There were plenty of reasons to be in that room, on that night, but for Ulis, the most-popular woman there, the reason was simple—time was running out. She was 26, an age when, according to her parents, a woman must be married. She initially did what a lot of young Indonesians looking for love do in 2018—she turned to dating apps like Tinder and swiped away. But, at the end of the day, something was lacking. So she figured it was time to visit Golek Garwo.
The monthly dating event, held in Bantul, Yogyakarta, is basically the anti-Tinder. It's always face-to-face, all for people who are looking to settle down and get married, and sponsored by a local Islamic organization (although interested singles of all faiths are welcome, the sponsors told me).
“Golek Garwo is more real than Tinder,” Ulis said.
The event, organized by Fortais (Forum Ta’aruf Indonesia), has been held in Jogja since 2011. Its name comes from the Javanese shorthand for nyowo, or "soulmate" and it's serious about the claim—the group, and its partner event Nikah Bareng, or "mass weddings," is responsible for more than 7,000 marriages to date, the founder Ryan Budi Nuryanto explained.
"I know from experience how hard it is to find a soulmate," Ryan told me. "I thought, I don’t want other people to go through what I did."
Indonesians, on average, get married far younger than their peers in the West. Part of the reason why is cultural, but another part is also religious. Sex before marriage is a sin, and virginity is still a prized trait to some, so marriages tend to happen for most couples in their early-20s.
But marriage doesn't always lead to happiness. A national survey by the Central Statistic Agency (BPS) found that singles reported far higher levels of happiness than their married peers. Still, most people worry that something is wrong with a person who remains unmarried for too long, and the country is full of jokes at the expense of singles, especially women, who stay unattached beyond their mid-20s.
It creates a culture where the typical stages of a relationship can take place on a really accelerated timeline. Ryan, the founder, met his wife only one week before they decided to tie the knot at a mass wedding. He founded Golek Garwo a short time later to help others accomplish the same thing.
Golek Garwo is free of charge, although participants pay Rp 20,000 ($1.37 USD) to help cover the cost of snacks and contact sheets for those in attendance. Everyone in the room wore a pink name tag that read "I'm ready to get married," next to their name.
Ryan was enthusiastic as he opened the event that morning, beginning with a passionate pep talk about love. He told everyone in the room to not lose hope about finding "the one," saying "don't be shy, finding your life partner is a valid need," before leading the room in a chant of, "Fortais. Yes. Dapat Lamar, Nikah!"
There were about 70 people in the room on the day I attended, split into two groups where the men and women sat opposite each other. They began with simple introductions, before they were given a chance to get to know each other better. If someone was too embarrassed, they could ask the moderator to relay their questions to a potential suitor instead.
Ulis, dressed in a fashionable hijab and younger than some of the other women by more than a decade, has a successful career of her own and would be a catch by anyone's standards. But she's struggled to find someone she was ready to settle down with.
"Women should get married by 26," she said as an introduction. "My parents keep asking me when I'm going to get married. I’m looking for a man who is under 40, and who has steady job. It doesn’t matter if they are a widower. We can take care of the kids together."
Soon, a line of men had formed waiting to talk to her. Some looked annoyed and impatient with the wait. Others stood close enough to eavesdrop, hoping that they could catch a hint of who she was.
The men came with questions. "Are you really OK with marrying a widower?" "Where do you live, exactly?" "Can I get your number?" Ulis answered their questions patiently and ended up going home late so she could talk to all her suitors first.
She told me that she was initially embarrassed to attend Golek Garwo. She was afraid her friends would hear that she was there and make fun of her.
"I’m embarrassed, it’s like no one likes me," she said. "But I’m very busy. I don't have a lot of time to do other things. I go straight to bed after work and my weekends are for relaxing."
It's hard not to notice how much loneliness and society pressures play into the decision to end up at an event like Golek Garwo. A lot of people in the room were 30 or above, and plenty seemed willing to settle for someone who, in reality, might be a bit less than their ideal mate.
__Watch:__ Sumba Is Home to the World's Most Complex Marriage Proposals
"My name is Andri, and I’m 32 years old," said a man in a blue-green t-shirt. "I’m a private employee. I’ve never been married, and looking for anyone who is healthy physically and mentally. Most importantly, the person has to be a woman."
Ryan explained that love, like relationships, take work. Not everyone can just stumble upon their one true love without putting in some effort first.
"There's a Javanese saying, 'tresno jalaran soko kulino,' (love comes from familiarity), but at Golek Garwo, it's 'tresno jalaran soko upoyo,' (love comes because you work for it)."