By Almudena Toral
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
The Afghan blogosphere is small but female practitioners say their words are closely monitored. The backlash to what they say helps define a range of off-limit topics, from criticizing religion to advocating for women's rights.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Shaharzad Akbar mulled it over a million times before pressing the "publish" button on April 4, 2007.
What went online then, to her blog in Farsi called "Mesle Aab, Mesle Aatash (Like Water, Like Fire)," was the first part of a series of posts called "insulting love," which she says has brought the worst backlash since she started blogging in 2006.
"The post argued that most Afghan popular songs and poetry portrayed a weak image of women and addressed them as property or an object rather than a full, intelligent human being," said Akbar, a 22-year-old graduate student at Oxford University in England, in an email interview.
Though she currently lives outside of Afghanistan, Akbar considers herself to be part of a slowly growing blogosphere of Afghan women writing about women's issues, politics and culture. As with other female bloggers, she takes advantage of a technology that affords them a rare opportunity for self-expression in a male-dominated culture.
Her blog post that day drew threats and "disrespectful, patronizing or outright insulting comments," she said. One male reader even created a blog dedicated to defaming her and accusing her and other female activists of being prostitutes.
Zahra Sadt, another blogger, posts a profile image of herself showing a middle-aged, dark-haired, unveiled woman who half smiles at the camera. She uses an alias in her blog that used to be her pen name when she was a reporter.
Sadt says when she can she blogs about issues such as poverty, the roots of prostitution, politics and the situation of women in Afghan jails. But "clear writing in Afghanistan is not easy and sometimes is not possible," she said.
"With blog writing I wanted to say to people--especially Afghan men who don't accept women as active members of society in Afghanistan--we are writing about what we are," Sadt said in an e-mail interview.
Sadt is a member of the Association of Afghan Blog Writers, which was started in 2006 by a male freelance journalist named Nasim Fekrat, one of the country's star online pundits.
The blog writers organization, created after another blogger was detained for content he posted, offers a glimpse of the small online world in a country where access to the Internet and electricity is scarce and society is male-oriented.
"From 280 [members], more than 15 are women," Fekrat said.
Numbers, in general, are not easy to come by.
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-headquartered organization devoted to protecting journalists worldwide, had no blogger figures for Afghanistan.
Charmaine Anderson, country director of the Afghanistan base of Internews, an international media development organization based in Arcata, Calif., and Washington, D.C., said the last numbers they've seen are from 2009; they suggested the country has about 2,500 active bloggers.
"I don't have a lot of information regarding women bloggers specifically," he said.
Sadt said she created two blogs in 2006. One was more feminist, intended to respond to radical Afghan Muslims. She said she had to delete this blog because of continuous threats. The other, the one she still updates, mixes journalistic and personal issues.
"I couldn't write some things that I felt are important for Afghan people," Sadt said, referring to her current blog called Hugger-mugger notes. "We can't write topics that we want because we're not safe."
Both Sadt and Akbar said their women's rights posts sparked the most threatening reactions and letters.
"I got many discouraging comments, especially when I wrote about women's issues and identity," Akbar said.
Akbar recalled how she once wrote in her gray-toned blog a series of letters to her youngest sister Noorjahan about growing up a woman in Afghanistan. The online letters touched issues ranging from prejudice to sexual harassment to relationships in a male-dominated culture. Not only did she get bothered, she says, but her family also got into trouble and were threatened since she wrote under her real name.
Sadt recently wrote about a poor man who sought help from a religious leader named Ayat Ollah Mohseny. After she criticized the religious leader for not helping the man, Sadt said she was severely threatened and had to take down the post.
"Killing you is very easy," the online threat said. "You want to make destroyed the character of Mr. Mohseny. We can search you easy. You should remove this story."
Although press freedom was formally restored after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, it has proven to be fragile.
"If you want to publish something [online], there's always a fear that they will accuse you," said Fekrat of the Association of Afghan Blog Writers.
He assigns three points on a 10-point scale to freedom of expression in his country. Afghanistan ranked 149 out of 175 in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders worldwide press freedom ranking.
"Freedom of speech is guaranteed in our constitution, but sometimes is broken from government, especially from police and also war leaders," said Zohra Najwa, a blogger whose blog portrait shows the profile of a veiled woman covering her face with a fully extended hand in a '"stop" gesture.
"Blogging is a reflection of how people feel about the situation in Afghanistan," said Nushin Arbabzadah, an Afghan female journalist who works for The Guardian in England. In 2004, she said, many exiles returned home from Iran, bringing with them their blogging customs learned in the more liberal neighboring country.
Now there's more tolerance for different views but security's worsening due to the increasing threat of the Taliban. Women have it tougher. "They're more at risk, more vulnerable, they need more courage," said Najibullah Sharifi, referring to female bloggers and reporters who cover politics and sensitive topics. Sharifi has worked as a journalist and fixer for Western media in Kabul for more than 10 years.
Like any blogger, Akbar said she knows her writing is a possible career hazard.
"I sometimes worry that particular blog posts of mine that have been written with anger and frustration about injustices facing women will be used against me when I look for work opportunities in Afghanistan," she said.
But Akbar uses her real name anyway, saying it keeps her accountable to her readers. Whatever the threats, she said she will continue blogging: "Once you start a struggle you have to be there to end it."
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Almudena Toral, a La Caixa Foundation fellow, is a reporter from Spain. She holds degrees in journalism and international relations.
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