Leila did not find anything wrong in telling her mother, who has a Twitter account, that there is a guy who likes her and wants to propose to her. Leila’s mother had monitored her for a long time as they discussed many important topics. She has even shared her opinion sometimes. Since her mother has a Twitter account, it was easier for Leila to talk to her about the guy. In fact, he is the son of the mother’s colleague. As it was very hard for him to actually be with Leila in the same place, Twitter did the job instead.
Leila said, “I did not find it difficult to tell my mother that there is someone who wants to propose to me, because just like my brothers, she is with me on Twitter, and my tweets can be read by everyone. They also share their opinion with me about certain people and conversations on Twitter. The chat also moves to the dining table and family meetings. When I spoke to my mother, she had noticed the harmony between us.” Leila added that what prompted her mother to agree was that the guy was her colleague's son. This is how the wedding was agreed upon after the two families communicated.
Leila is now leading a life of harmony with her husband. They have one child, and still have conversations on Twitter.
Leila is but one of the many cases where social media sites have played a role in the lives of Saudis. It is an indication of the change these sites have brought to social life in the country. They obviously paved the way for direct communication between men and women in a conservative society that has always condemned a woman's voice as an element of temptation, and hence frowned upon any dialogue between men and women, even if it was professional.
The situation is changing though, particularly since all social groups are present on Twitter, be they sheikhs, judges, ministers, artists or ordinary people. They all converge in daily conversations regarding several fields.
It seems that the conversations, particularly those taking place between men and women, have significantly influenced the nature of social relations. Social expert Fawzia Achmakh said, “The intellectual openness between genders on Twitter has reduced the society’s power and some of its misconceptions about the participation of men and women in all fields. This openness was quietly concretized through conferences, festivals and charity work involving both genders, after having started as mere Twitter dialogues.”
This was confirmed by Ibtisam Saleh through the experience of her two daughters (the first is a university student and the second a high school student), who organized a conference along with other men, following a coordination period on Twitter.
Saleh explained that the fact that she had joined her two daughters on social media sites had given her “a greater chance to protect them and easily take care of them.” She added, “This has released me from the fear or anxiety of the unknown. I did not have to forbid or prevent them under the pretext that I didn't know what was going on on these websites. Our presence together on social media sites has also prevented me from being under the pressure of rumors and negativity, which some have resorted to, to make us fear these sites and their activity.”
Saleh said that social media sites “have helped form a generation of youth who know exactly what they want.” Based on her experience, these sites “have helped break down barriers between community members in general, not just between men and women. They allowed people to converge and cooperate in the common interests they have, despite the different intellectual tendencies, habits and traditions.” Saleh added, “These issues have contributed in simplifying the relationship between both genders and in facilitating the way they deal with each other. In fact, it was previously hard to know the opposite sex, its requirements and nature in a conservative environment.”
Saleh is also aware that “despite the change that was brought about in the relationship between men and women by social media networks, there is still a long way to go before society accepts this change.” She justified this by saying, “Society has long lived under the influence of the single movement,” and explained, “Because I come from a conservative society, I find it embarrassing sometimes to say that I have conversations with men, as some interpret that as a kind of undesired relationship. … Some young women even refuse the idea and consider that it is a reason behind the deterioration of married life, especially if one of the spouses joins these sites and the other one rejects them. If they are both signed up, they will understand the openness social media creates.”
“Unnatural” barriers broken down
Former head of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Mecca, Sheikh Ahmed bin Qassim al-Ghamdi, analyzed the social networking sites and accepted their influence on societies, which have suffered from “the harsh gender segregation and isolation,” according to him. He asserted that these sites are “one of the permissible means to be used in all legitimate matters in the lives of people, whether they are men or women.” He did not attribute potential illegitimate actions to the sites themselves, but rather to “the user, his upbringing, morals, politeness, religion and faith.”
Ghamdi told Al-Hayat, “These sites provide users with an abstract privacy that can be usefully and legitimately employed and used positively in life. It is a blessing that is worth thanking God for.” He added, “In societies where men and women have been separated for a long time, irregularities may take place as an undisciplined reaction to that long segregation. In this case, it is good to give a greater opportunity to enhance the thinking of societies, similarly to other societies. It is also good to further awareness and culture in a creative, intelligent and educational way, to contain the undisciplined reaction of some. This would happen progressively to take the community toward the right and healthy level of awareness on how these sites are used, based on a formula that respects the people’s rights and privacy and brings about the legitimate advantages of communication between men and women.” Ghamdi believes, "This is the best way to produce the positive impact of these websites on society.”
“These websites have broken many barriers because they are illogical, illegitimate and against nature. Religion does not prohibit communication between men and women through any means, in all permissible matters,” Ghamdi confirmed. “It is not true that in religion a woman is an element of temptation or that her voice is an element of temptation; this in inaccurately founded. The Quran and Sunna prove that communication between men and women is legitimate in all permissible matters. This is the decisive ruling on this issue. The fault of some does not mean that there is a defect in the legitimacy, but rather the defect lies in those who commit it.”
Ghamdi said the belief some “conservatives” have of communication between men and women on these websites is wrong or banned is “a wrongful rejection of everything new, and this is why they ban it.” He explained, “Religion did not order to stop relations between the genders but rather it has regulated them in a legitimate way. Some may be aware of and understand the new communication means; others may be confused about them, or may condemn and ban them based on some erroneous facts given by certain individuals. This is wrong. The defect done by some does not mean that it applies [to] everyone nor does it mean that these new methods should be banned.” He continued, “This opinion is limited to the ones who have committed this defect, not the others. Containing such irregularities and addressing them in a smart educational and guiding way raises positive awareness in society, especially in those who have suffered from the consequences of segregation and isolation … without dissipating the judicial right of those who have suffered from the damage of these irregularities.”