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The web beyond the veil

Muslim women are getting hooked on to the Internet with much interest and purpose. Besides dispelling loneliness or boredom, the anonymity provided by the Internet is a huge bonus for most Muslim women whose every interaction in the society is monitored and there is an ever-present fear that the family will come to know what the women are up to, writes Satya Mira

Pune: For Tasneem, a 20-year-old girl, who like many other Muslim women in India, wears a face veil or naqaab whenever she moves out of the house, the World Wide Web has provided new ways to communicate.

"The Internet has opened doors for me," says Tasneem, "My life is strictly regulated and I can only go to college and come back. I am not allowed to meet people from different communities and talk about things like marriage or relationships. I have also been confused about my identity as a Muslim woman. But now I have found many sites where I can discuss various issues with Muslim women who are also searching for solutions relevant to this time and age."

The anonymity provided by the Internet can be a huge bonus in a situation where every conversation is monitored and there is an ever-present fear that the family will come to know what the women are up to.

Sites which have discussion boards on topics like religion and how the Qur'an is interpreted are providing a new outlet for such women. The discussion board on marriage has 51 views and 15 topics making it easier for Muslim women behind the veil to not only discover their identities but also communicate with other women.

Users, calling themselves 'concerned' or 'worried', use the discussion board on this site to ask a variety of questions: Asks one: "Why is Islam against dating?" Then there is another question, "I am a Sunni girl who is interested in a Shia boy. His family and my family have been friends for 15 years. Recently we realized that we are interested in each other. We decided to get engaged and after I finish school next year, we want to get married. My parents won't agree to this. What shall I do? Do I have to have their approval?"

Over 15 people have replied to these women, giving them directions, alternatives and hopes.
The number of sites for Muslim women is quite overwhelming - over 100,000. Some of them endeavour to break misconceptions about Muslim women. For instance, says, "Misinformation about Muslim women proliferates in the world today among non-Muslims and Muslims. I hope that instead of falling into the typical stereotypes and cultural innovation, the information here will pique your interest and help you to understand the true stance Islam takes on gender issues and the role of women." Another site provides an outlet for women who want to sell items, look for loans, and the like.
At a more personal level, Muslim women are beginning to realize that the Internet removes feelings of loneliness especially for those who live in places where there are few fellow Muslims. And Muslim women who work, find that the Internet allows them to work from home in a variety of fields and this is something which is also gaining popularity in the larger society. In addition, women who enjoy shopping from home are especially happy to see hard-to-find Islamic clothing and other products for sale on-line.

Some other sites are rather bold and up front., for instance, proclaims: "MUSLIM WOMEN: THIS IS YOUR PAGE - WHAT IS ON YOUR MIND....??? Determining your own direction in life? Work opportunities? Having a voice (vote?) in your own government? Women in Medicine and the other Sciences: Trade experiences, experiments and new ideas." Encouraging women to access this site is the invitation: "Woman talk ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING that's on your mind: There are many other women just as interested as you are and you can all benefit from discussing it with one another in this anonymous, easy-to-access web page."

A few websites are aimed at getting women out of their isolation. The Revolutionary Association of the Women in Afghanistan, for instance, has a site that opposes Taliban restrictions that keep women in homes.

Muslim women are also using the Net to look for advice from non-Muslims on health and legal issues.

"I have not met my parents for five years because I decided to leave my husband who used to beat me black and blue. I never went back to the area where I lived, because I had all my friends there and because it would hurt my parents. So, for a long while I felt quite isolated. For me the community was my only friendship arena and to be excluded meant no social life," says Shabana. "Things changed when I accessed the Internet. I now communicate with other Muslim women like myself and I no longer feel guilty about what I did. I no longer feel alone and these contacts have also helped me to start earning," she adds.

For women like Shabana who have been excommunicated from their local Muslim community for reasons such as leaving their husbands, the Internet offers an alternative space to find connections and interactions.

But for a majority of the Muslim women, life continues the way it has for centuries. Only the wealthiest and most educated segments of society have computers at home, and among those active in cyberspace, Muslims are over-represented, according to sociologists who are studying the Internet.

Interestingly, modern technology has thrown the orthodoxy into confusion about etiquette. "Islamic scholars are grappling with questions about proper online behaviour, such as whether it is acceptable for women and men to have e-mail contact or chat on-line and whether on-line shopping is permissible. Most Muslim scholars say that real world rules also apply in cyberspace," says Nafisa, a researcher.
While the Internet does open up lives, especially for secluded women, brings down barriers and provides anonymity, whether it has the real potential to initiate major changes in Muslims women's lives still remains to be seen.
(Women's Feature Service)

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