For Arab Women, Change in the Digital Reality is Coming, but Slowly

By all standards, 2011 was quite an exceptional year for men and women in the Arab world. It was a year of dramatic transitions marked by the so-called Arab Spring of political democratization and social emancipation. It all started in Tunisia, going through Egypt and Libya in the West, and continuing to drag on in both Yemen and Syria in the East. An interesting facet of those transitions related to the role of social media platforms as drivers of revolutions, giving rise  to different perspectives about the role of Facebook and Twitter in bringing climatic changes to an already destabilized  region. One such perspective related to how social-media-driven revolutions have empowered two main sectors of the population to speak out and have their voice heard: young people and women. In Tunisia and Egypt, some of the key players in demonstrations and protests were young women aspiring for better civic and political opportunities.

Women protesting in Egypt. Image via The Guardian.

The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Yemeni female activist Tawakul Karman attests to the growing role of women in the socio-political transitions.  But according to a recent report by the Dubai School of Government, rising women’s activism in the current transitions is not associated with rising female social media usage. In significant ways, this finding provokes questions about how women could be further engaged in the social media revolution as active users to cope with their real-life role as agents of change in their communities.  (It should also provoke some questions about how much credit we should give social media for these changes, since they were clearly not the only factor in these revolutions.)

The survey found that, while the numbers of male and female users of Facebook worldwide are roughly equal, women are only a third of Facebook users in the Arab world. The report puts forward a number of barriers limiting social media usages by women. Those include social and cultural constraints placed on women in the region, access to ICT, and lack of relevant content for women. The report also notes that Arab women who do use social media platforms use them to achieve numerous purposes like networking, accessing information and jobs, and activism.

It is clear that some of the reasons keeping women from using social media more are external, suggesting that they can be fixed and worked on by the community. One way to address this issue is to launch more IT and social media training programs to enhance women IT literacy skills and knowledge at universities, schools, and even at home.

On another level, more work should focus on producing content that is relevant to Arab women. This is not only limited to informing women about fashion and beauty, but also about educating them on their rights and responsibilities in their respective communities. Media content should also address different aspects in relation to women like education, health, economics, technology, and so on. [Read more...]

Women in the 2011 Arab Media Forum

There was something quite exciting about this year’s Arab Media Forum (AMF), which recently concluded in Dubai and was attended by over 2,000 media leaders from around the region. This year marked the tenth anniversary of the forum, which has served as an annual platform for debating Arab media issues and concerns for the past decade.  In addition, almost all of this year’s panels have echoed ongoing transitions in the Arab world and their implications for the media landscape.  I thought many of the discussions were highly stimulating when it came to the convergence of youth demographics and new media in triggering the current unrest.

Arab Media Form

Panel on Local Content in Arab Media, from the AMF's website.

There is ample evidence showing that women in this part of the world have made impressive strides in a wide range of professions, including media. At universities, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) female faculty members in media and communication departments have been on the rise and so has their integration into the media market.  As a former student, at both the American University of Sharjah and the University of Sharjah, I was fully aware of the huge Emirati female attendance in communications programs at undergraduate and graduate levels.  In the media profession itself, there are bright examples of GCC women serving as impressive role models for females in the region. They have excelled in different fields: some in film making, such as Emirati producer Naila Al Khaja; some have taken their achievement to global levels, such as foundation director Muna Abu Sulayman; while others have emerged as powerful figures in  social media and cyberspace, such as Saudi writer Sabria Jawhar.

Unfortunately, such presence seems to have made little showing in female contributions to public discussions of media issues. Traditional research has generally focused on female representation in media content and media professions, but more attention needs also to be given to women’s contributions to public forums of media developments like AMF. What I found most worrying about the event was the underrepresentation of female media leaders and practitioners from the Gulf region in the AMF panels.

[Read more...]