Finding a spouse the halal way
Thirty-six-year-old Hossam decided to divorce his wife because they were "incompatible with each other", realising that selecting her as his partner was not suitable to begin with. "We were different in everything, we had nothing in common," he remembered. "Even the way we saw life and the future was completely different… We had to go our separate ways so we don't treat ourselves unfairly, or start an unstable family."
Lack of compatibility is often cited by Egyptian partners who go their separate ways just a few years into marriage, one of the common reasons behind millions of divorces in Egypt. To make life easier for people like Hossam, a group of young Egyptians decided to launch a mobile application called Harmonica. It helps "anyone find a suitable spouse with whom they share interests and views", according to one of the founders, who hopes the application will help reduce the soaring divorce rate in Egypt.
Although harmonica is a musical instrument, the name of the application actually refers to the word "harmony", in which it is hoped partners will live after using the app. Shaymaa Ali and Ali Metwali – two members of the team that designed the app – said many people have the impression that Harmonica plays the role of a matchmaker, which is not true. They stressed that the service it offers is radically different to that of a marriage broker.
"The right way to look for your life partner"
The duo explained that the app enables Egyptian youth to get married in a more contemporary and efficient way, saying matchmakers are unable to set criteria for potential compatible partners to find each other through arranged marriages.
Matchmaking agencies have sprung up in Egypt over the past few years; a client pays a fee and fills out a form that contains questions about his job, income, and traits required in a spouse.
An extra commission is paid to the agency when a couple actually ties the knot. The number of people who have walked down the aisle thanks to matchmaking services in Egypt remains unknown.
Harmonica by contrast asks male and female users a large number of questions that have been designed by psychology specialists. These questions help pinpoint the interests and way of thinking of each user to a great extent. The answers are then analysed by a certain algorithm; based on the results, the application determines the best potential partners.
The application's founders stress that a successful marriage does not require identical partners, but rather people who are compatible with each other and share views, characteristics, principles and dreams, among other things.
They also stress that Harmonica's process is accurate and utterly confidential. In order to use the application, one must have a Facebook account that is at least one year old and has no less than 50 friends. These terms aim to verify the authenticity of the accounts and bar those who are merely seeking to hook up with girls via Harmonica from registering.
Last September, the creators of Harmonica appealed for 200 male and female volunteers via Facebook to participate in a trial. Indeed, a large number of people stepped up, which the developers said was extremely helpful.
Not a dating app?
The founders are at pains to stress that Harmonica is not a dating app, but rather it has been specially designed for people looking for spouses.
Not only does the application help people meet suitable partners, it also seeks to popularise the concept of successful marriage based on personality profiling. There is also a section in the application called "Ask Harmonica" for users to send marriage-related queries to experts.
The application is user-friendly. Users are expected to enter basic information such as their age and city of residence in Egypt. It also asks them whether they want to use their real names or not. All the same, users of Harmonica are likely to experience some bugs and technical problems.
For instance, the application sometimes closes suddenly for no apparent reason. Uploading personal photos is also quite difficult. The creators say they always try to develop and enhance the application, and pay attention to every single message they receive concerning technicalities.
Moreover, according to complaints posted on the application's Google Play page, it can sometimes take days until the app sends any candidates to users. Harmonica's representatives replied that finding the right partner for someone can occasionally be difficult and time-consuming.
Perhaps these problems are the reasons why only a beta version of the application is available. The number of Harmonica's users is also still limited.
Scepticism and optimism
Salma Mohamed, aged 28, says she does not believe that such apps are the best way to find a spouse, saying marriage requires personal interaction in the real world rather than in the digital sphere. The difference between the two can be drastic, she opined.
"Personally, I don't imagine myself downloading an application that helps me find the right husband," she continued. "I leave that to life; I could meet this person in my workplace, or anywhere else, for that matter. Mind you, I don't have much faith in the Internet generally."
Conversely, 30-year-old Mohamed El-Sayed is convinced that theoretically speaking, the application is helpful, saying he would have to try it out to be able to determine its usefulness. "It's great that a group of young people have decided to help others and make their life easier," he said.
"Sure thereʹs a suitable person for me out there somewhere, but maybe the time and place are not right to meet her, so it's good to have an application that aims to introduce me to this individual."
Hossam who has divorced his wife says the split has made him far more vigilant when it comes to marriage. Should this application help him find a woman who is compatible with him, he stressed they would still need to be engaged for quite a while to get to know each other better. "Meeting someone via Harmonica is not enough for a marriage to happen, it's just the beginning," he said.
Mostafa Fathi is Managing Editor at Cairo 360 and fellow of the International Center for Journalists.