Chat Rooms and Women’s Virtual Freedom

Gharabiya, a Israeli PhD student, found a new phenomenon among Bedouin teenage girls in the unrecognized towns of the Negev (Israel): On Fridays, when Arab schools do not hold class, they go to school, kilometres away from their homes, just to use the Internet, where they enter chat rooms or talk via IM.

He also observed that 60 percent of the youth from permanent communities have an Internet connection. “In the past, these youths surfed the Web mainly at school and at the community centre, or via cell phone,” he says. “Now there are homes with wireless Internet. Some homes run their computers via a generator or through a solar receptor. The Bedouin population is young, and young people are more open to new technologies.”

Like many other teens, Bedouin teens use instant messaging programs mainly to communicate with teen friends. However, “The Bedouin are usually isolated and cut off also from the rest of Israeli society, from the rest of the Arab sector, which lives mostly in the north, and from Arabs in other countries. Chat rooms open a window.”

What is interesting to notice is that the Internet made the greatest change in the lives of young girls. “In Bedouin society there is rather strict separation of the sexes, and a chat room is the only place where they can talk with members of the opposite sex,” says Gharabiya. “It is especially significant for the girls, because their social circle is even smaller, and their freedom of movement is limited. Not all of them can leave their parents’ community. Unlike the boys, girls are not allowed to go to town after classes, or to visit friends. In this respect, technology is very important.” In many Bedouin schools, it is not acceptable for girls to take part in sports classes. Therefore, they are sent to the computer room, where they are supposed to prepare assignments….however, they take advantage of it to surf the web.

In fact, chat rooms allow them to avoid customs and prohibitions and to overcome the severe limits in traditional society, chiefly the separation of the sexes and the strict restrictions imposed on women.

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