after each match is made.

For this player, Tehran’s Tinder total availability tallied at 20 throughout my two-week visit. My preset London settings had only allowed me two swipes to the left before a message popped up below my profile picture telling me that there was “nobody new nearby”. Realising that two kilometres – my default distance setting – doesn’t cover much of Tehran’s ever-expanding metropolitan area of nearly 9 million residents, I slid my profile settings wide open, 50 kilometres and 18-50 age range. With this change, I saw my profile quickly linked with, among others, Sara, 22, not her real name, which goes for others in this article. (Publication was also delayed to protect the privacy of those who may have been active.)