Thursday, November 27, 2014


Afghanistan

Afghan Guys And Gals Meet Facebook To Facebook

A woman browses on a computer at a women-only Internet cafe in Kabul.
A woman browses on a computer at a women-only Internet cafe in Kabul.
By Farangis Najibullah
High-school student Muhammad Akbar has never dated a girl in real life, but he's got plenty of girlfriends on Facebook.

With social and religious taboos restricting face-to-face contact between unrelated members of the opposite sex, Facebook's popularity has skyrocketed as a virtual meeting place in Afghanistan.

Akbar spends nearly an hour every evening in a packed Internet cafe near his home in Kabul's Shah Shahid area to chat with his female "friends." To pay for his online habit, which costs about 100 afghanis ($2) an hour, he has taken a part-time job as a garage assistant.

"In Afghanistan, we don't have disco clubs to meet with girls. It's not allowed here to go on a date with girls, to meet and talk with them face to face," Akbar says. "Marriage is the only way to have a relationship with a woman, but many people can't easily afford to get married. Facebook has solved that problem for many."

Bright Spot

Akbar says chatting with girls online has made life in the war-torn, poverty stricken country "a lot less frustrating."

While being seen chatting to an unrelated boy in public can tarnish a girl's reputation, "with Facebook, there is no risk of being beaten up by your female friend's relatives," he reasons.

Such advantages have fueled a sharp rise in new Facebook accounts.

According to the Communication and Information Ministry, there are now more than 470,000 registered Facebook accounts in Afghanistan, compared to 6,000 in 2008.

Some 2 million of Afghanistan's 30 million people have access to the Internet, according to the ministry, mostly through Internet cafes and mobile phones.

About two years ago, Ahmad Sipehr learned about Facebook when a classmate at a Kabul university helped him join the social network. The revelation prompted him to open up his own Internet cafe.

"I would travel several kilometers to the nearest Internet cafe just to use Facebook," Sipehr says. "Then I decided to open an Internet cafe myself. It was Facebook that prompted me to open this business."

The 21-year-old journalism student now runs one of the busiest Internet cafes in downtown Kabul. Sipehr frequently helps visitors open Facebook accounts for the first time, and before long they are regular customers.

Double Standard?

An informal survey of profiles suggests that many Afghan Facebook users are urbanites in their late teens and 20s. Interests include Bollywood movies, Afghan music, and sport -- mostly soccer and cricket -- among other things.

Such browsing also reveals that male Afghan Facebook users appear to have little concern about online security -- their photos, status updates, and posts are often open to the public.

But girls must take certain precautions. In accordance with social norms that discourage the idea of women putting themselves on display, female Facebook users in Afghanistan rarely post their photos online, at least publicly.

They also tend to post photos of celebrities -- Indian actresses are a favorite -- as their profile pictures.

That doesn't prevent them from attracting many suitors, however.

RFE/RL set up an account as a 22-year-old female medical student living in Kabul to get an idea of what kinds of "friends" she would attract, and received more than 900 friend requests within a month.

Most were young men interested in chatting and sharing photos, while others appeared interested in a real-life relationship.

'A Better Life'

Mock female accounts can be the cause of real heartbreaks in Afghanistan, says Rafiullah Baher, a 22-year-old Kabul student.

"A friend of mine believed he was deep in a relationship with a girl on Facebook and that it was getting serious. But the girl turned out to be a bogus profile made by our local butcher's son," says Baher. "It took my friend a while to get over his heartbreak."

“Now I try to add only those who I know," Baher says. "And I hesitate to chat with girls on Facebook because it seems 50 percent of Afghan female Facebook accounts are fake profiles made by boys."

Instead Baher uses Facebook to post his favorite poetry and updates on the Afghan national cricket team's matches abroad.

In Shah Shahid neighborhood, Akbar is still looking for love on Facebook.

"Recently, my best friend met an American woman on Facebook. They got married and now he lives in Chicago," Akbar says. "He was determined to use Facebook to find a wife and he made it. And why not? Everyone has the right to find ways to a better life."

Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah, with contributions by RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Safiullah Stanikzai from Kabul

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