Thursday, August 22, 2013

Asian Women and Self-Expression in the Online World

I was contact by an Indian called Upasna Kakroo who's in university in Germany at the moment conducting research on the micro-benefits and intangibles of the online space and its impact on Asian women. She asked me to contribute my views on women and self-expression in the online world and I thought I'd share what I told her with you here on the blog...

Kakroo: On a personal end, do you have a story to share on how the online space enhanced your sense of being able to 'express'. What drives you to share online?

I've been using the Internet since 1989 when I went to college in the US and academic institutions had email and BBSs and IRC. So I've grown up with the technology. When I came back to Pakistan, the World Wide Web had just been invented and arrived in Pakistan in 1996. I was fascinated by what it meant not just for me on a personal level but for Pakistani society.  Not only did I become the editor of two computer/Internet magazines, but I was inspired to write a novel about the technology, the 786 Cybercafe, about three young Sindhi men who try to set up a cybercafe in the middle of Karachi's main shopping district. 

One of the characters in that novel is a girl called Nadia who lives a typical, constricted middle class life in a family of many sisters. She's expected to have a minimal education and then get married and raise a family. But she decides that she wants to learn about the Internet, so she sneaks out of her house on the pretext of going to the beauty salon or for shopping with  her sisters. Wearing a full burqa so nobody can recognise her, she goes to the cybercafe and starts to learn how to use email, how to surf, how to chat online. In the process the boys all fall in love with her and react to her in different ways. Looking back on that novel, I realise that the story wasn't about the boys as much as it was about her expanding her world, finding her identity beyond what her family had prescribed for her, and expressing herself as a woman and a member of society. 

This is really what Pakistani women have been experiencing as they find themselves able to self-express online and that carries through to their regular lives, as they are exposed to ideas and people from different parts of the world. They are becoming more aware of their rights and of different possibilities about how to live their lives. This is the true power of the Internet and of space online. I think this is what inspires me to share my own experiences and ideas online, to be part of that conversation and to shape it in any way possible.

Kakroo: As an observer, is there some significant change that you've observed in terms of how Pakistani women express themselves over the online medium over a period of time?

Pakistani women have always been expressive and passionate about their lives and their experiences. The difference is that before, while they would share within their circles of friends and family, now they are able to share with a larger circle that may or may not be comprised of friends and family. They are in fact making friends across the world and forging connections with other women in other Muslim countries, or other women in non-Muslim countries, and exploring the differences and similarities between their lives. They bring the strength and support of these friendships into their lives and it makes them more confident and engaged in the idea of themselves as not just members of a certain family or ethnicity or citizenship but a larger global community.

Another difference I see is in how they are relating to men. The average Pakistani woman, if there is such a thing, has always been encouraged to keep their relationships with men restricted to what is considered acceptable by their family standards: men in the family first of all, perhaps (if the family is liberal or progressive enough) school and college friends, and then colleagues, but all within societal confines. And there's always the feeling that if you're befriending a man who isn't in your family, you're up to something, which stunts real friendship and bonding between two people who are really just human beings, beyond their gender.

With the Internet, you see women learning how to talk to men without worrying as much about what their family is going to think or how they'll react. They're learning to make friendships with men that range from intellectual, frivolous, friendly, fun to even romantic, flirtatious and sexual without the eyes of everyone on them. There are people who will find this terrible and threatening to social order, but I see it as a form of exploration and again, self-discovery. Pakistani women can be very sheltered and protected and so have an idealised or romantic view of what the opposite gender is like. Through the Internet, with access to information about everything, and with the ability to talk and chat and Skype with anyone, not only are Pakistani women enjoying privacy in their relationships, but choice, and perhaps getting a more realistic picture of how to interact and relate to the opposite sex. 

Upsana will be working on collecting stories, existing research and her own analysis of how the online space affects Asian women in terms of their self-expression, self-esteem, and personal opportunities. If you'd like to participate in the research or help Upasna in any way, leave a comment here and I'll help you get in touch with her.

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