KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan civil activist Hadi Sadiqi had long been using social media to share news, commentary and his own musings on politics when he got into a heated exchange with another member of his Facebook forum.
Sadiqi and Maleka Yawari took their argument offline, and soon their exchanges grew more personal, with articles and opinion pieces giving way to photographs, love letters -- and eventually wedding vows.
"Turns out we're both from the same district in Ghazni province, but we'd never met or even heard of each other," Sadiqi said.
That's not unusual in Afghanistan, a deeply conservative country where women are still largely confined to the home and arranged marriages are the norm. Fifteen years after the overthrow of the Taliban, women are still killed by relatives over alleged sexual indiscretions — in what are known as "honor killings" — and unmarried lovers can be stoned to death by their neighbors.
But social media is allowing more and more young people to safely meet outside society's strict confines.
Sadiqi says the families were surprised by the secret romance — conducted on Facebook as he was living in Kabul and Yawari was completing an economics degree in neighboring Kazakhstan. "But they agreed immediately, and a year ago we got married," he said.
The trend is mainly limited to the urban middle class. Only 10 to 20 percent of Afghans have access to the Internet, according to Roshan, the country's top telecom provider. But Afghanistan is currently rolling out a 3G network, and as smartphones become more affordable, Internet access is projected to rise, including in remote areas of the mostly rural country.
Although coverage is limited, there are no official restrictions on the Internet in Afghanistan, making it an outlier in a region where governments closely monitor and restrict access. Neighboring Pakistan recently lifted a three-year ban on YouTube after Google created a special version for the country. Beijing's draconian "great firewall of China" has been in place for more than a decade, and Iran blocks Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Facebook is widely used in Afghanistan, while WhatsApp, Viber, Skype and Instagram are also popular.
Kabul-based media consultant Ben Bruges said Afghanistan has seen a "big generational change," with youth using technology their parents don't understand to "escape the traditional conservative confines."
"It might be possible for more young people to talk to each other online than would be possible in their daily lives, given the restrictions on the genders talking to each other in Afghanistan," he said.
Maqsood Akbari, a doctor from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, agrees. He courted his wife secretly on social media after meeting her in a library in 2008.
"Finding a suitable marriage partner in this conservative society is a real challenge," he said. "The Internet provides a level of safety and security, protecting a couple's social dignity and providing a precious way for young people to meet each other."
Associated Press writer Humayoon Babur contributed to this report.