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.
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.”