Every night around 1 a.m., 16-year-old Simran silently gets out of her bed and tip-toes around her house, double-checking that her parents and grandparents are both sound asleep. Only then does she reach for her iPhone 10 and open up a series of apps — first, Express VPN, a virtual private network that allows her to browse the internet anonymously, followed by a voice changer app to reduce the tone of her voice when speaking. With the door shut and under the covers of her bed, she contacts her boyfriend, 17-year-old Ahmed, on Telegram, a secure, encrypted chat application, that deletes their conversation after five hours. In the meantime, however, the pair will talk to each other about their day, share memes and exchange romantic messages.
Ahmed lives near Simran (a pseudonym) in the U.K., and goes to a neighboring high school. But unlike most teenage couples, they’ve never walked together holding hands, and they’ve only kissed a handful of times, after elaborately planned meetings during lunch breaks. Similarly, none of their friends know about their relationship, which started roughly 18 months ago.
They’ve had to keep things so secretive because relationships outside of marriage are often frowned upon in South Asian communities. Further, because Simran is Sikh, she worries that her parents will disown her if they find out she’s dating a Muslim, a type of inter-faith marriage that can be so taboo that it’s sometimes called “love jihad,” an accusation that Muslim men deliberately get into romantic relationship with Sikh and Hindu women for the sole purpose of converting them to Islam.
That’s why, Simran explains to me over Telegram, her and Ahmed’s tactics of obfuscation really only scratch the surface. “Other people go really far,” she says. “They create alternative profiles and secret accounts. They use a secret language with emojis so that if they’re caught, they can tell their parents they were just speaking to a school friend. Snapchat is popular as a place for people who have secret relationships, too. There are people who make a Finsta [i.e., an alternative account] where they will show off their partner to their friends, but on their main account, they won’t at all. Sometimes they don’t even follow each other so that they won’t get caught.”
Such relationships are a fact of life for young second- and third-generation immigrants. Subreddits like r/asianparentstories frequently feature threads asking for tips on hiding romantic relationships or how to tell parents about a relationship that they’ve kept secret. Not to mention, the secret romantic relationship between Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee was a crucial component of the first season of Serial and was used as part of the case against him by state prosecutors. Similarly, Ken Loach’s 2004 film A Fond Kiss follows the struggles of a young, Scottish-Pakistani man trying to keep his relationship with a white woman from his conservative parents, while the 2017 movie The Big Sick is based on Pakistani comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s romantic relationship with a non-Muslim woman, a relationship he hides from his family until the film’s climax.
For this generation’s religious teens, however, the number of platforms available to them have arguably made any kind of secrecy far more difficult. “Obviously, when you’re from a Muslim family, things are strict. So when I was dating my ex-girlfriend, I told her that I wouldn’t be able to put up pictures of her on my accounts,” says 18-year-old Naim Zadad. He adds that for the first few months, “it was fine,” but eventually, “she saw her friends’ photos on Instagram, where they’d post these glamorous pictures to show that their boyfriends had taken them out, and she really wanted that.”
It made her feel, Zadad says, like she wasn’t “a real girlfriend,” or worse, suspect that he was cheating on her. (As my colleague Tierney Finster wrote last year, a large number of women consider a significant other not mentioning them on Instagram as a sign that they might be unfaithful.) “For people my age, part of being in a relationship is the social media side,” Zadad explains. “There’s this feeling that you have to prove you’re in a relationship, in the same way that you have to show off the rest of your life. So for people who want to keep it private — or have to — it’s much harder.”
“Couples of all kinds expect not to be kept secret,” says Priya Alika Elias, author of Besharam: Of Love and Other Bad Behaviours. “Because we document so much of our lives now on so many apps, it’s like, ‘Are you going to not acknowledge someone on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook AND Snapchat?’ Even if you have excellent reasons, I can imagine people still get agitated over the secrecy.”
She adds that women typically bear the brunt of this need for privacy, largely because there are greater expectations on them when it comes to social media. “Men barely have photos of themselves on Instagram, but women are expected to post pictures of themselves regularly, and to look and appear in particular ways,” she explains. “For some women, I think there’s an awareness of the joke of being a ‘side chick’ while their partner ends up marrying someone their parents approve of — so it affects their confidence as well.”
“It scratches a deep insecurity to be hidden like that,” she continues. “There are few couples who are mature enough to move past or accept it because of parental pressure. And even if the relationship is eventually revealed, the effects of it being hidden for so long are long-lasting.”
When I ask Simran if she’s worried about this, she says that she and Ahmed were prepared for complications from almost the start. That is, they both knew they wouldn’t be able to do the things other couples do, and that whatever photos they took together would have to be kept to themselves. And though Simran does sometimes get upset when she sees her friends post about going out with their partners, celebrating anniversaries or taking vacations, she keeps reminding herself, “This is just social media, not real life.” Or as she puts it, “Making real memories is much more important.”