Tampere Peace Reseach Institute
The Internet and other computer networks have become quite common during the past ten years. As a mode of communication, they will probably, especially in Western countries, become as important as the radio, television and newspapers. One of the most important resources provided by the Internet is newsgroups  which will be surveyed in this paper.  Unlike the traditional media, newsgroups make possible grass-root level communication from person to person in a way that was not thinkable before. People from all over the world can participate in about 6,000 different newsgroups, in which topics can be almost everything humanly thinkable. 
Access to the Internet depends on technical resources, connections to the Internet network and ability to use computer programs and software of the right kind. The application of and participation in different functions of the Internet is free. This means that there is no single authority for Internet as a whole which could control the use of the system. At the moment, the Internet is clearly the system of industrialized countries and it is used mostly by the residents of the U.S.A and Europe. The expenses of the system are shared by all the local networks, which are connected to this global network. The operating costs of the Internet are normally relatively low.
Because the Internet has in principle free access, the form of discussion is very open. There is no censorship in advance and normally also straight and even very extreme opinions are tolerated. People who participate in a debate themselves form an idea of an acceptable type of discussion. The communication is in a certain way personal like in the case of letters and telephone, but at the same time it is directed to a large group of people like in the case of TV, radio and newspaper. For its users, the Internet provides equal opportunity for participation and giving feedback. Furthermore, there is no selection of messages according to the quality of text.
The messages concerning Muslim women centre around a few topics which are: marriage (including mixed-religion marriage, divorce, sex and one husband and several wives problematics), circumcision, dating, veiling, feminism, mother's day, women in a mosque, women as state leaders and so on. Most of the texts refer to marriage and different problems of it. In general, the topics discussed are the same and traditional ones as in daily newspapers.
The question concerning Muslim women is a quite passionate topic, and it is also discussed in non-Muslim countries. This discourse is many times produced by non-Muslims, but of course in the Muslim countries there is a lively, 'homemade' discussion about it, from the viewpoint of Muslims. The newsgroups is the forum which gives - at least - a possibility to a real intercultural communication. This discussion reveals many interesting aspects implicitly about Islam, Muslim way of living and relations between Muslims and non-Muslims people.
In my view, three questions seem central in regard the Internet debate on Muslim women: the interpretation of Islam, the borders of religion and the relation to non-Muslim, Western people.
The interpretation of Islam is a relevant question to study, because we cannot consider Islam as a eternal and unchanging totality. It is rather a cultural system, which depends on interpretation and interpreters.
In this discussion the problematics of interpretation emerge when a single writer appeals to a certain authority. This can happen in several ways. Firstly, one can refer to Islam as subject, which can act in some particular way.  Secondly, one can appeal to Qur'an or sunna, in other words, the classical sources of the Islamic law.  Thirdly, ulama or a member of ulama can be considered as an authority.  In addition, there are some messages which do not appeal to any authority, but suppose that everybody knows the truth about Islam. 
There are also some writers who explicitly deny the use of authorities or, on the other hand, admit the subjectivity of opinions.  Furthermore, the demand for ijtihad is also represented. 
The interpretation of the content of Islam is important because it defines the writers' relation to the position of women. It is remarkable that many writers appeal to traditional interpretations of Islam, even when their presentations consist of very personal opinions. I would say that the tone of the discussion is somewhat conservative and reminds one of the discourse of some Islamist (or fundamentalist) groups. From this of point of view, the position of women is not necessarily open to changes although they were also wanted by several writers.
If the interpretation of Islamic doctrines is difficult, so is the 'religiousness' of Muslims an open question. It is clearly noticeable in this discussion that religion is not the same for different people. For some people Islam is an omnipotent divine rule and for some it is only a frame which gives a certain identity, but which does not give a set of rules for behaviour.
In particular, the issues related to marriage and family life are connected with the most normal everyday life, and therefore it is through them that the relation to religion and religiousness comes into consideration.  Still, some writers do not regard these issues as a religious matter at all,  while for some other writers this area is as relevant as any other one, for example political affairs. 
We can assume that insights related to the private area also defines the position of Muslim women. In my view, if the private is not regarded, for some reasons, as a religious matter, there is a way for secularization. If private is regarded strictly as a religious matter, it gives a possibility to use it as a goal of Islamization. Of course, this is a great simplification, but in any case, I would say, that the borders of religion are very flexible according to this discussion. The definition of the position of Muslim women is not separate from this flexibility.
The third aspect of the newsgroup discussion is the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the problems and contradictions attached to it. The discussion concerning the position of women is a kind of 'easy target', which one can easily comment on or criticize, because the topic is familiar and everyone has an opinion on it. Moreover, the position of women is also widely and continuosly under discussion in the Western countries, which is also reflected in the newsgroups.
In Western feminist tradition the position of women is a political issue. There is a slogan of a certain feminist approach which declares that "the personal is political". In traditional Islam, the position of women is not a political or personal question as such, because everything and everybody is submitted to the will of God. From this point of view, the Western kind of politicization of position of women does not make any sense for many Muslims. This means that there is a kind of encounter of two different discources.
Western influence on discussion emerges also from the choosing of the agenda of the discussion. In my view, if the discussion would be only between Muslims and excluding non-Muslims, the debate related to the Muslim women would be different. Muslims are many times forced to react to opinions and questions of non-Muslims.  The question of Muslim women is a very sensitive issue and the debate is not without overreactions. Some writers are very aggressive and they don't want to compromise in any way, they just want to demostrate their anger.  But there are also persons who want to remind of the common history of different religions. 
The discussion shows that there is no homogenous model of Muslim women, but a wide spectrum of different opinions and interpretations. The content of Islam and, subsequently, the position of Muslim women are given several meanings, both the writers of the messages and readers. But on the other hand, finally there are so many meanings that they will loose their content. The writers participate in a certain game, in which meanings do get temporary power and relevance, but they have to be revived constantly in order to survive.
The discussion proves also the undeniable heterogeneity of Islam. There is no final truth or truths but on the contrary Internet reality is renewable and changeable. If there is no absolute truth, there is a possibility for a continuos exchange of views and opinions. That is why I am slightly optimistic about the future of intercultural communication. In the Internet discussion, there are no winners or losers although normally Muslims and non-Muslims Western people are unequal for example with regard to global politics or cultural relevance.
I think that there is a revolution going on, not in the streets of the nation-states' cities but in the multinational and multicultural cyberspace. To know what kind of revolution it is, further research and understanding of the existing world, including the Internet reality, will be needed.
2. Another relevant resource is mailing lists which are directed to a limited group of people. Furthermore, so-called electronical libraries and homepages of different organizations, universities and other institutions are important.[*]
3. For example politics, science, sport, pets, cooking, computers and hobbies.[*]
4. I studied the following newsgroups: soc.religion.islam, alt.religion.islam, soc.culture.arabic, soc.culture.maghreb, soc.culture.egyptian, alt.culture.saudi, soc.culture.iranian, soc.culture.lebanon,soc.culture.jordan, soc.culture.pakistan.[*]
5. "Islam does not allow", "Islam forbids".[*]
6. "in the name of Koran", "Qur'an says", "Qur'anic law requires", "in accord with the best of classical scholarship".[*]
7. "the head of Al-Azhar university declared", "the well-known Shaafi'iite jurist Imam An-Nawawii says", "the opinion of many scholars througout the world".[*]
8. "to dress the way a Muslim woman is supposed to...", "it is forbidden to a Muslim woman", "it is not allowed".[*]
9. "my opinions only", "always such judgements are situational, and circumtances differ from country to country and person to person"[*]
10. "it is necessary to respect the work of the scholars, but it is also necessary to make ijtihad, which I concider obligatory on every Muslim"[*]
11. [Marriage is] "half the religion, runs one hadith".[*]
12. "The issues which Aaliya brought up was of a personal nature, i.e.what she should do, not a religious nature...Picking a caliph seems much more important to the world-wide Muslim community than aaliya's personal life."[*]
13. "The practice of one individual is AS important as the world".[*]
14. Like one Muslim put it: "What is the meaning of posting the above? Are you just trying to intimidate muslims into defending themselves and keep them thus always occupied with that."[*]
15. "Who are you to speak for the Muslim women? Why are we even supposed to believe they would want to fucking talk to you? I mean here you are a goddam muslim using religion to treat 1/2 the human race as your personal slaves. Why would they tell you what they really thought????[*]
16. "Your religion is originally Islam, and that was the religion of the great prophets Ibrahim, Mosa, Yusuf, Yacoop, Ishaq, and all their followers. The Lord who gave Muhammed revelation is the same Lord of Israel and the rest of the world."[*]
© The author and Nordic Society for Middle Eastern Studies. Archived 24.9.95