Qatr al-Nada is a 24-year-old university graduate. And for a long time she believed she was just another one of many Iraqi graduates, sitting around unemployed, waiting for a job opportunity with a government department that might never come. Her family is large and conservative and she doesn't have a lot of freedom in Diwaniya, a province where tribal and religious customs still rule society.
“At university I could have a good time with my female friends,” al-Nada tells NIQASH. “We used to dream about how our lives would be after gradation, what jobs we might get. But now I am virtually a prisoner in my own home – it's almost impossible for me to leave the house and see my friends. I am bored and lonely. I tried to find a job after graduation but this seems like an almost impossible task.”
Happily then al-Nada found one of the many Iraqi women's groups on Facebook. These are usually closed groups that you have to ask to join. But they're becoming increasingly popular as an outlet for local females who cannot do much unsupervised by male family members. The different Facebook groups are used for social interaction but they're also tools for shopping, entertainment, news and for giving out medical advice specifically to women. Some of the Facebook groups get involved in tutoring in handicrafts or sewing circles.
One such group, called the “Kitchen of Diwaniya”, has around 10,000 members. The woman who is administrating the group – she wished to be known only as Um Ali – started the group for exactly the aforementioned reasons. “Women have needs but they cannot be fulfilled because of the society around them,” Um Ali wrote in an emailed interview. “They might not know what is going on. So the aim of this group is to inform local women about cooking, fashion and shopping as well as to provide some entertainment. Some of the women online have even been able to start making money from their skills – for example with home made food or with handicrafts - and also to promote their husbands' or brothers' work. In fact,” Um Ali adds, “this group has been so successful that we have had other provinces start similar groups.
My sister added me to one of the Facebook groups and I felt like I had discovered a whole new world.
For Um Ali, one of the most important things about her Facebook group is that it allows women in Diwaniya to reflect upon social and cultural diversity and “to exchange views”, she says.
According to another local woman, Nahrawan Munem, the Facebook groups are a “unique opportunity”.
Munem is a fashion designer and she's been making both modern Western-style clothing and more conservative Islamic dresses. But she couldn’t afford to open her own store. “In a market dominated by men, where property rental is very high I just couldn’t compete,” the 30-year-old says. “But the Facebook groups have opened new doors for me.”
Facebook friends have been buying her designs and she has also become acquainted with the wife of a clothing store owner, who has been able to arrange for Munem's clothes to be stocked there. “I have a workshop now and I am generating a good income. The profits vary from month to month but I'm making, on average, around US$600. For me, that's a really good amount,” she notes.
Munem is not the only woman taking advantage of the captive audience. Facebook has become a way for all kinds of promotion and sales. “Social media has provided us with a place where we can advertise our businesses for free,” says Shahla Qassim, 50, who owns a local beauty salon. “In fact its much better than traditional advertising because the women's groups are so big and they are quick to react, especially when it comes to useful information on things like imported make up, or new and used furniture.”
Some people are even using the Facebook groups as a way to meet potential partners. The women in the groups befriend one another and hear about someone who might make a suitable wife for a male relation. One of the Facebook group administrators, Zahra al-Narjes, says she's actually helped to arrange marriages in a way that complies with Diwaniya's conservative ways.
“My sister added me to one of the Facebook groups and I felt like I had discovered a whole new world,” says Dalel Kamel, a 35-year-old housewife. Kamel graduated from the teacher's college in the Shamiyah district but has since married and does not work. She does the housework and in her spare time she gets on Facebook because in the evenings her husband will often go out and meet his friends at a coffee shop. Unlike in places like Baghdad or Basra, there are no coffee shops for women here or any other cultural forums where females can easily meet.
“Why aren't there any?,” Kamel asks. “I heard that the Ministry of Youth and Sports was going to start a special project for women here, like a female-only sports club. If that ever happened it would be a very important project for the women here.”
Kamel says she gets bored and lonely when her husband goes off to meet his friends. “But on Facebook I get to interact with people outside my home and I really feel as though I am discovering new worlds every day. I am starting to get to know about cooking and interior decoration, two things I really love. And I have realised how isolated I was,” she notes.
Of course it's not all good news on Facebook. Group administrator Narjes says that members must abide by strict rules about respecting other people's opinions and on interaction. “Posts are monitored all the time and any comments that contain insults or any kind of sectarian or religious incitement or anything immoral are deleted immediately,” she explains.
And there are also all the usual dangers of social media. “Social media is very important but it can be dangerous at the same time,” argues Feryal al-Kaabi, a women's rights campaigner and the head of the AWAN For Awareness and Capacity Building organisation in Diwaniya. “Some women have fallen victim to fraudsters when it comes to buying and selling valuable things. Men have used Facebook to cheat on their wives or start affairs. And some people have become victims of blackmailers.”
Despite these dangers though it is difficult to imagine how anyone could stop the women who are motivated enough to join the Facebook groups, in order to escape into another more liberal world.