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Internet gives Saudi women a rare outlet for social interaction.
Last year, for example, Asaad launched what she calls “a consumer protection campaign” to force lingerie stores to replace their male clerks with female salespersons.
“I started it online,” she said. “It was cheaper. And it was faster to get to [a] large population.”
Asaad recalled that when the internet first appeared in the kingdom, people “had to dial up to U.S. to be able to enter chat rooms” on AOL. Back then, she added, most people hid their personal details.
Nowadays, Saudis are all over Facebook talking about their daily lives and sharing photos with friends. It’s a sign, she added, that “women are becoming more proud of who they are … . You are able to reveal your true identity.”
Social networking sites, email and instant chat have eroded the barricade between the sexes erected by Saudi Arabia’s gender-segregated society. In a 2008 story about young people’s use of the internet, Arab News reporter Najah Al Osaimi wrote that “boys interviewed for this story said that finding girls using web cameras is one of the few ways for them to interact with” the opposite sex.
For some Saudi clerics, this internet socializing is another depravity from the West that is “corrupting” young people. As one preacher put it, “Facebook is the door to lust.”
But Asaad believes that by facilitating contact between young men and women, the internet is helping them to have more relaxed, normal interactions with the opposite sex. “It is opening doors for healthy relations by helping them go from under-the-table relationships to public relationships,” she said.
Still, many Saudi women remain very cautious online. A recent survey by students at one Saudi university found that 68 percent of women with Facebook accounts do not use their full name, and 16 percent used aliases, according to the newspaper Asharq al Awsat.
Also, only a minority of Saudi women — 5 percent according to the study — post their picture on their personal page. Instead, they put up a close shot of their hands, or their eyes. Ashwaq’s Facebook page, for example, has a photo of items on her desk, including a Post-It pad with a note saying, “I’m a tired optometrist.”
By contrast, 60 percent of Saudi boys on Facebook use their full real name and upload their picture, the study found.
This female reticence reflects the strong Saudi sentiment that women should not allow themselves to be seen by the public at random, and that doing so can hurt their family’s image.
Omran, the blogger, related how one female counterpart decided to stop blogging after she realized that her strong opinions critical of Saudi society could embarrass her family. Her blogging “put her in a place where fingers would start being pointed at her … and she didn’t want to compromise her family’s image,” he said.
Still, even passive browsing of the internet can be enlightening.
University student Juhaina Aljehni said that she goes online every morning to “check out some well-known forums for the latest news or trends in Saudi.”
Reading the posts and comments from other Saudis at those sites, she said, has given her “a pretty good idea about social issues.”
It also has led her to this conclusion: “I found out that men have the upper hand and that a lot of women's lives revolve around men.”