In a beauty parlor in the Macroyan area of Afghanistan, women gather to have their makeup done. Among the few public places in Afghanistan that are exclusively for women, the women watch beauty tips from Indian programming on TV, and surf Facebook for fashion pages.
Nearby in a women’s madrassa, students share scholars’ Facebook pages, and discuss using Skype and Facebook to give religious lessons to young nephews living abroad.
In a recent study of media use and consumption in Afghanistan, the salon and madrassa were among limited spaces, even in urban areas like Macroyan, where women consumed information without interpretation or mediation from men.
“Let me tell you my experience of how women get their information differently from men. Every night my father tells us different stories from different areas, because my father is out from morning to evening and also because people share information about everything more with males than with females,” said a 22-year-old woman in Macroyan, interviewed for the study. “A taxi driver shares his experience of the event he is eyewitness to, but he can’t tell anything to a woman during driving, so these women refer to men to get more information about everything.”
Afghan Information Ecosystems
Afghanistan has made great strides in establishing media and communications outlets; today there are more than 250 independent radio stations and 100 TV channels across the country. However, very little is known about the ways in which Afghans, including these women, actually engage in information exchange.
To inform work with the media and effectively enhance access to information in Afghanistan, Internews commissioned Sayara Research to map information ecosystems of communities — men and women — in three areas of Afghanistan: Macroyan, in Kabul; Rodat, in Nangarhar; and Jade Kaj, in Herat.
An “information ecosystem” refers to the producers and consumers of various types of media, as well as the social and community structures through which information is accessed, consumed, influenced, trusted, and shared.
The findings are wide-ranging, from illustrating the significant influence of mobile phones, to how security affects journalism.
“In short, I can say that lack of security is the biggest threat to free independent media in Afghanistan, because a journalist cannot go to a remote area to collect important information about an issue, and if they go they will face insurgents. Even the people of the area will not accept him or will not give any details because they are also feeling threatened, so security is the only and the biggest problem for independence of media in Afghanistan.” — A male reporter, interviewed in Kabul.
Women and media
One of the most interesting findings of the research is the vast observable difference in women and men’s access to information.
“When we talk about women and media in Afghanistan, we often talk about the need to support opportunities for women journalists, and involve women more closely in the creation of content,” says Sharmini Boyle, Internews Country Director in Afghanistan. “But equally important, we need to consider and understand how the vast majority of women receive — or don’t receive — news and information.”
“I think the difference between the ways men and women get information are that men have a lot of ways to get information. They can attend public gatherings; they can go to mosques, they can watch TV in market places, they can ask their friends and colleagues in their workplace but women cannot do all these things and that’s why women mostly get information from other housewives whenever they meet in some wedding or other party,” said a 30-year-old male in Macroyan, interviewed for the report.
“Similarly, women also have a challenge getting information. For example, some men do not let their women watch TV or listen to radio channels and this is a great challenge for them. Today almost all male youths have access to Facebook but usually female are not allowed to get access to it,” he said.
Despite these obstacles, the report suggests that keen listening is an asset for women’s access to information.
“When men get some news and information and they return home, women listen to them or ask about anything new outside. Similarly, whenever women travel in a vehicle, they listen to other men travelling in the same vehicle and they get information this way. Also, when male members of a family call someone for some information, women listen to them keenly to know what is going on outside,” said a 41-year-old male in Rodat, interviewed for the report.
Facebook Hacks Pose Real Danger
Facebook is the prevailing social medium in Afghanistan (researchers often found that when speaking of the “internet” many respondents were actually speaking exclusively of Facebook), but poses a number of challenges for women, even if they have access.
The content of women’s Facebook profiles is heavily scrutinized, particularly for visual infringements upon traditional cultural values. Photos of women are controversial, and most women avoid posting photos that include their bodies. Because the potential social and physical consequences of online “misbehavior” are so grave, female users report that profile hacking is often used for public shaming.
Boys or men hack into Facebook accounts in order to pose as the user and post inappropriate content, including forged photos of the user, her real name, or sexual videos. According to many of the young people interviewed, this has given Facebook a negative reputation among older family members, who in response, seek to limit youth and women’s exposure to it — and thus their overall internet access is limited in tandem.
Female participants reported varying levels of success in reporting and mitigating online harassment. Reporting activity as “inappropriate” from Afghanistan is no guarantee that it will be interpreted and dealt with by administrators, who often have a poor understanding of both the cultural norms and the risks involved in online activity in conservative places.
Understanding Information Ecosystems
The Information Ecosystems report, while commissioned by Internews, is meant for a broader audience. For media and civil society practitioners seeking to understand, inform, and engage Afghan audiences, it’s a useful snapshot of media use and citizen information needs that can be instrumental in shaping Afghanistan’s robust, but still developing, information ecosystem.
The information ecosystems research in Afghanistan was conducted under the USAID-funded Afghan Civic Engagement Program (ACEP) implemented by Internews and Counterpart International.
(This story was originally posted on Medium.)