Arab Women, the Internet and Public Space
Musa Shteiwi, lecturer of sociology at the University of Jordan in Amman, is one of the few male sociologists who has specialised in women studies. In this article, Shteiwi argues that the Internet may liberate Arab women from social isolation.
In the Arab World, the Internet and its use are growing rapidly after a very slow start. Despite the similarities and commonalities that the Arab World unites (language, culture, religion, and geography), there are significant differences and diversities in terms of their social, political, and economic structure. However, the most important common feature of Arab culture is the conservative nature of its value system, especially when it comes to women and sexuality. When the Internet was introduced to the region in the mid-1990s, it was met with strong resistance from the undemocratic governments and the conservative political and social groups alike. The main reasons behind the opposition to the Internet and the attempt to control it were both political and social. Politically, the largely autocratic regimes were afraid of their citizens having access to information about the behaviour of those regimes and the potential of exposure to new ideas that would inevitably be brought about by contacts with the outside world. Before the advent of the Internet, governments were able to control and censor such access. The social conservative groups’ fears were not less influential. They did not want individuals (especially women and the young) to be exposed to new western values, attitudes, and behaviours, which are viewed to be immoral and corrupt.
Before the Internet became popular, women and youth had almost no opportunity to independently access the outside world; their behaviour was subject to the control of the family. But despite the political and social resistance to the introduction and use of the Internet, it became obvious that it was impossible to prevent or even entirely control this revolutionary medium of communication. Today, almost all Arab countries allow the public access to Internet use to varying degree, and the use of Internet is growing rapidly and becoming increasingly popular, especially among the youth. In some countries, like Jordan, Internet is being introduced to schools, universities, and government institutions. Internet cafés spread quite rapidly, thus providing a suitable solution to the immense costs and expenses of a personal computer and Internet access.
Internet may empower Arab women to exercise their rights
The Internet has the potential of being a modernizing force in the Arab world. It can do great many things, from leveraging scarce educational resources, providing models of entertainment, and serving as a tool to communicate with people far away and separated by geography, culture, politics, and gender. Additionally, the Internet has the potential to empower Arab women in the exercise of their rights, to seek and receive information, and ideas, and to provide them with a new public space. What is unique about the Internet use and potentially influencing as a communication medium is the individual aspect of its use. Unlike most modern communication methods that are family-oriented, the Internet is individual-oriented. This is even more important for youths and women in Arab society. Women’s behaviour and social interaction in a conservative Arab culture is largely subject to the scrutiny and control of the family, the community and the society as a whole. The Internet allows women to render traditional social control mechanism of their behavior useless or ineffective. They can use the medium on their own and outside of family control; and they can be anonymous and that is what contributes to individualized and free interaction.
The impact of the Internet on women occurs on different levels, depending on age, educational status, place of residence, marital status, and class position. On the general level, the Internet has opened the opportunity for women groups and activists to use the Internet as a forum for discussion and as a valuable source of information, thus reaching many women who would be difficult to reach otherwise. There are many women sites on the Internet that provide information about women issues that are still considered taboo and will be difficult to discuss in the traditional media. These sites and others provide access to information to women and therefore help to empower and link them with other women activists and organizations. Additionally, the Internet has responded to the demand of Arab women to portray a more balanced image and role in society to balance the common prevalent stereotypes of Arab women without a role to play other than daughter, wife, and mother. Traditionally, women aren’t allowed to communicate with men that are not family members – this is controlled by the men in the family.
However, through chatting and e-mail, women are able to meet and to communicate ideas and feelings to other women and men. Chatting and mailing are helping to put an end to the social isolation of women and to weaken the control of men over women as well. Additionally, women can access information about variety of topics such as politics, culture, music, and sexuality. In other words, women can enhance their general knowledge about many issues, which contribute to their intellectual enrichment and increase their self-esteem.
Building up a youth culture in the Arab world
More importantly, and due to the high costs of owning a PC and access to the net, Internet cafés are spreading rapidly in Arab cities and around universities, schools, and establishments. In the city of Irbid, in northern Jordan there are more than 100 Internet cafés on the stretch of only one kilometre. Internet cafés have an added value for women who frequent them. They not only provide access to Internet for women who do not have Internet at home, but also they provide them with access to meet and interact with men in public places. The Internet cafés are very popular and have become a public meeting place for youth men and women, thus enhancing women’s opportunities and personal freedom to interact and engage in social relations with other men that is not possible otherwise. The Internet and Internet cafés are significantly contributing to the emergence of youth culture in the Arab world that is also the meeting ground for international culture as well. The emergent youth culture is creating a challenge to traditional Arab culture and paving the way for significant cultural changes.
The positive impact of the Internet on Arab women should not be exaggerated. Illiteracy, poverty, language barriers and non-availability in rural areas hamper the access to the Internet by women and therefore reduce its impact to certain groups in society. The Arab world has the lowest percentage of Internet users in the world, with the percentage of women using the Internet much lower than that of men. These factors do not belittle the potential impact of the Internet on women, but rather show the limitations. In conclusion, the introduction and use of the Internet in the Arab world has begun to affect all groups and all aspects of public life. The Internet has a great potential for Arab women as it provides new public space; it is a forum for the exchange of ideas and thoughts, and it empowers women through access to information, it allows them to communicate and meet other women and men, and it allows them to overcome barriers of distance, time, and more importantly, men’s and family control. The Internet is significantly contributing to the silent gender revolution in the Arab world.
Dr. Musa Shteiwi © 2003