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“I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone. And I’ll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honor. I even wrote my number so maybe people will come down with me. No one came except … three guys and three armored cars of riot police … I’m making this video to give you one simply message: We want to go down to Tahrir Square on January 25. If we still have honor and want to live with dignity on this land, we have to go down on January 25. We’ll go down and demand our rights, our fundamental human rights… If you think yourself a man, come with me on January 25th. Whoever says a women shouldn't go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me on January 25th … Sitting at home and just following us on news or Facebook leads to our humiliation, leads to my own humiliation. If you have honor and dignity as a man, come … If you stay home, you deserve what will happen to you … and you’ll be guilty, before your nation and your people … Go down to the street, send SMSs, post it post it on the ‘net. Make people aware … It will make a difference, a big difference … never say there’s no hope … so long you come down with us, there will be hope … don’t think you can be safe any more! None of us are! Come down with us and demand your rights my rights, your family’s rights.”
Thus was the call to action that 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz made in a video she posted to YouTube on January 18, 2011, which went viral and turned her into a symbol of the Egyptian revolution. A day later, 32-year-old Tawakkol Karman organized a protest in solidarity with the Tunisian people in downtown Sana’a that drew thousands to the streets in an unprecedented public demonstration by women. Young women have been at the forefront of the revolutionary uprisings that have toppled regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, along with the more protracted struggles in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. They were among the Twitterati and citizen journalists who became leading news sources—the protesters who took to the streets and the cybersphere to demand that their entrenched leaders step down, and the citizens who paid the ultimate price, being beaten to death and murdered in those regimes’ desperate attempts to cling to power.
This research introduces several of the key figures leading the revolutionary convulsions in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Yemen, and explores how young women used social media and cyberactivism to help shape the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath. The engagement of women with social media has coincided with a shift in the political landscape of the Middle East, and it is unlikely that they will ever retreat from the new arenas they have carved out for themselves. Throughout the region, women have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers, translating digital advocacy and organization into physical mobilization and occupation of public spaces in a dialectic of online and offline activism that is particular to this era. They have used citizen journalism and social networking to counter the state-dominated media in their countries and influence mainstream media around the world. In the process, they are reconfiguring the public sphere in their countries, as well as the expectations of the public about the role women can and should play in the political lives of their countries.
Several of the women who participated in and led the Arab uprisings were cyberactivists prior to the convulsions of 2011, but many more were inspired to become activists by the events happening around them. Although women young and old took part, it was the younger generation that led the way online. They helped organize virtual protests as well as street demonstrations and played bridging roles with the mainstream media, helping to ensure that the 24-hour news cycle always had a source at the ready. Twitter became a real-time newsfeed, connecting journalists directly with activists and becoming a key tool in the battle to frame the protests and set the news agenda, particularly in the international media like Al Jazeera and elite Western outlets. Media outlets repurposed citizen-generated videos on YouTube and photos on Flikr, while Facebook provided a platform for aggregating, organizing, disseminating, and building solidarity.
Women have played a central role in the creation of a virtual public sphere online via social media and blogs, but have also demanded greater access, representation, and participation in the physical public sphere, epitomized by the physical squares that represent the imaginary center of political life in their countries: Tahrir Square in Egypt and Benghazi, Libya; Taghir Square in Yemen; and the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain. They tore down physical and social barriers between men and women, challenging cultural and religious norms and taboos and putting women’s empowerment at the center of the struggle for political change. As one blogger put it, “The most encouraging feature of the current upheaval is the massive participation of women; not only the young educated women who uses (sic) the Internet but also the grassroots uneducated older women from rural cities.”
Among the iconic figures of these Arab revolutionary uprisings are several women who are inextricably linked with the new media platforms that have fundamentally shifted the balance of power. Not only have cyberactivism and social media platforms shifted the power dynamics of authoritarian Arab governments and their citizenry, but they have also reconfigured power relations between the youth who make up the majority of the population and the older generation of political elites who were overwhelmingly male and often implicated in the perpetuation of the status quo.
While women and men struggle valiantly to bring about political change, the cyberactivists stand out for their use of new media technologies and access to platforms that transcended national boundaries and created bridges with transnational media and activists groups. The importance of these cyberactivist platforms could be seen in the way they became part of the lexicon of dissent. Esraa Abdel Fattah was known as “Facebook girl” for her role in launching one of the most important opposition youth groups in Egypt, the April 6 Movement. Egypt’s Mona Eltahawy, Libya’s Danya Bashir, Bahrain’s Zeinab al-Khawaja and Maryam al-Khawaja, and many others became known as the “Twitterrati” as influential media and pundits dubbed their Twitter accounts as “must-follows.” This paper acknowledges the contribution of all women and men to the revolutionary struggles, but seeks to examine a particular subset of these revolutionaries in order to better understand the role women cyberactivists played and to make recommendations accordingly.
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