Cyber-Feminism in the Arab World
By: Haneen Abu Al Neel/Arab America Contributing Writer
The term cyber-feminism is not particularly new to the 21st century. However, it certainly took a turn for a much more exciting context in 2011. In the early sparks of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, where it all started, Lina Ben Mhenni blogged and tweeted away the details of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Lina, the 36-year-old Tunisian woman at the time, has launched a social media campaign of outrage and expressions of solidarity to the struggles faced by Bouazizi, and rejection of Tunisia’s authoritarian regime.
Whether Lina knew it or not, waves of anger across other Arab countries were spiked on social media by youth and women as a result of her triggers. For the first time in recent Arab history, social media became a tool to carve up cyberspaces for those who could not find space elsewhere. The internet evolved into the most significant cyberspace for free-range whistleblowing and citizen human rights journalism.
Cyberfeminism is a term coined by Sadie Plant, the director of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick in 1994. The word itself is used to describe the “work of feminists interested in theorizing, critiquing, and exploiting the internet, cyberspace, and new-media technologies in general” (Consalvo, Cyberfeminism, 2002). The development of the term came out of Third Wave feminism but targeted a much younger tech-savvy audience. Little did Plant know, this term was going to be the playground for intersectional identities of all walks of life to personalize it.
But, we would be mistaken to think that cyber-feminism in the Arab world is a Western idea. Since 1999, Arab women have shown the world their shrewdness in mastering cyberspaces for activism and organizing. One such example is the establishment of the Arab Women Solidarity Association (AWSA) in Egypt in 1982 by 120 women and the leadership of Nawal El-Saadawi.
AWSA’s mission was to link the struggle of Arabs for liberation and freedom from economic, cultural, and media domination to the liberation of Arab women, a purpose that motivated countless women and men internationally to join and form more chapters. With its doors open to international membership, AWSA was also celebrated as the first Pan-Arab women’s organization with international status at the United Nations. The membership had a strong presence in cyberspace. While sadly, AWSA was shut down by the Egyptian government eventually, its international followership was left thirsty to create more spaces for organized activism online.
Although cyberfeminism provides relative safety to activists, arrests and detentions are never an impossibility. As witnessed today by activists from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, leading social media cyberactivism campaigns will only put a larger target on their backs.
The story of Esraa Abdel Fattah, the young activist colloquially known as “The Facebook Girl”, who used Facebook to help launch the April 6 movement in Egypt is one. The Egyptian police arrested Esraa in 2008, then again recently in October 2019. Esraa’s story emerges along with the many other stories of young women using cyberspaces to shed light on inequalities and abuses, and unfortunately, having those publications be weaponized against them.
When faced with ubiquitous human rights abuses, it is the more comfortable choice to sit back and feel helpless. However, that is the exact time when an allied voice can be helpful. Similar to the international solidarity AWSA found and established, countless young Arab cyberfeminists are finding solidarity online.
Facebook groups like “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World” established in 2011 garnered international and local allyship and momentum that resulted in 114,000 followers participating in their virtual “I support the Uprising of Women in the Arab World because….” campaign. A change in rhetoric was also noticeable online, where other parallel women struggle stories were being highlighted, like the Kurdish and Amazigh women communities. Allyship at times of adversities can be the best gift to cyber activists. Cyberfeminism can be the intersectional as well as transnational easily!
With our world becoming more internet and technology-dependent, we ought to ask ourselves questions about international solidarity movements and cyberactivism. Is it safer to advocate online? Is it only reserved for certain identities? What are the roles of allies in a world increasingly surveilled and censored? How can activists from silence areas find a voice without putting themselves in danger? Will the internet and Artificial Intelligence find new innovative ways to protect the voices of healthy dissent in the world? Or only be further weaponized against them?
There seem to be more questions than answers when it comes to the future of cyberactivism, but we must start thinking of the solutions now!