Young Middle Eastern women carved out roles for themselves during 2011's Arab Spring uprisings using social media, argues Rice University doctoral candidate Courtney Radsch in a new study, "Unveiling the Revolutionaries: Cyberactivism and Women's Role in the Arab Uprisings."
Her paper follows women in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, including Egypt's Esraa Abdel Fattah, who became widely known as "Facebook girl," Libya's Danya Bashir, Bahrain's Zeinab and Maryam al-Khawaja and Tunisia's Lina Ben Mhenni — all of whom were dubbed the uprising's "Twitterati" by the international media.
For these women, virtual prominence led to IRL agency, Radsch believes. From her paper:
"Women have played a central role in the creation of a virtual public sphere online via social media and blogs, but have also demanded greater access, representation, and participation in the physical public sphere, epitomized by the physical squares that represent the imaginary center of political life in their countries: Tahrir Square in Egypt and Benghazi, Libya; Taghir Square in Yemen; and the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain. They tore down physical and social barriers between men and women, challenging cultural and religious norms and taboos and putting women's empowerment at the center of the struggle for political change. As one blogger put it, "The most encouraging feature of the current upheaval is the massive participation of women; not only the young educated women who uses (sic) the Internet but also the grassroots uneducated older women from rural cities."
Another interesting aspect of the study is the effect cyberactivism had on women unused to expressing their emotions in a public forum:
Cyberactivism was a form of empowerment, a way to exert control over one's personhood and identity, while gaining a sense of being able to do something in the face of a patriarchal hierarchy and an authoritarian state. "People are starting to say their views openly and freely because of social media, it has changed their mentality," according to Afrah Nasser. As a blogger named Israa explained in an interview prior to the Egyptian uprising, blogging was "a way to spread our ideas and concepts to people and make things that can change our facts and conditions." This sentiment was expressed by many women before, during, and after the revolutions. "The power of women is in their stories. They are not theories, they are real lives that, thanks to social networks, we are able to share and exchange," said Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy.
But won't it take more than social media prowess to reconfigure, say, "power relations between the youth who make up the majority of the population and the older generation of political elites who were overwhelmingly male and often implicated in the perpetuation of the status quo"? Of course, Radsch says — the cyberactivists are standouts, not the norm. "The struggle to consolidate revolution and enact meaningful reforms remains a challenge that young women will continue to be involved in, and (they will) undoubtedly continue to use new media technologies to participate in and influence the future trajectory of their countries," she said in a press release.
Her entire paper, which is well-researched but far from dry, is worth a read.
Image via ZouZou /Shutterstock.