Blogger profile: Afghan woman who speaks her mind

ALMUDENA TORAL | Updated on April 21, 2011

Technology affords a rare opportunity for self-expression in a male-dominated culture.

It was April 4, 2007, and Shaharzad Akbar finally pressed the ‘publish' button after mulling over it a million times. What went online that day on her blog in Farsi, called Mesle Aab, Mesle Aatash (Like Water, Like Fire), was the first of a series of posts she called ‘insulting love', and it brought her blog the worst backlash since she had started it 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,” says Shaharzad, a 22-year-old graduate student at Oxford University in the UK.

Though she currently lives outside Afghanistan, she considers herself part of a slowly growing blogosphere of Afghan women writing about women's issues, politics and culture. As with other women 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, patronising or outright insulting comments,” she says. One male reader even created a blog dedicated to defaming her, and terming her and other women activists as prostitutes.

Zahra Sadt is another blogger and her profile image shows a middle-aged, dark-haired, unveiled woman who half-smiles at the camera. She uses an alias on her blog — her pen name from the time she was a reporter — and when she can, writes about issues such as poverty, the roots of prostitution, politics and the situation of women in Afghan jails. “With blog writing I wanted to say to people — especially Afghan men who don't accept women as active members of society — we are writing about what we are,” she says, adding however that “clear writing in Afghanistan is not easy and sometimes not possible.”

A tiny community

Zahra is a member of the Association of Afghan Blog Writers, which was started in 2006 by a male freelance journalist, Nasim Fekrat, one of the country's star online pundits. The organisation, created after a blogger was detained over a post, offers a glimpse into the small online world in a country where access to the Internet and electricity is scarce, and society is male-dominated. “From 280 members, more than 15 are women,” Fekrat says.

But numbers, in general, are not easy to come by. Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-headquartered organisation devoted to protecting journalists worldwide, has no blogger figures for Afghanistan. Charmaine Anderson, Afghanistan country director for Internews, an international media development organisation based in Arcata, California, and Washington, D.C., says the latest numbers they have are from 2009; they suggest the country has about 2,500 active bloggers. In 2006, Zahra created two blogs. One was more feminist, intended to respond to radical Afghan Muslims. But she had to delete it following continuous threats. The other, which she still updates, mixes journalistic and personal issues. “I couldn't write some things that I felt are important for Afghan people,” Zahra says, referring to her current blog, called Hugger-Mugger Notes. “We can't write on topics that we want because we're not safe.”

Both Zahra and Shaharzad say 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,” Shaharzad says.

She recalls how she once wrote in her grey-toned blog a series of letters to her youngest sister, Noorjahan, about growing up as a woman in Afghanistan. The online letters touched issues ranging from prejudice to sexual harassment to relationships in a male-dominated culture. Both she and her family got into trouble and were threatened as she wrote under her real name.

Zahra recently wrote about a poor man who sought help from a religious leader named Ayat Ollah Mohseny. As she had criticised the religious leader for not helping the man, Zahra says she was severely threatened and had to remove the post.

“Killing you is very easy,” the online threat said. “You want to destroy the character of Mr Mohseny. We can search you easy. You should remove this story.”

Fragile freedom of press

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,” says Fekrat.

He gives three on a scale of 10 for 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,” says Zohra Najwa, a blogger whose profile image shows a veiled woman extending her hand in a ‘stop' gesture.

Says Nushin Arbabzadah, an Afghan woman journalist working for The Guardian in the UK, “Blogging is a reflection of how people feel about the situation in Afghanistan.” In 2004, she says, many exiles returned home from Iran, bringing with them their blogging customs learned in the more liberal neighbouring 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,” believes Najibullah Sharifi, referring to women bloggers and reporters covering 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, Shaharzad 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 says.

But she uses her real name anyway, saying it keeps her accountable to her readers. Whatever the threats, she says she will continue blogging: “Once you start a struggle you have to be there to end it.”

By arrangement with Women's eNews

© Women's Feature Service

Published on April 21, 2011

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