Saudi women unveil opinions online
More women are blogging in the Kingdom, getting the attention of censors and their conservative counterparts.
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA — In this country where women are forced to completely cover themselves in public, are barred from driving, and need permission to travel abroad, it's small wonder many are embracing the freedom of anonymity on the Internet.
As Internet usage continues to climb here, so do the numbers of women who have started Web logs, or blogs, to express themselves in ways they might never do in public.
"I love blogging because it helps me to express myself and I like to write in English," says Farah Aziz, a translation student at King Saud University in Riyadh who started blogging in January 2005.
The content of Ms. Aziz's blog (http://farahssowaleef.blogspot.com), which chronicles the life of a college student, would probably do little to cause alarm among government censors. But other women bloggers are drawing the attention of the state as well conservative male bloggers who have taken to policing the Internet for bloggers acting in ways that they perceive as inappropriate according to Islam.
Saudi Eve, who regularly writes about her love life and religion, and who declined to be identified by her real name because of the sensitivity of the issue, woke up on June 2 to find that her blog (http://eveksa.blogspot.com) had been blocked.
"Back and blocked," she wrote on her blog on June 2. "I'm temporarily back in Saudi only to find that 'Saudi Eve is officially blocked in Saudi.' "
The closure of her site signals the beginning of a cyber battle between liberal Saudi bloggers and their more conservative counterparts.
Blogging under the name Green Tea (http://www.g-tea.com/), Riyadh law student Mohammed al-Mossaed recently formed a conservative group of Saudi bloggers called the Official Community of Saudi Arabian Bloggers (OCSAB). "I am not responsible for the blocking of any website," says Mr. Mossaed. "OCSAB also has nothing to do with it. Maybe [Saudi Eve] broke [the state's] rules by sometimes talking about God and sex."
Response and sympathy from fellow bloggers was swift, with many urging the Kingdom's Internet watchdog, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), to unblock the site.
Deeply conservative, Saudi Arabia is among the most restrictive countries in regard to Internet access in the world, with most traffic going through a central hub at KACST in Riyadh. The biggest number of sites blocked are pornographic sites, followed by sites that discuss drugs, religion, and terrorism. But KACST itself admits that it sometimes blocks benign sites by mistake.
"The blacklist we use is a combination of an international commercial blacklist and a local blacklist," says Mishaal Al-Kadhi, the head of KACST's Internet Service Unit, in a phone interview from Riyadh. "Ninety-five percent of blocked sites are pornographic. But we do make mistakes sometimes and urge people to e-mail us with their unblock requests."
Saudi Eve, who is in her late 20s, single, and often travels abroad on business, says she was singled out for being female and for daring to write about her love life and God in the same post.
"My blog wasn't blocked because I wrote about romantic escapades, for as you know there are so many blogs on the Internet – both Saudi and non-Saudi – that write/blog about 'romantic escapades' among other Saudi taboos but aren't being blocked in Saudi," she said an e-mail exchange.
"In my opinion, my blog was singled out and blocked because I – a Saudi female – wrote about romantic escapades in Arabic, plus I committed the 'ultimate sin' by mentioning the name of God in those posts," she explained. "To a Saudi male, romance is only allowed if written in English or by a male. It definitely isn't tolerated if it's written by a Saudi female, let alone in Arabic."
Saudi Eve is not the only blogger to feel the wrath of conservative bloggers. Aziz, too, has had her run-ins with OCSAB and Green Tea, saying that they have threatened her in comments left on her site.
"First, they say that a blog cannot disrespect Islam in any way in order for it to be included in OCSAB," says Aziz. "Second, they say that they don't accept blogs that are personal diaries, which is ridiculous as most blogs are just that."
Yet Aziz admitted that OSCAB's aim to spread the culture of blogging among Saudis was working, though perhaps not to her liking.
One female blogger (http://www.classic-diva.blogspot.com/) said that she was stopped from using the Internet at home for several months after her conservative brothers grew suspicious about why she was spending so much time online.
"I've been blogging since April 2005. It's a way to vent out my frustrations and to write," said Jo, who asked only that her first name be used. "My family knows that I have a site, but they don't have a concept of what blogging is."
Jo was forced to sneak out of her house to use the Internet at the house of friends or at a local Starbucks, and still has limited access to the Internet at home. She says that the blocking of Saudi Eve signals a battle that has already started between liberal and conservative bloggers in the Kingdom.
"We have this clash going on between us liberals and the conservatives in the blogosphere. I think that OCSAB is trying to scare us," says Jo.
For her part, Saudi Eve has not decided yet whether she will start a new blog to overcome being blocked in Saudi, or whether she will send KACST a request to unblock her site.
"I haven't decided yet whether to react to this block or just to ignore it. There are readers in the rest of the world you know!" she said in an e-mail shortly before leaving the kingdom on yet another business trip abroad.