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Saudi women revel in online lives

Internet gives Saudi women a rare outlet for social interaction.

A woman walks around Saudi King Abdullah's road in Riyadh, April 10, 2009. For Saudi women, the internet has been a critical boon, providing a virtual leap over the many restrictions they face. (Fahad Shadeed/Reuters)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Ashwaq’s father had heard the scary stories about men using the internet to seduce young, impressionable girls. So when his three daughters asked permission to go online, the answer was an emphatic "no."

But the girls persisted and he eventually relented — a bit. They each could spend a half hour a day browsing the web.

With time, however, rationing fell by the wayside and although Dad is still not happy about it, his daughters now use the internet pretty much when they want, said Ashwaq, 23. And for this self-described “internet addict,” that has been all to the good.

Ashwaq, who asked that her surname not be used so she could speak frankly, said that web access has given her “a window to the outside world,” brought her “a lot of cyber-friends,” and “changed my personality.”

A few years ago, she was so “anti-social” that she would not have returned a reporter’s phone call, she said. And because of what she’s learned online, including about religion, she’s become more open-minded.

“When you grow up in a place with strict rules, you become intolerant of things outside Saudi Arabia,” said the optometrist-in-training. “I’ve changed in that way.”

The internet of course has expanded everyone’s horizons. But for Saudi women, it has been a critical boon, providing a virtual leap over the many restrictions they face and connecting them as never before to the outside world.

Most Saudi women cannot work, travel or attend school without permission from their husbands or fathers. They are forbidden to drive. Women generally do not participate in sports and the few public libraries that exist are open for women only a few hours a week. Socializing takes place mostly within extended families because of the country’s strict gender segregation.

It is no wonder then that Saudi women moved into cyberspace at a much faster clip than men.
“In the old days of 2005,” recalled Ahmed Al Omran, who blogs at www.saudijeans.org, “there were four girls for every guy” in the home-grown Saudi blogosphere.

That imbalance disappeared as more Saudi men began blogging. But even now women make up 46 percent of Saudi’s blogging community, a higher percentage than most other countries, according to “Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent,” a 2009 study by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

In a country where about one-third of the population regularly goes online, the internet gives women “a place to vent out our frustrations and our dreams,” said Reem Asaad, 37, a professor of banking and finance in the Saudi port city of Jeddah who blogs at reemasaad.blogspot.com.

It also has allowed women who normally are “physically invisible” to participate more actively in Saudi society, Asaad added.

“From the authorities’ viewpoint,” she explained, “so long as women are behind a curtain, or a screen, and so long as they are not before a camera or walking down the street, then everything is fine. Women are free to do anything they want as as long as they aren’t seen, heard or spotted doing it by men.”

Women whose families do not allow them to attend university can take online courses at home. And women starting a business or mobilizing their sisters around a cause have found the internet a vital tool.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/saudi-arabia/100203/internet-women