A group of one’s own

Hussein Kesvani reports on how young Muslim women are using social media to create a safe space to self-educate and share ideas.

‘Are you going to hold his hand?!!’

‘Make sure you look at him directly when you speak to him!’

‘Do you think you’ll kiss?’

It’s late at night and Fatima (not her real name), 15, is doing what she always does at the end of the day: talking about boys on the internet. The Malaysian high schooler has had a crush on a boy in her class for months and he recently asked her out. It’s her first-ever date and she doesn’t know what to do.

On her blinkering laptop screen, she types replies to her friends’ questions: ‘I do not know how to!’ A few minutes later, Fatima is sent links to YouTube videos of popular romantic anime shows – the type of cartoons that girls her age use as a reference for their rites of passage.

There is nothing new about young girls chatting about first dates. But to do so freely in such frank terms is a fairly new phenomenon in Malaysia, which has a conservative attitude towards gender roles. Even more novel is that Fatima’s online friends don’t live in Malaysia: two are in Pakistan and the other is in Thailand.

The girls have never met in person – some have never even heard each other’s voices – but they are Fatima’s best friends, ‘the people [she] talks to about everything’. She says these international friendship groups, made through Facebook profiles, Tumblr blogs and Twitter accounts, are the norm for girls like her.

In the past few years, hundreds of private Facebook groups, blogs and message boards on Viber and WhatsApp have been set up by young women living in Muslim-majority countries. The groups deal with everything from marriage woes to national politics, acting as safe spaces to talk freely, without the need for mainstream media platforms.

Until recently Fatima had stuck to simple chat applications like WeChat, largely to speak to her schoolfriends about homework – but after getting Facebook she ‘experienced a bigger world’. It’s safe to assume others feel this way too: Malaysia has one of the highest proportions of ‘digital natives’ – those aged between 15 and 24 with at least five years of internet use – of any Global South country, and, with over 11 million users, one of the largest Facebook populations in southeast Asia.

‘It was so amazing to see so many people all over the world, who liked the same things as me,’ she tells me over an instant messenger program. ‘In my school, people can be shy and feel embarrassed, so it [was] difficult to talk [to them].’

Fatima used Facebook to follow groups that were linked to her favourite anime shows before stumbling into a fan-fiction group, where young women write new stories featuring their favourite fictional characters. More often than not, the narratives revolve around relationships and sex. Fatima didn’t want to divulge the contents of her fan fiction but she was happy to admit that they ‘made [her] life better’.

‘I had questions about myself and my body,’ she says. ‘In Malaysia, women are not told about [their] bodies until [they are] much older, when they are about to get married. Parents won’t talk, teachers won’t talk... so we learn from the internet.’

Many conversations about the impact of social media in Muslim countries tend to be deterministic and one-dimensional – either patronisingly fixated on its ability to ‘bring democracy’ to autocratic states, such as during the failed revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’, or obsessed with the phenomenon of Muslims being ‘radicalized’ into joining Jihadist groups. Little attention is paid to the way most young Muslims actually use social media.

Zainab (not her real name), a blogger from Saudi Arabia who moderates the group ‘Fierce Women of Riyadh’, tells me over Facebook that the group tends to attract women who are ‘smart, funny and bright’, who are not able to study or go to work.

‘For the women in our group, everyone is equal to say what they want or think – there are no rules, other than no men… It’s a space where you can be honest, which is difficult to find in Saudi Arabia,’ she says.

Zainab says that the group had also been a space where several women could safely talk about renouncing Islam. ‘Obviously it’s very dangerous to do any of that here, so the women find a refuge in this group. They are brave, but you can see why we are very careful about who we let in.’

This isn’t a phenomenon limited to women living in Muslim-majority countries. There are many groups with members who feel they exist on the fringes of mainstream Muslim life, and for whom the internet has provided a way to reconcile their relationships with faith. One such group is a support network on Tumblr for young Muslim women in Britain to help each other with sexual-health issues, including seeking medication for sexually transmitted diseases and accessing safe abortions.

‘On the internet you can get more privacy by being anonymous,’ explains Sobia Faisal, a post-doctoral researcher who specializes in Muslim femininity in online spaces. ‘You can also be more open because you’re talking to people your own age, which, of course, is better for many young girls than to talk about things with their parents or at religious schools.’

Faisal also warns that social media can pose dangers. ‘I think most young women in the West know about trolls, they know about being careful online and being wary of people’s identities. In many of the countries where young Muslim girls use the internet a lot, this culture is still relatively new – so there is a concern [there].’

For Fatima, social media offers a space where questions of identity can be asked and answered.

A BBC report found that young Malay-Muslim women on the internet often find themselves receiving misogynistic abuse from anonymous men. In a recent case, a 15-year-old girl was targeted on Twitter for not wearing the hijab after she ‘voiced her dream of becoming
the country’s first female prime minister’.

While Fatima acknowledged that risks exist online, it didn’t seem to be something that she or her friends took seriously.

‘I speak to new people all the time [on social media], and met my best friends on here!’ she says. ‘You can usually tell who is real and who is not… I have definitely seen people who are fake, because they all have the same kind of profile picture and they all ask for your picture.’

For Fatima, social media offers a space where questions of identity can be asked and answered. She and her friends have made it into a therapeutic medium, offering a model of social interaction the long-term effects of which will only become clear as they – the post-millennial cohort known as Generation Z – get older.

I ask if she feels her online identity allows her to be a more authentic version of herself. She stops typing for a few minutes, before replying:

‘It lets me be the person I want to be.’

Hussein Kesvani is a journalist based in London. His forthcoming book (Hurst Publishers) is about Muslim identity on the internet.