For many Muslim women, the information superhighway might as well be a country lane. But some Muslim women leaders are ready to hop on and are urging other Muslim sisters to do the same.
"It's not too late for women in Muslim societies to use the internet and the new technology," said Asma Khader, who coordinates the group Sisterhood Is Global in Jordan.
About 100 women--some in hijab, some in business suits, and some in sundresses--attended a forum on Muslim women and cyberspace--one of dozens of events planned around United Nations meeting on the global status of women--on a weltering Manhattan day last month at New York University.
At the meeting, Khader noted that, "Women in Muslim societies need more [of] these technologies because this is the way to bridge the gap between the situation of women in different areas of the world and our societies."
In addition to using the internet and other new technologies to reach out to younger Muslim women, Thoraya Obaid, the United Nations Population Fund's director for Arab states and Europe, said reform-minded Muslim women need to reach out to those who disagree with them.
"We should open dialogues with Muslim women who are against reform...so at least we know how they are thinking, and what they are thinking," Obaid said.One questioner from the audience voiced fears about the power and influence of the internet in the Muslim world.
"Here we are talking about technology, computers, the internet--fine, good," said questioner Farida Allaghi. "But on the other hand, what scares us to death...is who is controlling today this technology, is it really going to liberate...or is it going to widen the gap between those who have and who have not?"
She went on to call for more women to go into private business and to seek political power.
Khader and others at the technology forum stressed the need for action, and the need for communication among the disparate elements of the Muslim world.One speaker added that the internet might help in one area that has been neglected: networking.
"In Muslim countries, in our developing countries, we're not very good at building coalitions and alliances," Obaid said.
There are many in predominantly Muslim countries who have no internet access. A report released last year by Human Rights Watch said that some Islamic countries are trying to block access to information.
But even if access were completely unfettered, questions of cost and of infrastructure, including reliable power and telephone connections, make internet access for some Muslim women seem like a low priority.
Muslim countries have been relatively slow to embrace the internet, compared with Europe and North America, according to Nua Internet Surveys, which tracks global internet usage. Nua reports can be seen at http://www.nua.ie/surveys.As of March, Nua reported 1.9 million people in the Middle East and about 2.6 million people in Africa had access to the internet, a small fraction of the 83 million Europeans and nearly 137 million in Canada and the United States who have gone online.
Of those in the Arab countries with internet connection, only 4% are women, according to the Maryland-based Women's Learning Partnership, which organized the conference. That compares with 7% of China's internet users, 17% of South Africa's, 17% of Japan's, and 38% of those in the United States, the group said.
Despite the low percentage of women internet users in Muslim countries, conference speaker Aye Obe said the world wide web still could be a useful communications tool.
"To me, the importance of the internet is not that everybody is going to stand around, tapping into a computer, but that those who do are going to spread the word and spread the message," said Obe, president of the Civil Liberties Organization in Nigeria.