There is a buzz of excitement among Pashtun women in Pakistan. Corridors in Peshawar filled with news of extremism, for some extent at least, has been taken over by a teenage blogger. She writes her blog for the New York Times. It is a story of Sher Bano’s incredible courage that has brought the issue of women’s right in Islamic countries to greater global attention. Bano is a 19-year-old Pashtun girl who has been writing about life in Pakistan from the perspective of a teenage girl who has spent time in western Pakistan. The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens. “They are afraid of women. Being a girl in Peshawar is difficult. There are many ‘dos and don’ts’," Bano said in her blog.

I met Bano last week in Delhi during the South Asia Summit on Social Media for Digital Empowerment organized by Digital Empowerment Foundation and the American Center. Sher Bano is an alumnus of US State’s International Visitors’ Leadership Program. She didn’t attend formal school due to insecurity in Peshawar, always wears a shawl at home, covers her head outside the house and hides her face in the more conservative areas. But blogger Bano is determined to promote the role of social media as a powerful enabler of bridging gaps between Pakistan and the rest of the world. She believes in using new media platforms to promote local culture, brings up issues demanding change as well as taking hands-on approach whenever the situation demands, for example, organizing relief work for people affected by earthquake and flood.

People call her the Malala Yousafzai of Peshawar. We had invited five Pakistanis who are active social media users and practitioners and Sher Bano was the only female and teenager, but her confidence and determination of doing something for change was visible through various discourse on how social media is being used by citizens as tools of change, activism and advocacy.

It is interesting to note that it has been one year that Pakistan has banned YouTube, besides blocking about more than 4,500 websites. Its government is saying that it would not like to lift the ban until there is a system in place that could block 50 million websites. But, according to many who matter and those who know how to use Internet systems, it is possible to access YouTube by using proxy servers, or so the social activists from Pakistan said. “Pakistan has more than 42 million who can use the Internet," says Bano, narrating several situations in Pakistan.

Last year, Unesco reported that 62% of girls in Pakistan between seven and 15 years of age have never spent time in a classroom. Violence against girls pursuing education has increased since the alleged Taliban attack against Malala Yousafzai in October of last year. But the country’s education emergency is only the beginning of a larger problem. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, only 14.3% of Pakistani women currently participate in the labour force. But 31% of all Pakistanis on Facebook are female.

Information that leads to economic prosperity and inclusion should be shared regardless of language and culture. Social media often works as a tool to pressurize the government on several social, political and economic issues. If we look at how social media has been adopted by the masses, it has been found that harder the situation in any country, the louder has been the voice of dissent and discourse. In Pakistan, it played a huge role in motivating the youth to exercise their franchise in the last general election. In Nepal, citizens created Nepal Unites, the Facebook revolution by citizens of Nepal demanding that since the Constituent Assembly members have drawn up their wages, they should work to give country the constitution because “that is what they were paid for". In Bangladesh, two Facebook users created an event page—called Missed Call—forcing the government to take legal measures against telecom operators. Beside activism, what I learnt from several social media experts who had come to town for the summit that there are several initiatives using social media where serious empowerment has been taking place in terms of use of social media for commerce, for fund-raising, for social awareness, and for governance. Thus, I think, social media can be divided into three categories: social commerce, social governance and social activism.

What is also being also echoed is that social media should branch out from the English-speaking urban population to more local levels where they can discuss their issues and voice-based locally generated content can be an option.

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan Award. He is member of a working group on internet proliferation and governance at the ministry of communications and information technology. Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar.

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