By Jessica Donati
KABUL (Reuters) - Frustrated by strict social rules, young and educated Afghans are quickly learning that taboos can be sidestepped at the tap of a mobile phone.
In deeply conservative, Muslim Afghanistan, social media is opening a new route for men and women to communicate in private.
Some even find love in a country where most marriages are arranged and strict rules make it tough - and dangerous - for men and women to interact even in the most liberal circles.
A recent explosion in Internet use has opened a new frontier, and many are using tools such as instant messaging to approach each other and set up dates.
"For a start, social media are used to communicate, and to arrange marriage. Both boys and girls look for marriage," said a faculty member in information technology at a Kabul university, who has experimented with online dating.
Like other Afghans interviewed for this report, he asked for his name to be withheld.
Social media websites such as Facebook offer a rare opportunity for couples to learn about each other before marriage, he said.
"People prefer to use Facebook or Gmail to chat because society does not make it easy to talk directly."
Half a million Afghans use Facebook, according to the National Information Communication Technology Alliance of Afghanistan (NICTAA), and the number is increasing thanks to the spread of 3G networks that arrived in 2012.
"Social media can provide them with a platform for sharing their views and choosing somebody they think is the person they can spend their life with," said Omar Mansoor Ansari, who heads NICTAA.
"That's another, as you may call it, benefit that social media is providing people."
BAD COMMENTS, FRIEND REQUESTS
But there are problems. Online messaging exposes young women to abuse by influential officials. Some officials say they are approached on social media for a job or even romance.
One government official said women regularly approached him online, most for work but sometimes looking for romance.
"Mostly females are looking for a job," he said. "Some of them try to get close to me and send me love messages but I ignore them because I am a professional."
As with anywhere, women say they have to be vigilant online. But in Afghanistan, even postings that would be considered ordinary elsewhere can lead to problems.
An 18-year-old law student said she was harassed after she uploaded her photograph on Facebook.
Even though her liberal family supported the decision, she ended up deleting it after a barrage of comments.
"In our culture, if I put my pictures on my profile, it is considered not good," she said.
"I got a lot of bad comments and friend requests from men."
Some women say they are prepared to challenge convention and deal with harassment, but find that online interaction does not necessarily break down barriers in the real world.
A 22-year-old university student aiming to become a civil servant said she spoke to many male classmates online but they turned out to be shy and withdrawn when she encountered them later.
"Why don't you talk to me on campus, why will you only chat to me on Facebook?" she said she asked the boys, laughing.
(Editing by Maria Golovnina and Tony Tharakan)