BEIRUT: When it comes to the Arab Spring, social media has already proven its worth in influencing politics and inspiring large-scale social movements.
The Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” played an instrumental role in cementing anti-regime sentiment in Egypt prior to the uprising in January last year.
Now four young Arab women hope that social networking might help unite the public in the face of oppression once again.
The Facebook page “The uprising of women in the Arab world” was started in October 2011 by Daila Haidar and Yalda Younes from Lebanon, Sally Zohney from Egypt and Farah Barqawi from Palestine.
The group aims to unite women from all ethnicities and religions all over the Arab world in support of a common cause – the equality of women and men socially, politically, economically and legally.
In the space of a year the group gathered 20,000 likes on Facebook – but it wasn’t until last week that the campaign really took off.
On Oct. 1, to mark the anniversary of the page, the team decided to begin a photo campaign, asking women from the Arab world to post photographs of themselves holding a message explaining why they supported the idea of a women’s uprising.
Within eight days they received 10,000 new followers, with hundreds of photos posted every day. And the numbers are still rising – the page had over 1,000 new followers Monday in the space of a single day, more than 2,000 Tuesday. By Friday the total number of likes reached 35,000.
“The main purpose of the campaign is to spread awareness about the multi-layered oppression that women are subject to,” Haidar explains. “Before revolting you have to be aware of the repression ... The second [aim] is to show how much our causes are related, despite the frontiers between the different Arab countries, and from that to create a solidarity network.”
The founders believe that women across the region face similar problems. “There are differences that might look huge,” says Barqawi, who has lived in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. “However, we see things as mirroring each other – the suffering or the oppression or the marginalization of women is just a coin with different faces.”
“In the end all these forms of oppression boil down to the same thing,” adds Haidar. “It’s basically violating human rights. Even though it’s different from one country to another, oppression is still oppression.”
She explains that there are several common battles that women all across the Arab world face, in particular laws on rape, which often absolve the rapist of any crime if he marries his victim, and laws relating to honor crimes, which often stipulate a reduced sentence for men involved in killing female family members deemed to have done something “shameful.”
The photographs encourage people to express themselves personally, rather than just “liking” a page, and each is titled with the sender’s first name and country of origin.
“I think this campaign is not fully virtual because of the photos,” adds Barqawi. “We had strict guidelines – we need a photo with eyes or hands or a body ... It actually has people and these people are identified – we’re not putting [pseudonyms]. Many of them tag themselves in their photos, which is really great.”
It is not only women who have responded to the campaign. Men are also sending in photos with messages of support, and photos have started appearing from all over the world.
Even teenage boys are getting involved. Abdulkareem from Saudi Arabia posted a photo of himself holding a sign which reads, “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because I am 16 years old and according to the law, I am the guardian of my widowed mother. Revolt mother! You are strong, you are free!”
Christèle from Lebanon holds a sign next to the swell of her pregnant belly with the words, “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because as a Lebanese woman there is no reason why I should not be able to grant my nationality to my children.”
Many of the photos have multiple comments from viewers, who often debate issues raised by the image. A Yemeni woman wearing the burqa in her photograph sparked discussions around the issue of veiling, whether or not it should be characterized as repressive and whether it makes a difference if a woman chooses to wear the veil, or if she is obliged to by law or pressure from family members.
According to Barqawi, Facebook statistics show that the majority of followers are between 24 and 30. When it comes to nationality the largest group is from Palestine, the next largest from Saudi Arabia, two countries which – like women – were bypassed by the Arab Spring uprisings.
“The campaign [started] after the drawback that happened to women after the Arab Spring,” Haidar adds. “A backlash was given to all of them in different countries. We know that change doesn’t happen overnight but the results ... were very disappointing.
“The women who were on the front lines,” she continues, “fighting the dictatorships and getting [shot], detained, harassed, raped and even killed – they were treated really badly ... This is our moment, with all this change that is going on around us. Either we take advantage of [it] or we have to wait another 40 years – maybe more.”
To view photos from the campaign and find out more visit the group on Facebook at www.facebook.com/intifadat.almar2a