Magazine article New Internationalist

A Group of One's Own

Magazine article New Internationalist

A Group of One's Own

Article excerpt

'Are you going to hold his hand?!!'

'Make sure you look at him directly when you speak to him!'

'Do you think you'll kiss?'

It's late at night and Fatima·, 15, is doing what she always does at the end of the day: talking about boys on the internet. The Malaysian high schooler has had a crush on a boy in her class for months and he recently asked her out. It's her first-ever date and she doesn't know what to do.

On her blinkering laptop screen, she types replies to her friends' questions: 'I do not know how to!' A few minutes later, Fatima is sent links to YouTube videos of popular romantic anime shows - the type of cartoons that girls her age use as a reference for their rites of passage.

There is nothing new about young girls chatting about first dates. But to do so freely in such frank terms is a fairly new phenomenon in Malaysia, which has a conservative attitude towards gender roles. Even more novel is that Fatima's online friends don't live in Malaysia: two are in Pakistan and the other is in Thailand.

The girls have never met in person - some have never even heard each other's voices - but they are Fatima's best friends, 'the people [she] talks to about everything'. She says these international friendship groups, made through Facebook profiles, Tumblr blogs and Twitter accounts, are the norm for girls like her.

In the past few years, hundreds of private Facebook groups, blogs and message boards on Viber and WhatsApp have been set up by young women living in Muslim-majority countries. The groups deal with everything from marriage woes to national politics, acting as safe spaces to talk freely, without the need for mainstream media platforms.

Until recently Fatima had stuck to simple chat applications like WeChat, largely to speak to her schoolfriends about homework - but after getting Facebook she 'experienced a bigger world'. It's safe to assume others feel this way too: Malaysia has one of the highest proportions of 'digital natives' - those aged between 15 and 24 with at least five years of internet use - of any Global South country, and, with over 11 million users, one of the largest Facebook populations in southeast Asia.

'It was so amazing to see so many people all over the world, who liked the same things as me,' she tells me over an instant messenger program. 'In my school, people can be shy and feel embarrassed, so it [was] difficult to talk [to them].'

Fatima used Facebook to follow groups that were linked to her favourite anime shows before stumbling into a fan-fiction group, where young women write new stories featuring their favourite fictional characters. More often than not, the narratives revolve around relationships and sex. Fatima didn't want to divulge the contents of her fan fiction but she was happy to admit that they 'made [her] life better'.

'I had questions about myself and my body,' she says. 'In Malaysia, women are not told about [their] bodies until [they are] much older, when they are about to get married. Parents won't talk, teachers won't talk... so we learn from the internet.'

Many conversations about the impact of social media in Muslim countries tend to be deterministic and one-dimensional - either patronisingly fixated on its ability to 'bring democracy' to autocratic states, such as during the failed revolutions of the 'Arab Spring', or obsessed with the phenomenon of Muslims being 'radicalized' into joining Jihadist groups. …

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