A group of one’s own

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A group of one’s own


Michael Coghlan, Creative Commons; adapted by Yohann Koshy

Young Muslim women are using social media to make a safe space to educate themselves and talk about ideas. Hussein Kesvani reports.

‘Are you going to hold his hand?!!’

‘Make sure you look straight at him when you speak to him!’

‘Do you think you’ll kiss?’

It’s late at night and Fatima (not her real name), 15, is doing what she always does at the end of the day. She is talking about boys on the internet. The Malaysian high school girl really likes a boy in her class and he recently asked her out. It’s her first date and she doesn’t know what to do.

On her laptop, she answers her friends’ questions: ‘I do not know how to!’ A few minutes later, Fatima receives links to YouTube videos of popular romantic anime shows. These are the cartoons that teenage girls use to help them.

There is nothing new about young girls talking about first dates. But to talk freely and openly is new in Malaysia. Malaysia has a conservative idea of gender roles. Even newer is that Fatima’s online friends don’t live in Malaysia. Two are in Pakistan and the other is in Thailand.

The girls have never met in person – some have never heard their voices. But they are Fatima’s best friends, the people she talks to about everything. She says these international groups of friends, through Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, are usual for girls like her.

In the past few years, young women living in Muslim-majority countries started hundreds of private Facebook groups, blogs, and message boards on Viber and WhatsApp. The groups talk about everything from marriage problems to national politics. They are safe spaces to talk freely.

At first Fatima only used simple chat applications like WeChat, mostly to speak to her schoolfriends about homework. But after getting Facebook she ‘found a bigger world’. It’s very possible that others feel this way too. Malaysia has one of the highest percentages of young internet users in the Global South. They are between 15 and 24 with at least five years of internet use. There are more than 11 million users, one of the largest Facebook groups in southeast Asia.

Fatima says, ‘It was so amazing to see so many people all over the world, who liked the same things as me. In my school, people can be shy and feel embarrassed, so it was difficult to talk to them.’

Fatima found on Facebook a fan-fiction group, where young women write new stories about their favourite fictional characters. Very often, the stories are about relationships and sex. Fatima didn’t want to talk about the stories but she was happy to say that they ‘made her life better’.

‘I had questions about myself and my body,’ she says. ‘In Malaysia, there is only information for women about their bodies when they are much older, when they are about to get married. Parents won’t talk, teachers won’t talk... so we learn from the internet.’

Many conversations about the effects of social media in Muslim countries are usually about only two things. How it can ‘bring democracy’ to autocratic states, such as during the failed revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’. And how Muslims are ‘radicalized’ into joining Jihadist terrorist groups. There is very little conversation about the way most young Muslims use social media.

Zainab (not her real name), is a blogger from Saudi Arabia. She looks after the group ‘Fierce Women of Riyadh’. She tells me over Facebook that the group usually interests women who are ‘smart, funny and bright’, bot who cannot study or go to work.

‘For the women in our group, everyone is equal to say what they want or think – there are no rules, except no men… It’s a space where you can be honest, which is difficult to find in Saudi Arabia,’ she says.

Zainab says that the group was a space where many women could safely talk about giving up Islam. ‘Of course, it’s very dangerous to do any of that here, so the women find a safe space in this group. They are brave, but you can see why we are very careful about who we have in the group.’

This isn’t something which is only for women living in Muslim-majority countries. There are many groups with people who feel they are on the edge of Muslim life. And the internet gives them a way to talk about their relationships and their faith. There is a group on Tumblr for young Muslim women in Britain to help each other with sexual-health issues. This includes medication for sexually transmitted diseases and getting safe abortions.

‘On the internet you can be more private ecause no one knows who you are,’ says Sobia Faisal. She is researching Muslim femininity in online spaces. ‘You can also be more open because you’re talking to people your own age. This, of course, is better for many young girls than to talk about things with their parents or at religious schools.’

Faisal also says that there can be dangers on social media. ‘I think most young women in the West know about trolls. They know about being careful online and about people’s identities. In many of the countries where young Muslim girls use the internet a lot, this is still quite new – so there is a danger there.’

A BBC report says that young Malay-Muslim women on the internet often receive anti-women messages from men. A 15-year-old girl received messages like these on Twitter for not wearing the hijab after she talked about her dream of being the country’s first female prime minister.

Fatima knows that there are risks online, but she and her friends do not take it seriously.

‘I speak to new people all the time on social media, and met my best friends on here!’ she says. ‘You can usually tell who is real and who is not… I have seen people who are not real, because they all have the same kind of profile picture and they all ask for your picture.’

I ask if she feels her online identity allows her to be truer to herself. She answers, ‘It lets me be the person I want to be.’

Hussein Kesvani is a journalist in London. His new book (Hurst Publishers) is about Muslim identity on the internet.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2018/01/01/muslim-girls-social-media

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).