The Rishta Aunty of Instagram
The Rishta Aunty of Instagram

Ome Khan’s matchmaking show gives people the chance to showcase their best selves, but she doesn’t let them go without asking a few tough questions.

(Designecologist)

(Designecologist)

One Thursday night in July, Omehabiba Khan, 28, was talking to her brother Masood Khan, 26, about the challenges of finding a life partner — dating is time-consuming and meeting people in person organically during a pandemic is nearly impossible.

But cultural and societal factors are at play, too. Masood Khan shared that South Asian communities traditionally expect women to conform to the man's expectations in heteronormative relationships. And, he added, men face pressures, too, from height to salary requirements — it seems as if men aren't worthy of love if they aren't six-feet tall or successful doctors, lawyers, or engineers.

Ome and Masood Khan — Pakistani Americans who grew up in the Chicago area — have had talks like this before. But on this particular night, the siblings were hosting their conversation on Rishta Live, named after the Hindi and Urdu word for “relationship,” Ome Khan's weekly matchmaking show on Instagram Live that aspires to connect single people during quarantine.

While the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking has been widely criticized for participants’ sexist, casteist, and colorist comments after premiering on July 16, Khan has been addressing many of those problems head-on since she started Rishta Live at the beginning of the pandemic, when most have been confined to virtual dating. 

Khan has earned the moniker of a “rishta aunty” — women who are, whether professionally or informally, trying to set people up. But unlike most matchmakers, Khan — who has been setting up her friends since she was in high school — has created a non-judgmental, interactive space for participants to be themselves, yet doesn’t hold back on questions. 

(Rishta Live/Instagram)

(Rishta Live/Instagram)

"I created Rishta Live so that people can actually meet someone," Khan told me. "But not only just meet someone because it's quarantine, but let's meet someone and talk about issues that are very important. While we're talking about what's important to them, let's understand why these things are important to them. Sometimes they turn into full-blown conversations about [issues] like, 'why do you want someone who doesn't drink?'"

On Thursdays at 8 p.m., Khan goes live on her personal Instagram to talk with five to 10 participants about their upbringing, education, career, what they're looking for in a partner, and why past partners haven't worked out. Then, Khan encourages viewers to direct message (DM) the interviewees if they're interested.

The conversations are the very ones you might already be having, in private, with friends. Khan isn’t judging her guests and wants Rishta Live to be a safe space — but she isn’t passive or oblivious. If a man says he wants to be with a woman who dresses modestly or if a woman will only consider men above a certain height, she’ll ask why they value those things. Watching Rishta Live is like being on a group FaceTime with friends. 

Khan, who operates her own digital creative agency and whose personal Instagram account has more than 177,000 followers, asks people to DM her if they or someone they show should go on Rishta Live. Once she’s had a short conversation with the person — she prefers conversations during the show to be as natural as possible — she’ll post an Instagram story about the participant. Sometimes, Khan brings on wildcards — during the show, she’ll accept a random viewer’s request to go live. 

Khan believes that everyone deserves a shot at love, so participants can be of any religion, culture, or sexual orientation. While her audience is mostly South Asian, she’s had Black, Latinx, and other non-South Asian people on the show, too. 

Each episode of Rishta Live — which Khan began hosting in April — can be two to four hours long. Between 5,000 and 10,000 viewers tune in for at least some portion each week — mostly South Asians and about 70% to 80% women. Most viewers are from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, according to Khan. So far, she's interviewed more than 60 people across 13 episodes. Part of what keeps people watching is that Khan doesn’t record or upload most episodes. Viewers will only see a potential match if they tune in to watch the show live. Most interviewees, Khan shared, find the show through word-of-mouth as more people participate.

“The people that go live with me, their followers come and see, and they're like, ‘wait, if my friends are doing it, and he's putting himself out there’ — then they feel comfortable and they hit me up,” Khan said.

Khan does her own scouting, too. She has a profile on Minder, a dating app for Muslims, and started asking her matches if they wanted to go on the show. Now, Khan keeps track of participants and asks them to check in with her after two weeks to see if they’ve made any connections through the show.

Khan also has relationship therapists and dating experts join her on the show to make these services, sometimes considered taboo, available to people who might not otherwise have access to them. This past weekend on Rishta Live, Khan discussed colorism with the founders of Raang.uk, an Instagram account about the history and impact of colorism.

(Rishta Live/Instagram)

(Rishta Live/Instagram)

The idea for Rishta Live came from Khan’s experiences dating Pakistani Muslim men. She had always felt like a black sheep, she said, because of her liberal beliefs, which haven’t always gone over well with the men she has met. After chronicling some particularly bad dates on TikTok with the hashtag #MinderMemoirs, she happened to find a man on Instagram who would go live with single women and make fun of them for their vulnerability when they said they were looking for a serious relationship or marriage.

"That concept [of interviewing people] was amazing," she said. "But I'm passionate about having a voice that can create change. I think that our community is one of the most beautiful communities but also the most judgmental and crippling. Certain things don't allow us to move forward. We're bringing these traditions from India and Pakistan, and we're not understanding that things that don't exist [here in the United States] and a lot of it affects women."

Feroz L., a 36-year-old Afghan American based in Atlanta who requested that his last name not be used, went on Rishta Live without having watched it before. Feroz’s brother nominated him after first hearing about the concept because his wife follows Khan. 

"At first, when I was going live, I thought I would be completely focused on the comments and trying to read that, and influencing all of my insecurities," Feroz told me. "But it was [the] complete opposite. Ome would ask me great questions. It was a very positive platform to express the way we feel about dating life...It was just an honest conversation. It felt more like me talking one-on-one with Ome versus hundreds of people watching as well."

Feroz said a few women messaged him after his Rishta Live appearance; one, in particular, stood out and they've had a few FaceTime dates since.

"I responded to every single woman that reached out to me, because I know how much it takes for someone to do that and put themselves out there,” Feroz said. “But with her, as we talk more and more, I started feeling that it was clicking a little more."

So far, Feroz is the only person Khan knows of who has made a connection through Rishta Live. But for others, such as Ismail Dogar, a 30-year-old Pakistani American dentist in Rockford, Illinois, Rishta Live is a disruptor in online dating. Rather than swiping through photos and 1,000-character bios, Rishta Live allows a viewer to get to know someone's personality off the bat. Dogar said that while he talked to a few women who messaged him, no conversation has stuck yet.

"We commoditize marriage, and so it starts off with having a list,” Dogar told me. “We are a very family-oriented society, and family societies have their benefits. But the fact that marriage means that your whole family has to be involved in this process, I just don't personally agree with it." Rishta Live, like dating apps, allows participants to circumvent family involvement.

Bisma Parvez, a journalist and former content writer for Minder, went on Rishta Live to offer advice to viewers on how to set up better profiles on dating apps. She explained that since dating is considered taboo in South Asian Muslim communities, people feel especially lonely during the process.

"A lot of it has to do with stigma even using the term ‘dating,’" Parvez shared. "We prefer to use the term ‘talking’ so it doesn't sound like you're dating. It's navigating how to meet people without the 'log kya kahenge? [what will people say?]' We're trying to meet someone and we're also trying not to disgrace the family at the same time. Honestly, it's a very big burden to carry."

Fatima Sultan, a therapist based in Houston, Texas, echoed that sentiment — that in addition to family pressure, young South Asians may not have the tools to communicate their needs to their parents, or even a future partner.

"Communication is a huge problem in our community,” Sultan said. “We don't openly communicate to our adult children about what marriage is. Let's talk about what it means to be married.”

Sultan added, “One-hundred percent of the focus is just on the wedding and the process. You have the whole thing planned in your head, [but not] the reality of marriage — things like finances, family, children, upbringings."

Khan knows that Rishta Live can’t solve all these issues. But her goal is to normalize having these difficult conversations, which are often swept under the rug.

"My purpose is to make change, not entertain people,” Khan said. “I'm sure this might be a slight bit of entertainment, but I'm not out here doing goofy accents and making non-desi people think that we're jaahil. I'm trying to understand and get people to be like, 'we do have these issues and let's fix them,' and now I feel like I'm going to have to work 10 times harder, because maybe [Indian Matchmaking] is probably going to reinforce certain things."

Hanaa’ Tameez is a Pakistani American journalist in Boston. She’s a staff writer for Nieman Lab and covers journalism innovation. She was previously the diversity reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas.

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