Sunday, 7 October 2012

Social Networking and Pashtun Women's Empowerment

For a detailed abstract of this study, please click here.

In August-September 2011, after reading some articles on women’s blogging activities and the overall role of the internet in women’s lives in certain parts of the world (e.g., Egypt, Iran), I decided that I wanted to do something with Pashtun women’s blogs. Indeed, the mere idea of the Pashtun diaspora fascinates me—their issues, their concerns, their identity politics, their traditions—and the blogosphere and virtual communities, the focus of the study below (and a major research interest of mine) arguably fall under discourses on the diaspora. So I regularly tweeted about these blogs and asked if anyone knew (of) other bloggers who identified themselves as Pashtun who were not included in my list, and I was introduced to several amazing blogs by Pashtun women all over the world but mostly in the West, although it does not matter to me where they are based or where they are from so long as they self identify as Pashtun women. I’m still looking for more, and I suppose I’ll be looking for more for as long as I am interested in the idea of women’s empowerment through the Internet, so if you know of more Pashtun women bloggers, please feel free to share them with me. 

Then in a course I took in the Spring of 2012, I was having a conversation with a professor on this idea of blogging and the whole phenomenon of the Internet forums (virtual communities) among Pashtuns, and he seemed more excited about this whole thing than I was. He encouraged me to write about for the term paper for our class, which I thought was an excellent idea. And so, below is a partial result of that study—partial because 1) I share here only excerpts from the paper, and 2) this study is not complete as of yet, as I’m still seeking more bloggeres and I’m still surveying the Internet forums looking for how exactly gender is performed in the members’ conversations with each other, or just how gender interaction works online among Pashtuns.

Although I focused only on Pashtun women’s blogs for the paper below, I understand that, especially because of the lack of Pashtun women bloggers as well as because of the importance of our men bloggers, it is important to highlight the men’s role on the Internet as well. In the study below, when noting gendered conversations, I focused on both women and men, but for the blogs, I did not. However, I am still looking for Pashtun blogs, whether women or men, young or old, Pakistani or Afghan (nationally), no matter where they are located or what they do. I still need more bloggers (men or women) to answer some questions I have on empowerment, gender interactions online, their blogs, etc.  The list of bloggers I have developed so far can be accessed here.

Thanks in advance for your participation – and for reading! :) Feedback is always welcomed and deeply appreciated!

P.S. The symbol […] means that that the original version of this paper continues to say more at that instance, but I have excluded that from this version.


When I first joined an online Pashtun community (late 2008), which was dominated by males, the male members started discussing my gender and race, insisting that I could not be a female with the non-traditional views I was apparently flaunting in my posts. They added that if I were female, I could not possibly be Pashtun because Pashtun women are not supposed to carry themselves the way I did; at most, I was a “fully” western woman who knew Pashto and wanted to give a voice to the apparently silenced Pashtun women. The debate faded with time after one of the community members assured them that he had spoken to me and I was indeed a Pashtun female.  On another online community, which I joined in early 2010, I was initially declared a Moderator but eventually demoted to the status of a regular member after, among other reasons, a majority of the community members complained that I was a threat to their religion and culture because of my ostensibly non-traditional views on women, gender, religion, and society. 

These incidences hint toward the reverence for traditional values that are upheld and promoted among young western Pashtuns who are actively involved in virtual Pashtun communities. One might suppose that because a majority of the Pashtun Internet users seem to have been raised in the west, they would be more welcoming of non-orthodox views because of the diversity of thoughts, beliefs, and practices present in the west; […]  
This study discusses the rising phenomenon of social networking and its role in women’s empowerment, primarily among Diasporic Pashtuns. By social networks, I refer specifically to Internet discussion forums and the blogosphere. I analyze the roles that these social networks play in empowering women, encouraging them to speak up, not necessarily against their culture, traditions, or religion, but to have their voice heard about their experiences as Pashtun women, among many issues. It is my impression that there is a new “culture” that is being produced in the cyber space among Pashtun users of the Internet, a culture that challenges many traditional Pashtun values—such as methods of marriage, which are traditionally arranged and sometimes forced, and gender roles— and seems to be a mixture of, or an intertwining of, “western” and Pashtun values; this culture may not be compatible with the Pashtun culture inside Afghanistan and/or Pakistan, as the physical Pashtun space arguably does not provide Internet Pashtun users the medium for this sort of change and for the flourishing of this nascent culture.

Here, I first define empowerment and contest some of the views held over the meaning of the term—and over what an empowered woman looks and behaves likes, or how empowerment can be detected. Then, I discuss my personal experiences with blogging and the role that it has played in my life as a Muslim Pashtun woman. I move on to sharing the perspectives of a few other Pashtun women bloggers, analyzing their responses to questions of empowerment and the significance of blogging in their lives. Afterwards, I bring up the phenomenon of online Pashtun communities and survey them to get a glimpse of Pashtun gender perceptions, noting how the Pashtuns in the diaspora—both women and men—understand some basic roles and rights of women and men to be. In this section, it will also be important to discuss the Pashtun diaspora, examining particularly how they struggle to maintain their cultures and traditional values while living in the West.

Understanding Empowerment

When I first decided to write on the issue of Pashtun women’s empowerment through social networking and specifically through blogging, I was searching for the blogs of those Pashtun women who engaged themselves in “intellectual” discussions, writing on “serious” topics, such as politics, society, and religion. I was not, for example, looking for blogs replete with “gossip” or “every-day things.” I wanted to find signs of heterodoxy, explicit discussions of taboo subjects, disagreement with status quo, challenges to the roles typically associated with Pashtun and other Muslim women (which are primarily domestic and private roles as opposed to public). But I realized that I was excluding an important circle of Pashtun women bloggers who perhaps simply had no problem with the roles with which they might be associated. Although this is not to imply that they are indeed necessarily satisfied with their current roles and rights, I did realize that absence of discussions of certain topics in itself reveals much about what this particular circle of bloggers view as important. Hence, what does it mean to be empowered? What does an empowered woman do or talk about, and how does she show her empowerment? 

The expectations I initially had of Pashtun women bloggers are reinforced in much of the literature on blogging women and empowerment. Nouraie-Simone, for example, who writes on Iranian women bloggers, states that, for "educated young Iranian women, cyberspace is a liberating territory of one's own--a place to resist a traditionally imposed subordinate identity while providing a break from pervasive Islamic restrictions in public physical space” ( "Identity and Cyberspace" in On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era, ed. Fereshteh Nouraie-Simone, 2005). Her study examines the various identities that Iranian women assume on the Internet, most of them as anonymous writers whose frustrations with not being able to speak and think freely in the physical spaces of the Iranian society have reached a level that impels them to turn to another medium through which they can express their feelings, desires, beliefs, and identities. These bloggers write mostly on issues of sex and sexuality, and Nouraie-Simone reads this as empowerment.

There is also the highly acclaimed book, I Want to Get Married! by Ghada Abdel Aal, an Egyptian blogger who started the book as a blog in 2006, received immense support from her readers, including her Egyptian readers, and decided to publish it as a book. I Want to Get Married contains the stories of one Egyptian female, a well-educated pharmacist, who is unable to find a suitable partner for marriage. […] The book may be read as a critique of the society in which it takes place. Nora Eltahawy, the translator of the book, writes, “In a culture that likes to use the saying ‘Homes are made of secrets,’ Abdel Aal has opened the door to hers, challenging the pressure traditionally placed on women to keep silent about such issues within the Middle east, and defying Western onlookers’ expectations of the exclusive performance of that traditionalism” (Abdel Aal, xi).

Such readings of the blogosphere insinuate that in order for a female blogger to be empowered or to express her empowerment, she must be engaged in public discussions of “taboo” subjects such as sex or, in the Egyptian case, exposing the “secrets” of her home or society. While I do not deny the empowerment of these women, I do suggest that this is merely one form of empowerment. What, for example, about those women who feel empowered but do not feel comfortable writing about, or simply do not wish to write about or are not interested in, such subjects? Is it not possible for a woman to work and live inside the social, political, and religious system that has bred her and in which she continues to live and struggle, but still feel empowered? Must she express disagreements with her society and surroundings in order to show that she is an empowered being? I suggest that this reading of women’s empowerment excludes those women who prefer to express their empowerment through other means rather than through writing about subjects such as sex, love, and marriage. [...]

As for the earlier point about my initial objective of seeking only “serious” blogs, it is worth questioning what exactly the term “serious” entails. What does a serious blog look like? Why was I excluding “gossip” blogs from my study? Indeed, why is gossiping bad? More importantly, what constitutes gossip? […] I opine that gossiping is attributed a negative status among intellectuals because it is generally a women’s activity—not a men’s activity—and women’s activities tend to be given much less importance than men’s. […]

Yet, contrary to the idea that gossip is not serious, Limbert’s study of women’s gatherings in Bahla, Oman, points to the importance of community-building among women, taking heed of their conversations, some of which may be considered gossip, noting the changes of conversations and customs that take place alongside Oman’s economy as a result of the discovery of oil (In the Time of Oil, chapter 4). This is to argue that women’s gossip is not necessarily vacuous rants about nothing; instead, they are often in line with the political and social changes that they as individuals and as communities undergo. Even if their gossip is mere talks of what other women are up to or judgments passed against other women, it is valuable in that it offers us a glimpse of their social expectations of each other. What defines a good or a bad woman, for instance?

Blogging as a Tool of Empowerment

Blogging is a new phenomenon, perhaps ten years old at most, writes Rettberg (Blogging: Digital Media and Society Series, 2008). She points out that blogs are "part of the history of communication and literacy, and emblematic of a shift from uni-directional mass media to participatory media, where viewers and readers become creators of media. Blogs are also part of the history of literature and writing" (Ibid, 1). Hence, blogging is a form of media, a form of literature, a sub-category of history, a response to globalization supported and enhanced by modern technology. When people blog, they are therefore contributing to all of these genres, participating as citizens of the world, responding to global changes and historical (technological) developments.

Why would someone choose to blog? A Pashtun female reader of my blog tells me that, although she has not started blogging yet and intends to soon, she imagines that the mere thought of being read by readers from anywhere in the world, people you may never encounter in real life, is empowering in itself. […]  
Another tells me that she turned to blogging because, “many years ago” in her twenties,
the online community was growing and there were always topics I desperately wanted to talk about but there were limitations for women (especially Pukhtanay [Pashtun females]) and a lack of platforms to speak. Although [online discussion] forums had male and female members, the male members dominated with their opinions (even on forums where more female members were active in comparison to male members!). I then came across a friends blog and loved the idea, and it rolled on from there. I started off with my daily ramblings but as I got more comfortable I slowly started to talk about deeper issues.
Online Pashtun Communities

Another powerful tool of communication that has emerged as a product of modern technology is virtual communities and online discussion forums. […] The gap between different genders, primarily women and men, continues to dominate the Pashtun society even online, where one is given the opportunity to challenge virtually all traditions without fearing any consequences due to possible anonymity, if one so wishes to remain unknown by her or his interlocutors or by the public viewer. […] Yet, it is not uncommon to encounter discussions on these forums that deny the Pashtun identity of certain Pashtuns solely on the basis that they do not uphold a certain tradition that the majority of the Pashtuns are believed to uphold, such as arranged marriage or wearing “modest” clothing. […] Patriarchal ideals are also reinforced on these forums. A new member joins, for instance, only to express interest in discovering his roots as a Pashtun, and when the other participants of the discussion ask him whether his father is Pashtun and the new member’s response is no, the rest unanimously agree that this person is not Pashtun because his father is not Pashtun. Also, while the question of a Pashtun man marrying a non-Pashtun never seems to arise among these discussants, the question of a Pashtun woman marrying a non-Pashtun always seems to trouble many among them. […] But identity labels are made on a constant basis on these forums nonetheless. For example, when a self-proclaimed non-Muslim member sought the advice of the community members in regards to marrying a Pashtun girl, he was told that “No Pakhtana [Pashtuna female] would marry you, she isn't pakhtana if she falls in love with an Infidel.” However, this is not to imply that all of the participants in these communities are interesting in determining other members’ Pashtunness or non-Pashtunness. One community member writes, for instance, to a question on the Pashtunness of those who are paternally Pashtun but have mixed blood somewhere along the line of their ancestry, that

In my honest opinion, paternal or maternal probably plays a minor role in shaping the behaviour, but if psychologically the person is not fond of Pashtuns, nor has the slightest care towards the ethnic group, Then does blood really have do to with anything at all? Just because they are Pashtun you should marry them? A lot of things should be taken into consideration. Being born to a Pashtun mom or dad is not enough, At all.
Conclusions and Future Directions

[…] This study is a part of a larger project I intend to complete on Pashtun women’s online interactions, focusing on their blogging activities and their posts in online discussion forums. Other issues this study intends to discuss include Pashtun women’s identity formations through online discussion forums or through online interactions with other Pashtuns; a detailed discussion on the different topics in which Pashtuns of Afghanistan engage themselves compared to those addressed by the Pashtuns of Pakistan, as the former appear to participate in political conversations more while the latter in social; a deeper analysis of gendered threads, posts, and blogs by both women and men that give a clearer idea of what can be concluded from their expectations and beliefs of gender roles and rights. […]

Qrratugai is an Islamic Studies student with emphasis on gender relations in Islamic law and Muslim societies. She tweets at and blogs at