JEDDAH: Online activism has revolutionized Arab women's struggle for equality in the past few years as they use the web to demand legislative change, confront sexual harassment and gender-based violence, as well as condemn patriarchy and misogyny.
From Yemen to Beirut, Rabat to Cairo, activists are mastering modern-day technology for digital activism. Women across the region are uniting through social media and, through this empowerment and solidarity, are holding their harassers to account, securing their rights and gaining the confidence to speak out.
Sarah Sheikh Ali is co-founder and director of an NGO called Humena that brings together human rights experts, members of civil society and academics from the Middle East and North Africa to promote human rights and gender equality.
“Social media has given women a platform, a network of allies, and a public presence that can’t as easily be silenced,” the Lebanese researcher told Arab News. “Social media, for all its flaws has helped us, as women, to know and feel we're not alone.”
One of the most devastating stories that triggered serious discussions about domestic abuse and honor crimes was that of 21-year-old Israa Ghrayeb, who was beaten to death by her relatives last August.
Her case revealed there was a lack of basic legal protection for Palestinian women, and local media and authorities failed to take serious steps until her death caused outrage among netizens.
The hashtags “Israa Ghrayeb,” “No honor in honor crimes” and “We are all Israa Ghrayeb” were trending on Twitter in several Arab countries for weeks.
Saudi women were pivotal in spreading the news across social media platforms and making sure it stayed at the top of trending lists. Ghrayeb’s story sparked on-the-ground protests too, with hundreds of women from the region and beyond demonstrating as part of the #Talat movement, meaning “women rise up.”
“In many ways these photos and footage, and the ease with which they can be shared, have energized protests and motivated women to rally around shared struggles,” Sheikh Ali said, referring to women at the frontline of demonstrations in countries such as Sudan and Lebanon.
Fatin Selim, who is 28 and from Saudi Arabia, said that last year represented a major qualitative shift in Arab women’s cyberactivism.
“Women addressed many issues with courage, and bravery, despite the different cultural backgrounds between them, they supported each other,” she told Arab News.
“I cannot imagine Israa Ghrayeb’s assaulters put in the dock without women's solidarity on Twitter. They were true investigative reporters, collecting information, refuting the assaulters’ arguments, and standing up for the victim.
“It was a wonderful and pleasant thing to see the development of women's awareness in an unprecedented way.”
Saja Al-Otaibi, who is 25, said social media discussions had helped women to discover new sources of support and empathy.
“The most remarkable thing about the women’s digital movement is that progress in society became faster, and that fears and apprehensions subsided, men’s support for women's issues did not appear on a wide level in our societies except with the spread of social media,” she told Arab News.
“And Saudi Arabia seems to lead this scene in the Arab world.”
A World Bank report recently ranked Saudi Arabia as top reformer and the top improver among 190 countries in terms of gender equality.
Its “Women, Business and the Law” 2020 report gave the Kingdom an overall score of 70.6 out of 100 - a 38.8 jump since its last ranking - placing it first among Gulf Cooperation Council countries and second in the Arab world.
But overall the MENA region fares poorly in terms of gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum. “Assuming the same rate of progress going forward, it will take approximately 150 years to close the gender gap in the MENA region, 15 years shorter than what was predicted last year,” it said.
“For now, many women in the region continue to face limitations of basic rights, including for divorce, inheritance, asset ownership, access to justice, and freedom of movement.”
Social media platforms have given women space to express themselves. Initiatives and projects to empower women and spread awareness abound, be they podcasts, virtual campaigns, support groups, online workshops, counseling or coaching services.
Body image, gender, patriarchy, spirituality, fitness, legal awareness, rights, marriage, family, social issues and life skills are just some of the topics discussed online.
“The virtual world has helped us to look outside ourselves, and realize that despite the distances, nationalities and religions, we have a shared struggle in our societies,” Bayan Seif, 19, told Arab News. “A sense of solidarity is always crucial to maintain and strengthen any just case.”
She said every story could act as a source of consolation, hope, and inspiration, whether it revolved around pain, harsh experiences, successes, and that dialogue was the main vehicle for social change.
Sheikh Ali invited women from across the region to join this year’s International Women Day campaign theme #EachforEqual.
“Individually, we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions - all day, every day. We can actively choose to challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, improve situations and celebrate women's achievements,” according to the campaign’s website.
“Collectively, each one of us can help create a gender equal world.”
International Women’s Day is on March 8.