Text-Messaging Changes Dating in Afghanistan

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In Afghanistan, young men and women are rarely allowed to meet without a chaperone, making romance a challenge. But text messaging has launched a dating revolution in Kabul.


Love, sex, dating, and marriage are complicated issues in every society. In Afghanistan they're compounded by strict social rules which dictate how and when young men and women interact. Although cell phones, email and other technology are making it easier for Afghans to find love, there are still formidable obstacles.

NPR's Rachel Martin has the story from Kabul. But a word of caution, if you are listening with young children, there are some frank sexual details in her report.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Afghanistan is a place where dinner and a movie is an abstraction realized only in Western movies. Afghan culture and Islamic tradition dictate that young men and women can't even look at each other directly, let alone have a private conversation. So with all its grassy fields nestled among the privacy of pine trees, Kabul University is an oasis for young Afghan students hoping to steal a moment with the object of their affection. That's what draws young men and women here, even when they don't have classes. Like 26-year-old Nasser Ahmed Amarin(ph) and his friends, who have honed the craft of girl-watching.

Mr. NASSER AHMED AMARIN (Medical Student, Kabul University): He knows each girl from the backside.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMARIN: I'm not lying.

Unidentified Man: He's is a professional.

MARTIN: These four young men are all handsome medical students from good families who say that the social constraints of Afghan society have made it almost impossible to fall in love with a potential life partner. Mirwaz Bahij(ph) is a striking young man with olive skin and green eyes. With animated frustration he describes his attempts over the past year to court a young woman he has spoken with only twice.

Mr. MIRWAZ BAHIJ (Medical Student, Kabul University): It needs time to speak with each other. But the way to find that how can we see each other, meet each other, this is the problem.

MARTIN: If that is the problem, then this...

(Soundbite of ringtone)

MARTIN: ...is the partial solution. Technology, and in particular cell phones, have given young Afghans more control over their romantic pursuits. Now, instead of passing notes through emissaries or trying to befriend a family member of a love interest, young Casanovas can send a text message on a cell phone to introduce themselves to a girl, flirt, or even arrange a secret rendezvous.

Anan Toribi(ph) says the initial contact should be short, sweet and with a sense of mystery.

Mr. ANAN TORIBI (Medical Student, Kabul University): Of course, message should be hi and bye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORIBI: Yeah. Hi and bye. Then she will think, oh, whose phone number is this? She will send a message. Then you'll write something else: the sun is rising, the moon is like this, like this. Something, there's a lot of message that we have in our phone.

(Soundbite of girls giggling)

MARTIN: across the meadow, a group of girls stroll by.

Ms. SARA HABIBI (Student, Kabul University): Can I tell you my love story?

MARTIN: Eighteen-year-old Sara Habibi says issues of the heart are even more difficult for Afghan girls. Habibi and her friends giggle when she talks about her boyfriend, their secret phone conversations and text messages. But in Afghanistan, something as innocent as a first crush can have serious repercussions.

Ms. JIYA HABIBI (Student, Kabul University): I love him a lot.

MARTIN: Her sister Jiya chimes in, saying the boy likes her, too. But it has to be a secret.

Unidentified Woman #1: But they are not going to say it.


Ms. J. HABIBA: Because my brother will kill me.

(Soundbite of radio show)

MARTIN: Humayoon Daneshyar hosts a nationally broadcast radio show called Jawanan al Mushkalat(ph), or Youth and Their Problems. It's a weekly call-in program that gives young people a chance to voice their romantic frustrations and dilemmas.

(Soundbite of radio show)

MARTIN: Daneshyar, himself a father of five, says he launched the show because young people often have nowhere to go to ask for advice on love, marriage and family pressures.

Mr. HUMAYOON DANESHYAR (Host, Jawan al Mushkalat): (Through Translator) A lot of young boys and girls feel shameful to say to their parents that I want to marry this girl, or I want to marry this boy. And even one can say that if a girl says to his parents, to her parents, that I want to marry this boy, she would be killed.

MARTIN: Daneshyar says he receives hundreds of letters every month from listeners, some of whom have threaten suicide because they're forced into marriage, or money and status prevent them from finding a partner. Yasin Vabrak is a psychologist and co-host of the program. He says it's not just romantic problems young people face, but sexual repression and the confusion and guilt that come with it.

Dr. YASIN VABRAK (Co-Host, Jawan al Mushkalat) (Through Translator) Even if you see a poor boy who suffers from different things, but if you study him deeply, you find that his main problem is a sexual problem.

MARTIN: Sex is a taboo almost never discussed in Afghan families. Vabrak says he uses the show to dispel myths in Afghanistan's Islamic culture that masturbation will cause impotence or eternal damnation. Girls, he says, are also under pressure, because if a woman's virginity is called into question on her wedding night she could be sent back to her family or even killed. According to Afghan tradition, the sheets from the wedding night are displayed to the couple's family the next day.

Dr. VABRAK: (Through Translator) That is the pride of the family. Even girl's mother cries, you know. And if the amount of the blood, which is required to come out in the first sexual intercourse, does it come out or not? So this is biggest stress for girls.

MARTIN: The show has been blamed by critics for corrupting youth and destroying the moral fabric of Afghan society. And both Vabrak and his co-host have received numerous threats over the past few years. But the hosts claim that the more people listen, they'll realize that the more information young people have about love and sex, the better decisions they will make.

Back at Kabul University, Anan Toribi and his buddies turn their conversation from the art of text messaging to their seemingly never-ending search for true love.

Mr. TORIBI: It's two kind of: one is just short looking. You look someone, oh, what attractive girls. One is this love, it don't have a good future. One love is step by step. This love have very good future.

MARTIN: And that, say these young Afghans, is worth the wait.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Kabul.

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