Egypt’s intelligent cyber-amazons
- In the Arab world, the protests in Egypt of January 2011 and the following demise of the government and president Mubarak are generally referred to as ’25 January Revolution’.
- Other names include the Rage Revolution, The Revolution of the Youth, The Lotus revolution or The White Revolution. Several media have also called the events The 18-Day Revolution.
‘Whoever in this country says that women shouldn’t go to protest because they will get beaten, let him have some honour and manhood and come with me on January 25th (…)
If you have honour and dignity as a man, come and protect me and all the other young women in the protest. If you stay at home, then you deserve all that’s being done to you (…)’
It was with these words posted on YouTube that 27-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz urged her Egyptian sisters and brothers to take an active part in the recent Egyptian revolution. And thanks to her plea and the pleas of countless other revolutionaries, never-before-seen numbers of both men – and women in particular – successfully rallied together in the dusty streets of Cairo set on toppling Hosni Mubarak, the then Egyptian president.
But this latest Egyptian revolution did not only take place in the streets and squares of the city. Even though observers disagree whether social media actually drove the revolution or was simply an instrument used in it, they all unanimously agree that this revolution happened using an arsenal comprised of feet, voices, computers and mobile telephones.
The #Egypt #Jan25 revolution
In cyberspace, the revolution goes under the name of #Egypt #Jan25. Here, the women speak their minds with no one to censor what they say. Their aim is simply to get hold of what they are worthy of, out in the real world.
‘Egyptian women have to fight every day for every single right - firstly, rights over their own body; then, religious equality; and finally, political representation.’
This is how Engy Ghozlan writes it on Twitter. Here she goes by the name of EngyG and has the following profile: ‘Born and raised in Cairo, child of the 80s, travelling, reading, eating, studying people, sitting stuck in traffic every day, feminist working with gender and development.’
She easily posts between seven and ten tweets per hour. And thousands of readers comment and act on her tweets – both online and in the street. Often both. EngyG is the epitome of a typical cyber revolutionary: She fights to topple the regime using modern forms of communication – both to mobilise as well as to organise, but also to report and promote her cause and message.
Choose a topic and shout it out
As a revolutionary in #Egypt #Jan25 in the year 2011, it is possible to put the topics of equal rights and women’s’ rights on the agenda without having to rely on finding a news medium that can be bothered to interview you in order to shout your rallying cry out to the masses.
Anyone, be they participant in or observer of the revolution, can tweet or have a profile on Facebook. Through these channels, it is possible to both create and follow lively debate about gender, equality and rights in the old, the revolutionary, and the new Egypt – in the run up to, during, and after the most intense hours of the revolution. And all of this can be done without ever having to set foot in the battlefield or without having direct contact to a single living person in the battlefield.
The revolution’s cyber-vernacular
Users of social media bring their debate to the frontline in a new and often direct and informal way. The various formats (max. 140 characters on Twitter) naturally set some limits when it comes to form. However, the tone and atmosphere in cyberspace is in the modern revolutionary language:
‘Heard a member of Ghad* say “nowadays, if a woman gets into an argument with her husband, she threatens to go down to Tahrir**”’
(* Egyptian political party)
(** Cairo’s main square and centre for the protests)
It is likely that this joke would never have been heard outside Egypt had it not been for Twitter. Nor would the world have heard about the Korean bloggers who invented the term ‘Mubaractic’ – meaning a person who does not understand a subtle hint…
Alongside these humoristic postings can be found a series of more idealistic slogans:
‘Women are not minorities – progress without women is only progress for half of the population’
‘I’ll know when the revolution is won once Egypt has become a constitutional state without ‘women-only queues’ to separate men from women.’
Or as another writes:
‘The word empowerment is a problem in itself, particularly in relation to women. If you can’t see it, it’s going to be hard to explain in 140 characters.’
Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian living in New York working as a writer and international commentator at The New York Times, points out another characteristic of this revolution – the fact that it is, in essence, global, and can therefore attract both moral support and spread awareness across borders and with no constraints.
9 Polish Feminists Orgs send solidarity msg 2 #Feminists in #Egyptreplying @fatmaemam solidarity call thru @WLUML-viva #Feministsin #Jan25
Gender issues at a popular level
Observers sitting far away from the revolution can, through their own experience, observe an awareness that was hoped and believed existed, but which now manifests itself in a completely different way – as for example here in a tweet-dialogue between the tweeters Yasmine El Rafie and ‘forsoothsayer’:
Yasmine El Rafie: Does anyone know how many women sit on the 12-person #jan25-youth committee?
Forsoothsayer: What youth committee?
Yasmine El Rafie: Those that the young people had elected to negotiate with the government
Forsoothsayer: As superficial as it is – is there a link to that?
Yasmine El Rafie: No, I’m looking for one myself. But in the news yesterday…
And another tweet referring to the widespread sexual harassment in Egypt noted, noted as did many others, that the level of harassment dropped drastically during the revolution:
My friend says: We’d never dreamed that women could be out in the streets and sleeping here without being harassed in any way(…)
An extra result: More and broader debates
Having the whole gender question on the agenda has led to a second and not insignificant result. The many discussion and dialogue forums have created places for other more general debates. Debates that otherwise may never have seen the light of day. Now it is possible to follow intense discussions about women, Islam, Islamic feminism, headscarves and their role in and outside the revolution – all stemming from the current situation but spanning much further than 18 short days in January 2011.
Fatma Emam, Egyptian blogger and rights campaigner writes on her blog, which is linked to Twitter:
‘When a young feminist expressed her surprise about the role played by veiled women in the revolution, which meant that social and religious taboos were broken, I was insulted because she had a very orientalistic view of feminism – namely that a veil is a hindrance when it comes to a woman’s options and not just for sensuality and sexuality. I was also insulted when I was interviewed by a foreign journalist and she asked me whether or not I wore a veil being an Islamic feminist.’
And the open dialogue continues on Facebook where a wall posting on the Women of Egypt page has attracted a lot of interest and led to 30 comments under this one debate point alone.
‘An ongoing topic of conversation in the western media is the fear of Islam or Islamist groups. If anyone here has any questions relating to Islam, the culture, or how these relate to women, I open the arena here for respectful dialogue and understanding. You can ask ANYTHING.’
Somewhere else on the same page are 47 comments on yet another debate about headscarves, coercion and repression. And on Twitter there are links to blogs in which women who have never before been politically active now openly talk about their participation and their motivation for taking part in the revolution.
Can we tweet our way to real change?
Asmaa Mahfouz, EngyG and her co-tweeters as well as users of other social media have succeeded in tweeting gender and equality onto an agenda and increasing awareness of the issues. But now they face the next hurdle – a hurdle highlighted by media researchers. One such researcher is John Downing, Professor of Media Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Professor Downing is among those who believe that social media has solely acted as a tool for revolution and he raises the question of how far we really can tweet our way to real influence and representation – whether are a woman, a Copt, a communist or any other social group that has been excluded from having influence. During an interview in the Danish current-affairs programme ‘Horisont’, the professor ended by posing the following slightly rhetorical and sceptical question:
“We remove Mubarak, Ahmedinejad, or whoever, but what do we do about the remaining power structure? How useful are Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and various blogs when we want to set up a new regime? That is something we have yet to see.”