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Bearing the name of Sahar Gul, a young girl subjected to unspeakable horrors by her own relatives, a café in Kabul might not be expected to be a place of hope and calm. Yet Afghanistan’s first women-only internet centre launches a new forum for empowerment of half the population.

Economics student Marzia was not allowed by her family to use internet cafes frequented by men. (Photos: Masood Momin)

Entering this tucked-away venue in the capital, male visitors cannot help feeling a sense of trepidation. Its name, Sahar Gul, conjures up thoughts of one of the country’s worst recorded cases of domestic violence, the imprisonment and torture of a 15-year-old Afghan girl by her husband and in-laws for refusing to work as a prostitute. Thankfully she survived, and stiff prison sentences were handed down to her tormentors.

Inside, the internet café buzzes gently with the chat of the female users and the clack of fingers on keyboards. Opened in March and equipped with 15 laptops, four desks, banks of cushions and a library, its very existence is a triumph. Internet cafes have sprung up all over the cities, but segregation usually means women cannot use sites frequented by men. Most Afghan women have never had any contact with the worldwide web and related technology, including many students for who such resources are invaluable.

“The Sahar Gul Internet Café is run by women,” manager Homaira Bakhshy told Afghanistan Today. “The goal of establishing it is to help women and girls to come here freely and enjoy access to the web.”

On average, 20 female university students come daily to use the café, which is located in the capital’s sixth district. It's a modest start, but a start nonetheless. “If it flourishes, we will open up branches in other parts of Kabul as well as other provinces,” added Bakhshy.

“My family did not let me go use the internet at cafes where men go,“ said Marzia Reza Zada, a 20-year-old fresher at a private law school in Kabul who mainly comes here to consult academic and news websites. "Now I have no family restrictions and I come to the Sahar Gul Internet Café to read online and find answers to my questions.”

And then there is the social  aspect. “I managed to solve my study-related problems through the internet, and  also through Facebook and Skype I can chat and talk with my family members,” said student Salma Bayat.

Surprisingly, while the cafe is relatively visible to the public and bears a banner with its name and logo of the women's group that founded it, it has received no threats or pressure, says its manager.

Offshoot of a movement

The café is an offshoot of the work of an advocacy initiative called Young Women for Change. Established in Kabul in April 2011 by volunteer women and men, the group seeks to empower women and encourage their participation in social, economic and political activities. 

"If the cafe flourishes, we will open up branches in other parts of Kabul as welll as other provinces."

“The first thing we did was to stage a protest in Kabul against street harassment of women and girls,“ said Toba Ahmad Yar, one of the group’s founders. “The second thing  was to hold a demonstration against lack of justice for women.”

Their cause was boosted in part by the ten-year-jail sentences handed down in May of this year to the tormentors of Sahar Gul. Following an arranged marriage, the girl was held for five months in a makeshift dungeon in Baghlan Province by her husband and in-laws. They pulled out her fingernails, broke her fingers, beat her and burned her with hot pokers before she was finally rescued by police in September 2011.

Access is growing for all

But despite the passion behind the conception of web-based initiatives for women, their further success also lies largely with internet penetration among the general population.

According to Sayeed Mashooq Sadat, the editor-in-chief of the website of the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology, eight per cent of Afghans had access to internet before 3G was licensed to operate this spring. The 3G service will enable subscribers of Afghan telecoms companies to have high speed internet on their mobile phones.

With its implementation, internet penetration is hoped to reach 50 per cent by the end of 2014, Sadat said, adding that work is underway to hook up users more broadly.

Cafe manager Homaira Bakhshy still has her sights set on self-sufficiency for Afghan women.

“The ministry is going to sign some contracts with private and public universities, which will allow more access to the internet,” he said.

The pledges, if fulfilled, will be welcome among the users of the Sahar Gul cafe. Economics student Sediqa Shadab says the provision of access to information and research sources should not be allowed to slow or be limited to any single field: “The other facility this internet café has is a library for female university students," she said. "I want the government to financially and otherwise support all such institutions that work for women.”

Brutality against women continues, as highlighted by the recent public execution of a girl by insurgents in Parwan Province, and there are growing concerns about backtracking on women's rights in any post-2014 settlement. But Sahar Gul café manager Bakhshy remains optimistic about initiatives that enable women to further their education and boost their employment chances. “I am hopeful that Afghan women will one day unburden themselves of the economic problems they have now and become self-sufficient," she said.

 
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