Voices to Be Heard: The Role of Social Media in Preventing Violence Against Women in the Middle East

In the week when the world’s attention has been focused on the dramatic events unfolding in Ukraine, perhaps it is not surprising that protests against yet another killing of a young wife, Samah Bader, by her husband in Ramallah went unnoticed in the global media. But the stark truth is that reported instances of all forms of violence, including so-called honour killings, have been on the rise across the  Palestinian territories over the last three years.

Samah was stabbed to death, marking the eighth woman murdered this year. Palestinian official statistics show that 27 women were killed in 2013, with 15 women murdered in the West Bank and 12 women murdered in Gaza, as opposed 13 in 2012. The rising numbers of attacks on women are generally attributed to the emphasis placed on so-called ‘female virtue’ in a society that suffers from imbalanced gender power relations and the belief that violence against women is a result of poverty that affects women more than men, leading to increased vulnerabilities for women. Indeed the economic situation for women in West Bank and Gaza is bad. Women’s participation in the labour force stands at 17 percent, a figure the World Bank calls ‘abysmally low’, noting that employers appeared to favour men.

The Arab uprisings have led to new avenues for inclusion but violence against women remains a major challenge. Although women’s political participation is not new, social media platforms have provided new opportunities for women’s activism. However, since before the uprisings, in the years prior to 2010, young people harnessed social media for action, mostly through Facebook and Twitter. Many Palestinians, especially the youth, recognized how social media can bridge gaps, and started to think about how they could connect in the battle for freedom, justice and equality.

The 2013 CARE International policy report Arab Spring or Arab Autumn? Women’s political participation in the uprisings and beyond showed that women’s political participation and centrality in the Arab uprisings was remarkable, in Tunis, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt. However, since that time, instances and new forms of violence being reported are rising. The Safeworld report ‘It’s dangerous to be the first’: Security barriers to women’s public participation in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen highlighted that greater opportunities for women’s activism and participation in politics are accompanied by increased risk and backlash. As people’s sense of their personal safety has decreased, women in particular face targeted violence, encountering harassment and sexual assault.

Discussions take place on Facebook about what women should and should not do, what women should and should not say, what women should and should not wear and where women should and should not go. On the Internet as in real life, men’s violence is constricting women’s freedoms. However, the good news is that action at the community and street levels to expose violence against women can employ an informed social media to great advantage. Such efforts to communicate the violence experienced every day by women, attract some of the highest numbers on Facebook. Social media as a means of generating knowledge and evidence has become a vital tool for change.

The unprecedented extensive use of the Internet, especially among young people, is changing the political culture. Politicians are both embracing the possibilities of engaging new voters and supporters but also fear the challenges that arise from, for example, young women bloggers who ask hard questions and challenge existing accepted norms. Bloggers such as Tamimeh al Hussary and Lina Alsaafin have highlighted the plight of people trapped in situations beyond their control and gained the attention of the wider world.

It is through such bloggers and the use of social media platforms that new understandings and dialogues are emerging. Data is being gathered by people who can use the information in ways to change and shift the debate – locally, nationally and internationally. Indeed, it was the use of social media that meant that Samah Bader‘s death did not go unnoticed and unmourned. Thanks to the networks of women in Palestine, people were demonstrating against the circumstances of her death and ensuring that her suffering is used to highlight the dreadful reality that so many women and girls face.

On International Women’s Day 2014, we can see the potential for these new forms of communication to help expose the extraordinary extent of violence against women. Women’s voices in the Middle East are finally being heard.

Author: Fida Shafi

Original Text


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