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Friba Rezayee is an activist, a Judo coach and athlete, and a change maker.
Author: Friba Rezayee
Soon after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, two major telecom companies opened their businesses for Afghans in Afghanistan. One was Roshan and the second one was Afghan beseem. The second one translates as Afghan wireless in English language. The two mobile phone companies provided voice and SMS services, and later in 2007, they also provided 3G mobile data services. The smart phones also gradually become available. Millions of Afghans were able to use internet in their computers, phones, at home, offices, and at the internet cafes.
With internet connections becoming easy to use, so did the idea of having e-mail address. Millions of Afghans created e-mail addresses for themselves. They wanted to join the modern world by having a modern day method of communication. If they worked in offices, it was expected to have an e-mail address to connect to the rest of the world.
However, the majority of those users were men. Afghan women have been excluded from using this fast and efficient method of communication from early 2007 to present day. Having an e-mail address is considered to be for men only because they have the professional jobs, they go outside, meet people and need to be professional. If women did have an e-mail address, it would be for professional women who work in offices only; not every women. The majority of Afghan women aren’t professional and they will never be. This mentality is imposed on women by the patriarchy. Which makes women to believe to be incapable of using a modern technology. The only jobs and desire that Afghan women have are, to bear children, be obedient housewives, and daughter-in-laws to her husband and to her husband’s family. Which doesn’t require having an e-mail address.
In 2004, as soon as I learned that I could have an e-mail address, I wanted it. I was a teenager, and I wasn’t working. My older sister had one before me because she worked in an office, and she taught me how to create and use one. I remember that day like yesterday. I was wearing my green hoodie. My favorite pair of jeans, and I had very short hair cut like boys. My family didn’t’ have internet connection at home at that time, and I was told that I can’t have an e-mail address because I am a girl. That motivated me even more to have one. I went to the local cafe in Kabul city. I dragged sister along with me. I sat down on the chair. I turned on the old white and fat desk top and opened Windows XP. I went to the Hotmail site. It was hot at that time. I chose my user name for my e-mail address as frib_cool-Judo33@hotmail.com. My sister giggled at the choice I made for my user name. She suggested I should use my full legal name because it is professional, but I insisted in having this name because I thought it was cool. But I learned the importance of having a professional e-mail address later and in a hard way.
Back in 2004, the ISPs were not yet ready for home Wifi. Only the important offices, such as big NGOs, government offices, and internet cafes had internet connections. But since then two new telecom companies joined the internet business as well, Etisalat and MTN. That brings the total number of competing companies to four. There are about four to five ISPs other than the mobile phone companies, which provide internet connections to offices and homes. This also means there are more competitions among the companies in Afghanistan now. Which helps bring the cost down.
With mass productions of phones from China, it made it into reality for Afghans to have phones. Almost everyone has a phone in Afghanistan. If not an iPhone 11 or Galaxy S20, the low cost generic android phones are very common, and they can run all the current mobile apps.
Although, the touch screen phones have become affordable in Afghanistan, especially in the last eight to nine years, the number of women using and having e-mails in their computers or phones remain low. They’ve installed and use all the modern apps in their phones, but the concept of having an e-mail address still remains alien to many of them. I am talking about the women and girls in major and modern cities, such as Kabul, center of Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif provinces.
I work with and mentor a group of young Afghan women in Afghanistan over the internet from North America. They are high school, and University students. Some of them are staying at home. They’re not allowed to go to school or to have a career by their families — brothers in particular. From the group of twenty girls, only two of them had working e-mail addresses. One of them hid it from her brothers. She told me the reason later. She explained that whenever, she created an e-mail address for herself, her brothers hijacked it, and took over the control. The misogynist men fear that allowing women to have an e-mail address will make women and girls smart, it empowers them, and they will be come independent; they can be no longer controlled. Those men consider themselves the guardians and protectors of their sisters.
This is a similar story for couple of my friends as well. One of my friend, she lives in Australia. She is the same age as me. She is married with three children. She is literate, but she never had an e-mail address. The reason is the same.
I was curious, and wanted to dig deeper to understand why women are prevented from having an e-mail address. G-mail is easy and free to use. I asked the rest of the girls what was the reason. The answer was that having an e-mail address is beyond them. They’re constantly told by their brothers that “you’re a woman and you don’t need an e-mail address”. After being oppressed for generations, many women actually believe that they are worthless and are incapable of learning new things — technology in particular. On many occasions, women are told that administrating an e-mail address is like rocket science, and it is beyond your intelligence.
I’ve noticed many Afghan women use smart phones now a days, either iPhone or android phones on daily basis. They also use all the current apps, such as Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram for chats, and games. They use the camera to take photos, and record videos, and so on. They also regularly post stylish photos, and they are becoming very skilled in using the filters on their Instagram account to make their photos extra pretty and cute. But they still fear in having a G-mail account.
For instance, one morning, I was chatting and drinking coffee with one of the girls from the group, I noticed that she finished editing a photo of hers for social media post with filters in five seconds. Before I finished my first sip of coffee. She wanted to make her picture look picture perfect, and she did. It looked like it came from a photo studio in Hollywood, but she still felt incapable of checking messages in her e-mail inbox.
Having an e-mail is more serious than having an Instagram account in many cases, because Instagram is considered to be frivolous. Whereas having an e-mail address is only for women with white collar jobs. If a girl mentions the topic of creating an e-mail address at dinner with her family, she is immediately shut by her brothers by reminding her that she is not one of the women with high paying jobs. Such families prevent their girls from having higher education and having an e-mail address to communicate professionally, and they also insult them for not being one of professional women. The attitude is that women and girls can’t achieve beyond the domestic work; and they should remain so.
Many girls’ phones are watched and controlled by their brothers. All the chatting apps are to some extend watched and monitored as well, particularly their Instagram accounts. Brothers watch it closely to assure they don’t become like what they see as western Instagram sluts. In some cases, sisters ask her brothers for an approval of a picture for her Instagram post.
Many women negotiate to have permission to open a new G-mail account with their brothers. One of the common condition that brothers put on the negotiation is to share their e-mail password with them, or allow brothers to check the messages in their e-mail inbox whenever they want. The majority of women fight for their rights to e-mail privacy, but some of them accept the condition because that is the only way that they could have an e-mail address.