Friday, 6 May 2011

Arab Women Bloggers in the Era of Transitions: The Power of New Media at Work

In an era marked by the extensive proliferation of new media technologies in the Middle East, the recent awarding by Radio Deutsche Welle of the prestigious 7th Annual World-Wide Blog Awards, the BOBS (Best of Blogs) to Egyptian blogger Eman Hashem may seem rather normal. Research has shown that the region is experiencing one of its most dramatic online transitions that are marked by a youthful user population with unconventional aspirations and concerns. But as the experience of the past three months has shown, the selection of Eman as winner of the Deutsche Welle Blog Award suggests instrumental online media have turned out to be not only for young Arabs at large, but for women in particular. I have come across many commentaries that see ongoing political and social transitions in the region as holding an outstanding promise for Arab women. But while this view carries significant validity in light of the liberating outlook of those transitions, I strongly believe that women empowerment lends itself more to how they engage in the new media revolution in the region.

For those who don’t know Eman, she is an Egyptian blogger, who writes for three blogs, one of them is “The Violet Revolution”, the winner of the award, which discusses different issues related to Egypt after the revolution. Eman Hashim is best known for addressing critical issues relating to global violence against women. In her most recent post, which was published on the 26th April, Eman has been critical of the Egyptian Women Association. She has come out against the personalized use of images on the Association’s Facebook page, calling for posting pictures of young Egyptian women who sacrificed their life in the struggle for change in their country. It is her view that the association does not belong to one person, but to all Egyptian women.

Eman Hashim, of course, was not the only Arab woman to be honored by Deutsche Welle. Other blogs written by Arab women were also recognized as some of the best blogs written worldwide. One of them is “A Tunisian Girl,” written by Lina Ben Mhenni, who blogs in French, Arabic and English, and writes about politics and social activism and her country. Another blog is Mona Eltahawy’s blog, who tackles issues related to politics, life and culture in the Arab world. The list also includes blog like: Asmaa blog by Palestinian blogger Asmaa Al Ghoul, and Chalk by Syrian blogger Shireen Al Hayek.

If we ask the classical question: Why do women blog? We would perhaps receive the answer: because blogs are a platform that enables Arab women to freely speak out against oppression and injustice in their communities with no censorship whatsoever. In the many conferences and meetings on Arab women representation in conventional media, comments about women being ‘objectified’ and ‘commodified’ in the media sphere have all been most agonizing it has been erroneously claimed that women receive negative media treatment because they are under-represented in media institutions. But a study by Leila Nicolas Rahbani, from the Lebanese International University, titled “Women in Arab Media: Present but Not Heard” suggest that although the number of Arab women working in media outlets has increased, “there is still lack of gender sensitivity in media policies and programs, and women continue to be portrayed in a stereotyped manner by the media, as well as an increase in violent and pornographic images of women.’

At the personal level, a study on Arab women bloggers that I have conducted as part of my Master’s degree requirements suggests that women tend to use blogs as a public diary to discuss personal and public issues bearing on their life and development. Women use of storytelling to introduce their thoughts in the blogs covered by my study has been incredibly amazing. Through their blogs, Arab women appear to be demonstrating awesome intellectual capacities as they sought to engage with their readers in the most impressive of terms. I have also come to realize how women blogging is driven by a strong sense of independence and confidence, especially when it comes to issues of gender equality.

Of course, women use of virtual space to articulate their identities in a region known for its well-entrenched conservative attitudes towards female liberation may not be adequate to bring about real change in their living experiences. The ongoing social and political transitions in the region seem promising on the gender front as new leaders appear firm in their advocacy of social reform and the institution of more liberal civil rights foundations. The new voices of social change in the Arab World may surely seem sincere in their endeavors to bring about a more egalitarian gender environment. In the long run, I see new media playing a catalyst role not only in accelerating those gender reforms, but in ensuring that they are properly instituted.

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