Lebanon News

Summer camp looks to topple technology gender barriers

KFAR DEBIAN, Lebanon: “Geek Chic,” it seems, is much more than a fading fashion trend that has succeeded in bringing thick-rimmed spectacles to the world’s catwalks. It is also the inspiration behind Lebanon’s newest all-girl summer camp, dedicated to creating a new generation of female “tech heads” capable of stirring up the sphere of citizen journalism or embarking on a computing career, still seen as an all-male preserve.

“I am a geek! I love all of this stuff and I hate the sexism that men think they are better than women in technology,” said Sarah Abu Raad, 16, who attended the Friday opening of “Girl Geek Camp.”

“I hate so much that there are now no female government ministers in Lebanon, that I want to try to be a feminist and learn things that traditionally only men know about.”

Abu Raad is one of 16 recruits who will participate in the week-long training session, held in the mountain village of Kfar Debian, and expected to feature talks from 20 sector specialists, addressing subjects such as interview skills, social activism and online campaigns, as well as digital illustration and net freedoms: censorship filtering and Internet rights.

The girls, many of whom have come with only basic computer skills, will also learn how to set up blogs and protect their online accounts from hackers or possible government interference.

“As part of the shift in the Internet today, which is moving toward being based more on user-generated content, it is very crucial that citizens in Lebanon from a young age learn how to actively spread news, photos, comments and opinions about everything that is going on in the country,” said Nadine Moawad, a camp organizer and famed online women’s rights activist.

They should not just be “taking all this information from the mainstream media but also producing content themselves. They have all this technology at their fingertips, so they may as well us it.”

The issues topping the agenda of tomorrow’s female activists vary greatly from promoting anti-sectarianism, gender equality and religious co-existence to talking about day-to-day life, although the need to be heard seems universal.

“As teenagers there are a lot of clubs and community service [projects] but I want to take it to the next level and become a more active member of society and a better activist,” said 17-year old Nour Chamseddine, who is attending the camp with her 15-year-old sister, Reem. “It’s nice to not just live an isolated life … I want to be part of something bigger … and reach out to more people.”

Both sisters admit to being “addicted to” social networking, but have not let this cut into their volunteering efforts, spread between the Red Cross, environmental NGO, IndyAct, and civil society groups working with Palestinian refugees and the elderly. However, what seems to attract them and their peers the most about the online community is exchanging views with friends, relatives and acquaintances from across the world.

The string of revolts in the Arab World, nicknamed the “Facebook Revolution” by those keen to emphasize the importance of the Internet in mobilizing protests, have also stirred many at the camp into action.

“It’s definitely inspiring. I never realized Facebook could have such a power to make a revolution,” said Nour. “It just proves that social media is taking over everything. We barely even watch TV, we’re always online.”

But there is a strong belief that this time must be spent more productively and that existing knowledge should be honed to fulfill the aspirations of the new generation of wannabe bloggers.

Citizen journalism in Lebanon “has grown tremendously in the last couple of years but it still needs a lot of work,” said Moawad. “We’re still not very vocal or focused on issues and we take freedom of speech for granted.”

Hopes at the camp, however, are riding high about the future of Lebanon’s online activists, expected to grow into a formidable force capable of mobilizing supporters for a range of causes and challenging issues like censorship.

“I really believe social networks can be used for a good purpose, like what they have done throughout the Middle East,” said Amanda Jabbour, 18.

Her new friend, Nour Dalah, 16, also agrees, “the attention of sheer quantities of people will be transformed into pressure and then we can have people power.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 09, 2011, on page 3.

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