Cyber Feminism: The Gulf Activists Making Some Noise
Social media websites, in particular Twitter, have provided a platform for Gulf feminists to express their views and connect with each other — and some are considering launching an organization or a party to move on stagnant issues and push for amendments to personal status laws.
On August 1, 2019, Saudi Arabia officially announced changes to travel documents and regulations whereby women over the age of 21 were permitted to obtain a passport and travel without requiring a guardian’s permission. This means that the law forbidding women to travel without the consent of a guardian had finally been lifted. Saudi women have been demanding this change for years and several feminist activists have been in jail for over a year for making this demand. The law remains in place in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
In all Gulf countries, a woman still requires consent from a guardian in order to get married, or in some cases if she wants to take up employment or practise other basic rights. This situation has driven many women in the Gulf to defend the rights of women wherever they are, particularly in this region, and they have taken to social media to make their voices heard.
Campaigns emerging on social media denouncing violence against women in the Gulf and defending their rights have turned to something akin to an activist-led cyber feminist movement. Whether or not we agree with their methods of resistance, what is certain is that the laws in their countries prevent these feminist activists from fighting freely in the public domain, so they have migrated to the virtual realm to express their positions and denounce all forms of violence and discrimination against women.
In an attempt to understand the dynamics of this feminist activism, I reached out to some of these activists for comment on their brand of feminist mobilisation which, sceptics might argue, could just be a culturally and politically insignificant fad. Among the activists I spoke to were Maryam Bint Mubarak, a 25-year-old law student; Fatema Rashdan, a 24-year-old Bahraini feminist activist; another 22-year-old Bahraini activist who only disclosed her first name, Hanan; and 31-year-old activist Safiya (a pseudonym), who is primarily active on Twitter. Despite their differences, they all agree that Gulf women are held back by customs and traditions that stereotype women and force them into daily battles with a deeply-entrenched patriarchal system that is difficult to uproot.
What has prompted these social media activists to become feminists? There are many possible answers to this question. It could be the pressures that are imposed on women in the Gulf by customs and traditions, or the general hostility towards critical thinking, including feminism, which is considered by its detractors as a Western import that calls for apostasy and atheism. In the words of Mubarak: “Our societies are so rigid and set in their old ways. Women face many injustices. They suffer so much from regressive customs and traditions that don’t see them as free, independent beings, but as a source of shame, to be persecuted, abused, and controlled.”
Asmaa (a pseudonym), a 27-year-old journalist and feminist activist from the United Arab Emirates, attributes her feminism to her mother. “My mother was deprived of the opportunity to complete her education. She was forced into marriage as a minor, but she made sure to become financially independent and to provide a better life for her daughters. She is what prompted me to become a feminist and to stand up for women’s rights, especially in the Gulf.”
Fatema Rashdan, a Bahraini feminist activist, also shared her experience of having to face what she calls “a very harsh social war” when she decided to break away from certain religious practices. She wanted to support other women who might have a similar experience, or who remain silent out of fear.
Feminist activists in the Gulf face attacks from their conservative societies as well as from women who experience the same oppression but who choose to side with the patriarchy, such as the journalist Mona Matwa, who opposes feminist movements and writes articles denouncing them. In an article she published last July in the Bahraini newspaper Al-Watan entitled, “Feminists and Rationalists on Social Media: The New Intellectual War to Infiltrate Muslim Youth", she writes:
They demand full equality between men and women, in all aspects: politics, economics, society, family, education, employment; the eradication of all differences and overriding of all barriers, which is against human instinct to begin with, not to mention Islamic principles. They also call for the freedom to choose and define their sexual and gender identity—that is, that women are free to stay women or become men; and ask for absolute sexual freedom for women, whether legitimate or illegitimate, and its attendant consequences such as pregnancy out of wedlock, and the right to adopt and change the child’s lineage, or shift their lineage to the mother’s family; the freedom to choose abortion, and the right to use their bodies in whatever way they choose, which is actually similar to human trafficking. They demand the right to choose their religion, or abandon it, or change it; as well as the right for women to choose their social, political, and cultural affiliations. And many of the people who belong to these movements in the first place are rebelling against society: in fact, they wreck homes and sabotage societies, they are mentally unstable in their behaviors and moral values, and they are opposed to their homelands, even fighting the ruling regimes in them.
Mubarak responds to this by saying: “Feminism is the liberation of women from all personal, intellectual, political, and social constraints. What I am seeking, as a feminist, is first and foremost the liberation of women from all constraints, and for the other to respect her and recognize her presence and her role. For women to be independent human beings, who are able to live their lives without guardians, who can choose their field of study or work without fear or coercion, who can choose to get married, divorced, or stay single, who can choose their life partner, who can travel alone whenever they want to, who can pursue an education and achieve their goals and ambitions.”
Rashdan adds: “Most people in the Gulf think that feminism means moral decay, and the patriarchal media helps to promote these toxic ideas. Feminism means recognizing my right to be equal with men. Feminism doesn’t only stand up for women; it seeks to correct concepts that have also turned men into unwitting victims.” In Rashdan’s view, the patriarchal system imposes financial, social, and political responsibilities on men and makes them believe they are capable of achieving them. “Feminism also seeks to rid men of all this pressure. The men who are raging against feminists are also the ones who feel threatened, who are completely aware that they do not deserve the privileges over women that they receive every day simply because they happen, by chance, to possess a male reproductive organ,” she adds.
Safiya, a Bahraini activist, agrees. “As a movement, feminism constitutes a real threat to the systemic and inherited constraints that come from various sources: religion, politics, or socialisation. This has produced the societies we live in now which fuel women’s ignorance and try to limit their awareness. There’s a group that benefits from discrimination and the current social hierarchy, and another which is not fully aware of its rights due to religious, legal, and traditional constraints.”
The activists I spoke to have managed to strengthen their bonds of solidarity and to support each other against any attack leveled at one of them, at other activists, or at women they don’t know who seek their help. They have offered digital support for girls from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait who have run away from their families or countries, trying to find safer places where they could live their lives without guardianship. They have done so by contacting international organizations that offer help to women and refugees, and pushing for a rapid response to rescue these girls and provide them with safety and support.
The Situation in the Gulf
In the Gulf region, women cannot pass their nationality on to their children. The laws of guardianship in some countries forbid women from working, traveling, and getting married without the written or verbal consent of a guardian. Hanan remarks: “The situation for women in the Gulf varies, depending on the political system and the nature of the society. For instance, tribal areas impose stricter controls on women, as do the laws in Saudi Arabia—which have begun to change. Qatar and the Emirates also still require the consent of a “guardian” in a lot of instances. Even though Bahrain is considered better than its neighbors,we still have a long way to go to the level of equality we need.”
Women’s rights within the same country can also vary, as Safiya confirms: “The fact that women are able to vote, run for elections, and occupy administrative and political positions is a good start. But to this day, women cannot pass their nationality on to their children, or receive the same inheritance as a man, or refuse polygamy, or choose abortion, or even respond appropriately to violence and harassment. We have some rights, but to this day women are not able to make decisions about their lives or bodies without being punished or held to account.”
For 30-year-old Kuwaiti feminist and civil activist Khadija al-Shimmari, “Classism plays a key role in influencing the attainment of women’s rights . Affluence and economic prosperity reduce the patriarchal attitude of family members, which seems to worsen with greater financial and social burdens.” She adds, “Our societies uphold stereotypical, idealised images of women that carry a lot of illogical expectations about women’s appearance, behavior, and the limit of their ambitions. When a woman decides to rebel against this image, society is merciless. Women in the Gulf region are still second-class citizens. They’re always used to polish the country’s image in international forums.”
Along similar lines, Asmaa talks about the situation in the UAE: “In the Emirates, our problem is that we don’t recognize the negative reality of women’s rights and freedoms. The prevalent thing is to be completely silent about the incidents of runaway or abused girls, or to deny them and try to discredit the victims. On the other hand, our media promote Emirati women as topping "most empowered" rankings compared to other Gulf and Arab women, even though our global rankings with regards to the gender gap are still very low.”
This also happens in Bahrain, when the High Council for Women celebrates the political and legal “achievements” of Bahraini women, while women in Bahrain still cannot obtain a passport for their children or pass on their nationality. While this council has made some progress in supporting some women’s rise to decision-making positions in the country, they are also being used by the authorities to whitewash the country’s image in front of the international community.
The Possibility of Self-Organization
Even though feminists are present in the Gulf region, there is, as yet, no organization, association or formal entity that brings them together. Social media has become a platform for their voices and demands, as Mubarak asserts: “Social media has enabled my voice to reach a large number of women and to become influential among them. Twitter and Instagram have given us the opportunity to form a kind of cohesive online feminist “party,” and we hope to form a feminist organization in the future to defend Gulf and Arab women.”
Kuwaiti activist Shimmari confirms that social media has given feminists the opportunity to connect with activists and social organizations from all over the world. In her view, “this alliance-building on social media, whether in attack or defense, is clearly impactful. However, it remains weak offline and a lot of dedication, research, and work are needed to make it a tangible reality.” On this topic, Asmaa adds: “For the first time in my life I feel that I’m not alone in confronting a patriarchal system that denigrates and abuses us. Social media gave me a space to express my views and introduced me to many feminists in the Gulf, and we became friends on a personal level.” To her mind, forming a party or organization on the ground would not be possible due to “our governments’ oversensitivity to the idea of forming parties or organizations concerned with women’s rights.”
As for Rashdan, she believes that social media gave her a platform and an audience, which helped to raise awareness among women about their rights and duties, to debate and correct misogynistic misconceptions in society, and to communicate the demands of women to the relevant authorities. The biggest example of this is the Saudi feminists who managed, despite the exclusion and discrimination they faced, to communicate their demands to remove the guardianship system, lift the ban on driving, and enable women to renew their passports and travel without needing permission—via Twitter alone. On digital lobbying, she says: “It’s just a set of shared principles that all feminists, despite their intellectual or religious differences, are operating within. It would be wonderful to meet and unite the energies of a greater number of feminists in one place, behind one goal.”
Hanan, in turn, also feels that social media has enriched the conversation on feminism, and has informed her about the situation of women in the region and the issues that need attention. In her view, however, there is not enough of a “solid foundation” at the moment to form a party or organization that brings together feminists in the Gulf.
Social media websites, in particular Twitter, have provided a platform for Gulf feminists to express their views and forge connections with one another. This has evolved into the idea of coming together to form an organization, association, or party, in order to move on stagnant issues and to push for amendments to personal status laws in favor of women and the civil state. The problem remains that, despite the attempts of these feminists to unite their ranks, they are still not standing on solid ground. Their modes of resistance differ, and sometimes might be in conflict with one another — and most of these efforts remain virtual, confined to the realm of social media. Perhaps the most important thing at this stage is for these feminists to raise their voices, to disrupt those who are blindly following repressive regimes and authoritarian laws that derive their legitimacy from religion.