7-29-2011By Stephanie El Rayess
Human Rights Defenders
Some say it’s not the right time to discuss women’s rights in the Middle East because the revolutions are far from over and are essentially about regime change, not gender equality. Others say the transition period is a window of opportunity to introduce legislation that protects women’s rights as full-fledged citizens.
What matters is that women “showed up,” defying social norms of their conservative traditional societies by taking part in the protests – and suffering the consequences. Perhaps what matters even more is the “behind-the-scenes” role women played through their activism on the internet – organizing online campaigns, writing blogs, tweeting to report events and administering Facebook pages that support causes they believe in. The long road to women’s empowerment in the Middle East starts now with the protection of the internet – the forum where Arab women don’t shy away from taking leadership.
The more ‘woman-friendly’ projection of power in social media may have helped transform Arab women into leaders. With the help of new technologies, women in the Arab World are increasingly aware of their rights, well-networked, highly organized and speaking out against abuse. For instance, Egyptian women are literally mapping sexual harassment through tweets and texts via HarrassMap, a website that helps women overcome social taboos to fight Cairo’s widespread problem.
Saudi women are also using the internet, one of the few available means of making their voice heard, to break social barriers and advocate for their rights. They have organized an online nationwide campaign to ‘test’ the ban on driving prior to launching it on June 17. While Saudi women’s on-the-ground participation was not high, their online response was overwhelming. They spread awareness on the women’s right to drive through Twitter, the Support #Women2Drive Facebook page and several blogs that report the campaign’s daily updates. In doing so, they managed to solicit international support for their cause, but more importantly in the Saudi context, solicit local support from Saudi men as seen in the emergence of yet another Facebook group, Saudi Men for Women Driving.
Laura Turquet, Progress of the World’s Women Report Manager at UN Women, recently said in an interview with Gulf News that women were at the forefront of some of the Arab spring campaigns for democracy in the region in terms of political voice and power. Whether women will stand to gain from the ongoing protests remains to be seen as there are signs of sidelining women from the ‘post-revolution’ decision-making processes of several Arab countries. However, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, technology can be a great facilitator and it is critical to stay “a step ahead” so that people, particularly women, can benefit from historic windows of opportunity. Women’s empowerment in the Middle East can simply start with a few clicks.