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Young Saudis bypass social lockdown with Facebook

By Olivia Sterns for CNN
Social networking site Facebook became available in Arabic in March 2009.
Social networking site Facebook became available in Arabic in March 2009.

(CNN) -- How can young people connect -- and date -- in a conservative society that forbids men and women socializing together?

In Saudi Arabia, young people are bypassing the vice police by turning to Facebook.

Of course, that hasn't always been the case. Before the age of social networking, young men had to take more extreme measures.

Eman Al Nafjan, a female blogger and lecturer living in Riyadh, recalls a time only a few years ago when she says lonely young men would chase after Saudi women (who typically wear floor-length black coverings called abayas), hoping to pass along their phone numbers and maybe, just maybe, get a date.

"Because of the strict gender segregation, men in the streets were very desperate -- they would go after anything in black," Nafjan told CNN.

Because of the strict gender segregation, men in the streets were very desperate -- they would go after anything in black.
--Eman Al Nafjan, blogger and lecturer

"This has calmed down now after the Internet. They are not so desperate in the streets because there are other ways to meet," she said.

Saudi society, where arranged marriages are the norm, has strict laws on socializing enforced by the conservative Muslim kingdom's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

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The virtue and vice squad is a police force of several thousand charged with, among other things, enforcing dress codes and segregating the sexes. Saudi Arabia, which follows a strict interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism, punishes unrelated women and men who mingle in public, while premarital sex is illegal.

According to "Arab Media Outlook," a recent report from the Dubai Press Club researched in collaboration with Nielsen Media Research, about 70 percent of Internet users in the kingdom use social networking sites, with Facebook cited as the most popular among them.

Facebook launched its Arabic version in March 2009. The company would not provide CNN with figures for usage in Saudi Arabia but said its Arabic version had proved popular with users.

A spokeswoman from Facebook told CNN in an email statement: "We saw an impressive number of people contribute to translating the site into our first right-to-left languages (Hebrew and Arabic).

"More and more people in the Middle East or with connections to it [are] using Facebook to share and connect with the people they know," she continued.

Naila Hamdy, a media expert at the American University in Cairo, told CNN that across the Arab world the Internet is accelerating changes in social norms by making it easier for people to connect.

This has calmed down now after the Internet. They are not so desperate in the streets because there are other ways to meet.
--Eman Al Nafjan, blogger and lecturer
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"It's a tool that has a tremendous ability to get people together," Hamdy said. "In a more conservative society, where you can't go to the mall and hang out with boys or girls, then that can happen instead with a platform such as Facebook."

"At the moment, everybody who is computer literate, online and young, is on a social network," Hamdy added.

In Saudi Arabia, that number is rapidly growing thanks to the country's demographics -- the majority of the population is under 25, according to "Arab Media Outlook" -- and improving online infrastructure. Broadband penetration across the Kingdom reached 37 percent of households in 2009, up from 15 percent in 2007, and is set to reach 74 percent by 2013, the study says.

Of course, not all online activity is romantic. The Saudi bloggers CNN spoke to said that keeping up with family and friends was popular, while blogging and debating in news forums have also taken off.

Nevertheless, pursuing romantic relationships is an important draw.

"I'd say 70 percent of my friends met their husbands online," said Nafjan. "You can't find hard statistics on that because nobody would admit it. They wouldn't admit it to their own families," she added.

Nafjan told CNN that it is still common for parents to bar their children -- or just their daughters -- from using the site.

If and when women do have their own pages, it is very rare for them to post a photo of themselves, while men typically do show their own face, she added.

Instead, images such as flowers, an image of their father or brother, a drawing, cartoons or a close-up of an eye are common stand-ins, according to a study from King Saud University in Riyadh.

Women are also likely to drop their last name on their profiles, according to the study, "The Methodology of Saudi Youth When Utilizing Social Networking Sites", as reported in Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat. The study found that just 32 percent of girls use their full name on Facebook, compared to 60 percent of boys.

"People are living more liberal spheres online than they can in reality ... so there's a certain amount of using pseudonyms so no one will find out that they are mixing," Hamdy said.

Nafjan agrees that social networking has opened opportunities for young people to connect, and that in turn has shifted attitudes. "It's definitely getting more liberal here," she says. "People who were once very conservative are getting less so. The government needs to catch up."

CNN's Mairi Mackay and Linnie Rawlinson contributed to this story.

 
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