Facebook in a facelessworld

GLEN JOHNSON
Last updated 05:00 08/05/2012
Afghanistan street art
Reuters

GLOOM: Encased in a head-to-toe burqa, this graffiti depicts a distraught woman slumped on a cement stairwell. It's the work of Afghanistan's first street artists, who use graffiti to chronicle violence and oppression since the Taleban was toppled more than a decade ago.

'Anne' and Lies Hebbadj
Reuters
PATRIARCHY: Fathers, brothers and husbands sometimes restrict the ability of women to harness the internet and social networks. In this photo, 'Anne', the assumed name of a 31-year-old Frenchwoman who was fined for wearing a niqab while driving, and her husband, Lies Hebbadj, outside a police tribunal in Nantes, in June 2010.
Lina Ben Mhenni
Reuters
NOT ALL SUFFER: Tunisian writer Lina Ben Mhenni kept a blog under her own name during the time and collapse of the regime of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

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Essar does not post pictures of herself on Facebook. She would infuriate her brothers if she did.

Instead, her profile picture depicts the back of a woman's head. The woman, not Essar, stands looking out at the ocean, long brown hair falling across her shoulders.

The image irritated Essar's brothers who, fearing for the family's reputation, demanded she change it to something they deemed more appropriate.

"I argued with my brothers about this," said Essar, a 39-year-old from the sprawling highland city of Taiz, Yemen. "They said it seemed too beautiful; my pictures should not be attractive or feminine."

Essar's brothers had little cause for concern. Her Facebook account is registered under a pseudonym and her 31 friends are mostly family members or old friends from university. She refused her brothers' demands, but the pressure continued.

"I told my brothers that I don't care if people think it is a beautiful picture or not."

She ended up winning the argument by invoking traditional Yemeni gender roles.

"In Yemen, if the woman is married she answers to her husband. The father or brother cannot interfere with her behaviour. My husband says Facebook is my business."

The extent social networking sites contributed to the Middle East's uprisings in the past 18 months remains open for debate.

Regardless, it is clear that new technology, which oppressive regimes found impossible to control, was used as an organisational device by protesters and it contributed to the region-wide drive for political freedom.

Yet there's a flip side: regressive social strictures. These are felt most acutely by women, including when using technology, and they have not changed.

"If I do [post photographs on networking sites] and one of the local boys maybe sees it, then it will be shared on all the boys' phones," said Amal, a young Libyan woman. "They will say bad things about me, that I make relationships – something like this."

In the conservative Middle East, where women are expected to be upright, poised and serene, accusations of infidelity can have severe consequences. Amal uses a pseudonym on Facebook – to protect her posts from prying eyes – and only allows close friends to know about her account. She gave the example of another young Libyan woman who started a Facebook page for Libyan atheists and received death threats, before quickly closing the group.

"During the revolution everybody talked about freedom and liberty," said Amal, who is presently being pressured to marry a man 10 years her senior, whom she has never met. "So where is the freedom exactly?

"Now they say, `No, no, we have to be careful with freedom'."

In the 2011 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report, Middle Eastern countries languished at the bottom end of the spectrum.

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Measuring performance in areas of political participation, education and access to healthcare for women, the report tracks a country's trajectory over time and features little chart worms that map progress.

Yemen, once again, clocked in last. Egypt and the Gulf and Levantine nations' worms resembled flat-lined cardiograms.

The issue reduces to a patriarchy colouring much of the Middle East in heavy shades of inequality.

Says Nana, a 22-year-old Egyptian woman, "It's even sadder that they do nothing about it". She gave the example of women whose boyfriends demanded passwords to their Facebook accounts – a problem not restricted to the Middle East.

"Some girls are pretty happy with how their men are jealous and over-protective. [They think] `He's not a guy playing around and is serious about the relationship'; `He's strict so we'll get married'," she said.

Nana used to hide her Facebook use from her traditionalist and controlling father, who feared if she had Facebook, her pictures would end up on pornography sites. Her father even disapproved of Nana's mother having guests in the house and phone calls.

"I recall he was so overtaken by the porn sites thing," she said.

Nana's father would call every few hours whenever she left the house. When she was using the computer – MSN chat – he would ask who she was talking to and stand behind her reading the conversations, which he could not understand: Nana uses so-called "Arabish" – Arabic rendered in the sharp confines of Latin script.

"There's a fine line between implementing the Middle Eastern restrictions on your household and having mental issues or intolerable flaws in your personality, like my dad," Nana said.

Internet use has grown spectacularly throughout the Middle East in the past decade.

Yemen, with 15,000 users at the turn of the millennium, now has 2.6 million users, at a relatively low penetration rate of 10.8 per cent; Egypt has seen growth from 450,000 to nearly 22 million users in the past 11 years.

The internet presented a fresh challenge to Middle Eastern dictators, who had previously, for example, struggled to adapt to the introduction of satellite television in the early 1990s – which also undercut the State's monopoly over information.

Essential for development and attracting foreign business, the internet is anarchic and, importantly, participatory in essence: it relies on interaction and so creates an environment in which ideas are shared and challenged, quickly. In other words, it is potentially seditious.

Perceiving the threat, the region's regimes mostly responded in fairly haphazard and authoritarian fashion: censoring websites, harassing bloggers, and surrounding the internet with bureaucracy.

Yet citizens also called for censorship. Litigious religious conservatives repeatedly attempted to have pornography sites banned, most recently in Egypt – a country ranked fourth in frequency of searches for the term "sex", according to Google Trends.

"I was not interested in it anyway," said Engy, a 26-year-old Egyptian woman whose fiancee requested that she stopped using Facebook.

"And it [Facebook] was going to make problems between me and my fiance," she added.

Engy's fiance became jealous after former classmates from her time at university began connecting with her on Facebook.

"He did not want me to talk to them or for them to see my pictures – pictures of me and my friends."

She ended up deleting the account, which she said was no big deal. But some of her friends registered her a new account under a pseudonym, which she did not use.

Marred in patriarchy, corruption, autocracy, religious orthodoxy and clannism, improvement will not come to the Middle East in the form of sweeping, drastic change. Rather, as many analysts note, it will be a slow, cumulative process in which human rights activists and citizens win occasional battles. If not, the region will wallow in its present slump.

Nana, the Egyptian woman with the Facebook-loathing father, fought hard to diminish her father's autocratic tendencies. After three years of arguing, refusing to obey his instructions and the dissolution of her parents' marriage, she managed to register a small victory:

"Now he is interested in getting a Facebook account," she said.

Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist working in North Africa and the Middle East.

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