New technologies and women in Arab countries: a forest of concepts, a complex reality

2 June 2010

A short introduction for a long story.

When we intend to reflect on gender and ICTs the first discovery that causes us surprise is the diversity of concepts (many times contradictories), ideological nuances (many times unclear) and the difficulty to find a real connexion between all of them. For instance, we used to speak of the need of a gender-sensitive technology, but we don’t assume easily that what we accept as standard model of cyberfeminism is just the mainstream, like Radhika Gajjala said in a reflection on gender, technologies and developing countries. In other words: it is a serious risk that the idea of technological progress could contribute to the construction of “people from the South as ignorant” (Gajjala, 2003) [1]. If you are not part of the big project you will remain in what I call the “periphery of the communications”, a solid danger in a world where even private life can become a globalised product.

The title of this article has to do with concepts and also the intricate way they are somehow connected to our virtual or tangible reality. The first concept that deserves our comment should be cyberfeminism, that form of ideological consent and symbolic freedom, that nevertheless has a real sense only for Western women: most business women are online and new technologies guarantee their presence in an increasingly demanding market; the number of women in computer sciences is higher than ever before; most women’s organisations have developed a complex network to get more women involved.  But we shall fail when we try to apply that cyberfeminist model to Africa or Middle East. There are many reasons for that, but it is enough to remind that in several countries of those regions, survival is priority and all activities are concentrated on this; without forgetting that survival is, in a wide sense, just a moral effort to keep dignity alive. On the other hand poverty means lack of access to knowledge, information and resources: where survival is priority, information is just a luxury. And all mechanisms related to it, too.

In a context of macro and absolute figures we shouldn’t forget that about 125 million school-aged children are not at school and among them, about two-thirds, are girls. That’s an element of exclusion with no short-term solution: in a country like Iraq, women’s illiteracy rates are amongst the worst in the Arab region, and it reaches almost 77% - more than double that of men.

In a situation like the one described, the technological progress has to be preceded by a radical reform: internet is an efficient tool when education has proven to be at an acceptable minimum level. At the end, access to internet depends on institutional efforts (a way of inclusion in a social circuit of specific knowledge), but overcoming the digital divide is a personal question, and it means that, beyond the chances of accessibility, individuals need a sophisticated training in a process of learning, and a cultural background that allow them transforming information into knowledge [2].

The way is long, but sure enough, there is hope, as long as all the steps must be taken, without omitting any of them: first, to have access and it means to leave poverty, violence, isolation and exclusion behind; then, to recognise social models, and finally, to have a voice stronger than the prejudices suffocating it.

Delimiting geopolitical concepts.

First, it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish general parameters of what constitutes as “Arab Countries”, because they are a set of overlapping realities, sometimes with no relationships among them, a whole made of silent stories, secret wounds, impossible dialogues and irreconcilable differences. But most experts agree in at least one point: the lack of information, the absence of voice, as main features.

There are overwhelming barriers to women’s entry into non-traditional careers and studies, such as sciences in general and computer science in particular. The scarcity of role models and institutional advice, and probably also an excess of negative social attitudes in a culture where gender-segregation regulates relationships between men and women, are known facts [3]. All this together is reflected in cultural behaviours and expectations.

Although women’s empowerment organisations germinated in practically all countries in the region, it is also true that many of them are linked to governments or other officially accepted institutions. There are a handful of independent groups that cannot operate freely. For instance, in UAE or in Saudi Arabia [4]. In Syria, on the other hand, there is no right to meeting unless religion is the main reason for it. Any other kind of meeting has to be registered by the Ministry of Interior. Syrian media currently allow expressing some opinions regarding gender matters, but in practice, a lot of women feel uncomfortable using media, associations or public forums to let their voice heard.

There is a direct relationship between the scale of women’s organisations in a given place, and the usage of technologies like internet. Institutions offering women’s advocacy are the first step in a process of awakening, knowledge and exercise of one’s rights. According to recent data from Ciwel (Cyber Institute for Women’s Empowerment and Leadership), only a 6% of women in the Middle East region are internet users and many women leaders attribute to this reason the inequity and the low development [5].

Statistics – a social portrait with no faces - show that in Saudi Arabia women experience a common feeling of participating in a sort of cyberfeminism: apparently government encourages women’s access to empowerment, and no doubt that in our times, the most powerful tool of empowerment is the (potential, actual) usage of new technologies, the possibility of creating contents, sharing opinions and acceding to information.

However well-meaning purposes and prominent statistical figures loose their sense when they bump into reality: the participation of women in Arab media is extremely low or non-existent; women find they cannot manage their own business without a male guardian or agent; regulations destined to protect Islamic precepts include segregation, and many women left the country, like Wajeha-Al-Huwaider, convinced that censorship is stronger than understanding, and in the hope that “freedom is a contagious illness with no cure” [6].

Mapping terminology

At this point it is necessary to introduce some other basic concepts and mark their boundaries: technologists, producers, users, victims and indirect beneficiaries.

The inventory, if not endless, is at least too long. In the last decades, technology became the cornerstone of the progress. The owner of the technological codes is the one with influence, authority and many other forms of direct or indirect power. It is not only, like some notorious members of the Frankfurt School affirm, that the technocrats and technologists – they are not synonyms by the way - possess all means of production and the possibility of manufacturing consent and contents: their power is closer to subtleness than to strength.

In comparison to “old types of power”, the technological power is invisible, clean, leave no signs, and has to do more with trends than with totalitarianism, with political correctness much more than with imposition of open censorship. For that reason computing sciences never proliferate alone: they stand shoulder to shoulder with dominant ideologies, economic interests and political priorities. 

Is there a place for women in such a complex, intangible and out-of-control virtual space like the one described? If in the rest of the world, the number of women in computing sciences is rather discrete, in the Arab world, the moderate increase of women involved in new technologies deserves a mandatory and wide explanation, where social prejudices and isolation play a fundamental role.

In a very few detailed outline we could suggest that being a technologist is to comply to the know-how, and being a producer is to be able to share, make and look for opinions, contents, information, data etc.; and definitely to have an access to a regular and reliable circuit to transmit them. Belonging to the hybrid category of producer/user means the chance of innovation and therefore accumulation of power, social cohesion, consolidation in international markets by means of economic growth, creation of richness that eventually will contribute to a more equalitarian society, with a fairer distribution of material - and not material goods and welfare [7].

Human Rights Watch holds that internet empowers people in the exercise of their right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers” [8] and in the Arab region, with the exception of Iraq where there is no access to internet at all, the increase of users is one of the strongest in the world: they had about nine million users in 2005, and in 2006 they had reached almost thirty million, according to the data provided by Madar Research, from Dubai.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRInfo) has published a report based on 18 countries from Middle East and Northern Africa, and included a section explaining the importance of the blogging phenomenon in that region. A blog allows sharing opinions and dissenting beyond the official discourses that governments impose to media. Apparently, that’s good news. And good news has to be celebrated abroad. But a dose of realism should prevent us from an excess of optimism, especially since the framework of such good news is rather discouraging: the top pornography banning countries are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, UAE and Kuwait [9].

Here, in this dimension of the reality, women are the losers and the victims, not of technologies of course, but of a perversion of the system that technology allows, strengthens and multiplies thanks to its influence on a large number of users and abusers. The border, then, between users and victims is muddy and fragile. Women are not the main creators or consumers of pornography. Instead, they are primarily objects for a male virtual market that occupies a privileged position in the networked society that we have created, where a 12% of the web pages have pornography as main topic and background, and where near a 42% of the totality of internet users are eventual or systematic users of pornographic offers as well [10].

Technologies can be a tool of progress, but also an instrument of domination, control and subjugation. Women are an easy target and the most vulnerable victims. Pornography is only an example; not to mention the role news technologies play in trafficking in human beings.  Specialised mafias have increased their area of performance and effectiveness. Morocco would be an illustrative model of a country of origin, transit and destination for trafficked persons from Sub-Saharan and Arab regions, and from South-Eastern Asia. Sometimes the process is quite simple: a digital camera captures images of women in specific countries and those images are spread out into other areas through webcams. In many occasions women can respond to requests from men. The expert on gender and ICT Donna Hughes explains that new technologies enables sexual predators and other people connected somehow to the prostitution business to act efficiently, quickly and anonymously [11].

A hope of a thousand faces

New technologies and their use are still far from a reality for most women in Arab countries (North Africa and Middle East), at least in all those aspects related to usage and access. But there is another modality that probably will become a hopeful door to progress and empowerment. In such a field, that we could provisionally call “indirect usage and access”.  Women are not users of new technologies but just beneficiaries of them, symbolic or subsidiary recipients of ICTs or services provided by them.

In general, there is a penetration of new technologies in medical services for which patients don’t have to pay, and this fact was translated into a visible improvement in terms of reproductive health and HIV-prevention. Some health programs were succesfully implemented in rural or decentralised areas playing an important role in both prevention and treatment. Again, the situation enormously varies from country to country. In Syria primary health care centres are available to all people, are free and technologically acceptable, while public hospitals in Egypt offer free services but are poorly equipped, and in Yemen there is an endemic lack of doctors, hospitals and equipment.

There is also the case of some women’s advocacy organisations responsible for empowerment, trainings and other forms of promoting social participation and personal improvement. Such organisations are led by empowered women who at the same time empower other women. They learn to learn, they unlearn what an oppressive system taught them once. However most of the projects developed so far are in Western hands, and local voices are not always listened properly [12]. One of our most immediate endeavours and obligations will be to discern noise and true communication: messages of hope in the obscure ocean of fallacies, general confusion and empty words.

For the rest, in the field of domestic workers –Asian women contracted by companies or individuals from countries in the Persian Gulf area- is a case where everything has to be done: they have no rights, no passports, no identity, and live in conditions of extreme slavery and no person represents them, no virtual network offers them any hope. Emergent technologies could be in this case the absolute winning of a battle –the war will be too long and painful anyway- where human rights become more than rhetoric, by walking towards freedom as the dignifying territory everybody deserves.


[1] Gajjala, R. (2003): “Is cyberfeminism empowering of all?” In Third World' Perspectives on Cyberfeminism, Development in PracticeVol. 9, n. 5, November 1999

[2] Umberto Eco, in a brilliant dissertation at the University of Caracas in the 90s on the dangers of the new formats and highways of the information, concludes that, if we are not trained properly, we shall run a risk of ‘hyperinformation’ that, finally, has the same consequences that a lack of information: absolutely saturated of data, we will be unable to transform them into a true knowledge we can understand, take advantage of and assimilate.

[3] Morley, Louise: “How can universities challenge gender discrimination?”. Sussex University, United Kingdom.

[4] Nazir, Sameena: “Challenging inequality: obstacles and opportunities towards women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa”. Freedom House

[5] In the UAE female internet users reach a 6%; in Qatar about a 30% of subscribers of internet services are women, in a country where Internet cafes exist just for women, and in Lybia, although reliable figures are unknown, it seems that the number of women using internet increased in the last decades but information is partly censored.

[6] Wajeha Al-Huwaider’s statement, December 2006

[7] I also mentioned the category “provider” in our headline but we are not going to deal with it this time. I refer to the one who facilitates access to a service. Most providers are Western, and only one from Arab origin has consolidated its prestige in the Middle East.

[8] Statistics: TopTenReviews, 2007.

[9] Statistics: TopTenReviews, 2007.

[10] Hughes, Donna M. (2002): “The use of New Communication and Information Technologies for the sexual exploitation of women and children. In Hastings Women’s Law Journal. Hastings College Publications, University of California. United States.

[11] Just to give a few illustrative examples, Palestine Women’s Resource Center belongs to Unesco, Cyber Institute for Women’s Empowerment and Leadership (CIWEL) depends on “Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace”, from USA, and Achieving E-Quality in the IT Sector, operating in Jordan, is a division of UNIFEM.

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