Smartphones make it easier for young people to date and independently look for a spouse in Alexandria, Egypt

The introduction of mobile communication devices has brought about two significant changes for young people in Egypt: To begin with, personal smartphones and social media accounts provide them with opportunities to have secret liaisons and independently search for a spouse. Secondly, new communication devices and platforms, however, engender new forms of monitoring and control, as indicated by a doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Helsinki.

“Social media discussions demonstrated how young people, who in certain situations appear to conform with gender norms and religious ideals, act in mischievous ways in other situations by challenging norms,” says doctoral candidate Senni Jyrkiäinen, MSocSc.

Jyrkiäinen’s doctoral dissertation in the discipline of anthropology examines how fairly well-to-do urban young people who have new technologies at their disposal used novel communication technologies to establish romantic relationships and mould marital prospects in Egypt, with a particular focus on Facebook and certain popular Egyptian blogs. Jyrkiäinen carried out her investigations in Alexandria, the country’s second-largest city, from 2011 to 2014.

A number of study subjects reported of using mobile phones for both love-filled caring and control-oriented monitoring, as did their parents and romantic partners. Some husbands too used the devices for the same purposes.

“If you didn’t pick up your mobile phone, you could cause arguments and suspicions,” Jyrkiäinen explains.

Owning a mobile phone had led to a notion of having to be constantly available.

“Due to political instability and social norms that emphasise the importance of a good reputation, most young women were not able to move about the city as often and late as their boyfriends. Then again, they were able to keep track of their boyfriends with their phones,” Jyrkiäinen says.

Boundaries between the public and private get blurred in romantic relationships

The study, which focused on navigating technologically mediated intimacy, highlighted the blurring of the boundaries between the public and the private in social contexts. However, the young people who participated in the study found it important to maintain such boundaries.

“People in romantic relationships before marriage wanted to keep them hidden from their families and the wider social media community. At the same time, owing to the digital environment, moments intended as intimate or pictures taken with the hijab taken off might be shared with the wider public with a single push of a button.”

The young Alexandrians in the study established their romantic relationships in urban and virtual spaces.

“Attempts were often made to keep relationships separate from the social world made up by the immediate and extended family as well as the neighbourhood, in which a good reputation made a big difference to the marital prospects of both women and men.”

A good reputation as an asset

Smartphones are also creating new kinds of risks in Egypt. According to the young study subjects, a good reputation and, for women in particular, a reputation of sexual purity constituted an important asset in terms of marital eligibility.

“Having private romantic messages, photos of an intimate couple or those taken without a hijab and dance videos end up viewable by others on social media could have unpleasant consequences in terms of reputation,” Jyrkiäinen notes.

The dissertation, which is based on a long-term ethnographic study, focuses on a period of time following the uprising of 2011, when the unstable political situation characterised the everyday life of young people and was reflected in their prospects. The majority of the 10-month field work stage was carried out in Alexandria, a city of more than five million people located on the coast of the Mediterranean. The primary study subjects were university students and recent graduates, but interviews were also conducted to survey the attitudes of their mothers.



Senni Jyrkiäinen, MSocSc, defended her doctoral dissertation entitled “Virtual and Urban Intimacies: Youth, Desires and Mediated Relationships in an Egyptian City” on 14 September 2019  in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki.

Professor Jessica Winegar from Northwestern University served as the opponent and Professor Sarah Green from the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki, as the custos.

The dissertation is also available in electronic form through the E-thesis service.


Further information:
Senni Jyrkiäinen
Phone: +358 50 383 4184