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Feminist Media Studies, 2013

Vol. 13, No. 5, 881890, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2013.838378

IN THEIR OWN VOICE


Technologically mediated empowerment and
transformation among young arab women
Courtney C. Radsch and Sahar Khamis

This feminist, qualitative study sheds light on how young Arab women used cyberactivism to
participate in the wave of political and social transformations widely known as the Arab Spring. It
argues that these activists leveraged social media to enact new forms of leadership, agency, and
empowerment, since these online platforms enabled them to express themselves freely and their
voices to be heard by the rest of the world, particularly the global media. This resulted in a
multidimensional personal, social, political, and communicative revolution. This study is based on
in-depth, personal interviews with more than twenty young Arab women citizen journalists,
bloggers, and activists from Arab countries that witnessed political upheaval.
KEYWORDS Arab women; Arab Spring; cyberactivism; political and social transformation;
social media

Introduction
The wave of popular uprisings in the Arab region that began in 2011 was notable for
the leadership and activism of certain segments of Arab society traditionally excluded from
the public sphere, namely: youth and women. Young women played prominent
inspirational roles and pioneered forms of cyberactivism in the midst of this wave of
uprisings, thanks to their passion for change and mastering of new communication tools
(Sahar Khamis 2011; Sahar Khamis & Kathryn Vaughn 2011a, 2011b; Courtney Radsch 2011a,
2012a). Women cyberactivists are redefining the boundaries of private and public spheres,
linking political and social domains, connecting national and international audiences, and
performing mainstream and citizen journalism.
This feminist, qualitative study relies on in-depth interviews with dozens of young
Arab women activists in an attempt to give them a voice (Sahar Khamis 2004, 2010),
through enabling them to tell the stories of how they participated in the Arab revolutions in
their own words. This is especially important since women have historically been
underrepresented in the public sphere, where male voices and perspectives have
dominated. As one self-identified feminist activist in the womens movement since the
1950s observed: we women have always been defined by men (Nadje S. Al-Ali 2000). Thus,
there is value in womens narration of their own experiences. The power of women is in
their stories, as Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy put it; they are not theories,
q 2013 Taylor & Francis

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COURTNEY C. RADSCH AND SAHAR KHAMIS

they are real lives that, thanks to social networks, we are able to share and exchange
(Radsch 2012a, p. 31).
In the decade preceding the Arab Spring, Internet access in the region expanded
from negligible levels in 2000 to 40 percent of the population by 2010. By the time of the
2011 uprisings, there were nearly seventeen million Facebook accounts in the region,
representing about 13 percent of the population in the Arab world, with Egypt accounting
for five million and Tunisia two million users (Fact Sheet 2011). Twitter grew from about
three thousand users in the Middle East in 2009 to around forty thousand by mid-2010
(Courtney Radsch 2012b). Unsurprisingly, youth made up a majority of these social media
users, with approximately 70 percent of the regions Facebook accounts belonging to
people under the age of twenty-nine (Courtney Radsch 2011b). As the uprisings unfolded
throughout 2011, a dramatic rise in social media usage occurred, with the number of
Facebook users in the region increasing by 68 percent between January and November
(Radsch 2011b).
Arab women, however, have constituted only about a third of these users, thus
remaining numerically underrepresented in the virtual public sphere (Radsch 2011b). It can
be argued that this makes young womens deployment of these new media to make their
voices heard even more remarkable. In exploring this phenomenon, however, this paper
departs from the tired argument about whether or not social media caused the Arab
uprisings. Instead, it focuses on the personal experiences and lived realities of young Arab
women cyberactivists to better understand how these new media platforms mattered to
them and empowered them.
This study does not claim that these digitally-connected young women are
representative of all women in the region, nor that cyberactivists are a statistically
representative sample in their societies, but rather that their particular experiences and
interpretations of their roles in the revolutions are valuable in and of themselves. They
represent a new dynamic in womens activism that became politically and journalistically
consequential during the Arab uprisings. Furthermore, better understanding the dynamics
of how women deploy and experience cyberactivism can shed light on the political
implications of newly active young women. Indeed, this study is bounded by the Arab
Spring as a distinct and meaningful period distinct from the Lebanese Cedar Revolution,
Irans Green Movement, or the Palestinian Intifadas.
The article starts with a discussion of how social media use paved the way for
strategic and impactful cyberactivism. It then moves on to examine several examples of
womens cyberactivism during the Arab Spring, specifically focusing on the lived
experiences of young Arab women from Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, which
experienced political upheavals during the Arab Spring. We argue that these experiences
had self-reinforcing internal and external effects. Internally, the exercise of free expression
empowered these young women by enabling them to speak and be heard publicly in a
way that was rarely possible before. This, in turn, helped them become inspirational leaders
in their own countries. Externally, cyberactivism by young women had a particular impact
on mainstream media, amid the loosening grip of state-control, and became a valuable
source of news for international media outlets that wanted to better understand the
uprisings. Finally, it concludes with a future outlook on Arab womens leadership and
activism(s) and some of the most important potentials and limitations lying ahead.
This study is informed by the conceptualization of feminism as referring to the
relationship between awareness and action, consciousness-raising, and the importance of

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personal experience. It follows feminist theorists who posit that womens autobiographies
and the sharing of personal experience take precedence over generic political and social
discourse, including that about a collective voice (Jayne Armstrong 2004). Indeed a focus
on cyberactivism, which has at its core blogs, social media, and multimedia performance,
echoes the third wave of feminisms focus on practices of cultural production (Leslie
Heywood 2006; Mary Celeste Kearney 2006; Kristin Schilt & Elke Zobl 2008). Young Arabs
created their own cyberactivist culture linked by their participation and activism in social
media networks. Like other networks of young women linked by their use and creation of
content on particular platforms, such as the Riot Grrrl zine culture or Iranian feminist
websites, the specific platformin this case blogs and social mediabecame a central
element of the movement (Bla Bell 2002). Blogging about womens experiences with
political repression can promote womens empowerment in a way that may not have been
nearly as prevalent offline, where womens voices are often missing from the public sphere
(Oreoluwa Somolu 2007). We contend that although young women were relatively less
visible in the streets and physical public squares prior to the Arab uprisings, they carved out
a robust, participatory, and leadership role in cyberspace during the Arab uprisings.
Indeed, cyberactivism by Arab women implicitly recognized that raising awareness
and changing mindsets were inseparable from broader political and social goals, which
makes cyberactivism in and of itself a form of empowerment. This is clearly linked to
modern notions of feminism that have often revolved around consciousness-raising
groups (Delmar 1986), challenging dominant discourses on women and gender, and
activism as expressions of feminism (Cecilia Milwertz 2002, pp. 5, 9). Although
cyberactivism was inherently bound by the limits of connectivity, technological literacy,
and by extension age and often urbanity, this does not delegitimize the experiences of
those women who found their voices and sense of empowerment through their use of
these platforms. This article explains how a particular subset of young, primarily urban,
educated Middle Eastern women used networked media platforms to exercise their agency,
amplify their voices, and participate in their countries revolutions.

Cyberactivism as Empowerment: Paving the Way for Transformation


Arab women activists played a pivotal role in paving the way for political change and
social reform in the region, in their capacities as bloggers, activists, and journalists, years
before the eruption of the Arab Spring (Rania Al Malky 2007; Khamis 2010; Courtney Radsch
2008). Their engagement with social media enabled them to articulate their identities and
experiences in the public sphere, and for many, posting on Facebook or blogging was the
first time they had ever expressed their personal feelings publicly. Cyberactivism, defined as
the act of using the Internet to advance a political cause that is difficult to advance offline
(Philip N. Howard 2011, p. 145), became a form of empowerment, a way to exert control
over ones personhood and identity, while gaining a sense of being able to do something in
the face of a patriarchal hierarchy and an authoritarian state. Women were starting to
express their views openly and freely because of social media, it has changed their
mentality, Yemeni activist Afrah Nasser remarked in a 9 May, 2011 interview, echoing
similar statements by young women across the region. According to Egyptian activist Esraa
Abdel Fattah, a founder of the 6 April youth movement, blogging became a way to spread
our ideas and concepts to people and to do things that can change our lived realities and
conditions (16 November, 2011, pers. comm.). This sentiment was widely shared by other

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interviewees, many of whom said that they had never been politically involved before
blogging, tweeting, or Facebooking.
Networked social media gave Arab women new tools to articulate their identities and
participate in the public sphere. In more conservative societies and families, women were
able to leave the confines of the four walls of their homes, as Libyan activist Sarah
Al-Firgali put it, and participate in the revolutions (23 March, 2012, pers. comm.). Several
Libyan and Yemeni women said that cyberactivism empowered them to be active in a way
they could not be in the physical world. Women are equal on the Internet, more than one
interviewee remarked.
In cyberactivism, men dont get in physical contact with women, so a lot of women are in
cyberactivism because their father says he would not want his daughter to go to a
demonstration, but if shes anonymously online then no ones going to object to that,

explained Yemeni activist Maria Al-Masani (18 January, 2011, pers. comm.). In other words,
anonymity is an option in the virtual public sphere but not the physical world, where
extended family ties make it difficult to escape prying eyes and ears, especially in
conservative, traditional societies.
The tension between anonymity and publicity, however, is exemplified by twentyyear-old Bahraini activist Asmaa Darwishs experience, which underscores the tension
between womens desire to have their voices heard and needing to be identified:
When I started writing under my own name and photo, my family was very concerned and
said I should keep writing under an alias. But I said the media need to know who theyre
dealing with, I cannot write under Freedom for Bahrain and they will come and interview
meit would be very difficult for me to deliver my voice to the world. (9 March, 2012,
pers. comm.)

Indeed, the emancipatory, expressive potentials of social media platforms were only
partially experienced among women who chose anonymity over publicity. Few
cyberactivists in Libya and Yemen chose anonymity. Those who did were driven less by
safety concerns than privacy concerns, as they strived to keep their cyberactivism secret
from their families. In such cases, women used aliases, which put them at a disadvantage
with the media and as citizen journalists, because credibility was harder to establish in the
context of anonymity. Therefore, one of the interesting findings was how rarely these
young women cyberactivists chose anonymity as an identity strategy.
Cyberactivism enabled them to actively participate in the new public spheres created
through social media and to become politically active, without engaging in behaviors they
themselves might find uncomfortable, such as mixing with strange men. It also allowed
those inclined to push the boundaries gradually not to challenge every patriarchic,
structural and cultural constraint at once, but rather to start in the normative realm of the
virtual public sphere.

Cyberactivism in the Arab Spring: From Inspiration to Influence


During the Arab spring, women played a pivotal role in inspiring their fellow citizens
and other women, at home and abroad, to take part in the uprisings and build global public
support for their causes, using social media and Internet-based platforms to do so. In each
country, there were young women who inspired their fellow citizens to join the struggle

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and stirred the hearts of a global audience. From Asma Mafouzs YouTube video
challenging Egyptian men to join her in protesting on 25 January, 2011, to the recording of
Ayat al-Gomezis anti-regime poem in Bahrains Pearl Square, to images of Tawwakol
Karman, who would become the first Arab woman to be awarded the Nobel prize, leading a
protest of women journalists in Yemens capital, Arab women exhorted their fellow citizens
to join them in rising up against oppression and injustice.
Mafouzs vlog became iconic, fueling patriotic sentiments and inspiring others to
mobilize and challenge gender stereotypes. Ironically, it used gender stereotypes of men as
leaders and protectors to urge men to take to the streets. Al-Gomezi recited several poems
critical of Bahrains ruling regime from the stage in Pearl Square in February 2011, when the
protests there first began. She was one of the first women revolutionaries to gain
international recognition following her arrest for incitement and insulting the royal family,
and became an inspiration for many youth in Bahrain and beyond. Its one of the things I
love about the Bahraini revolution, that you had a female that became a symbol for the
revolution, and its not only the girls who look up to her, its the men as well, explained
Bahraini activist, Maryam al-Khawaja (16 March, 2012, pers. comm.). Darwish said that
watching al-Gomezi was one of the best moments of my life . . . it was very nice to see a
female university student going on the revolutionary stage and she was not afraid of saying
you have stolen things to the regime. People shared al-Gomezis poems and videos of her
performance via social media and Blackberry Messenger, and her YouTube video went viral
following her arrest. Although she was the first Bahraini woman to be put on trial following
the outbreak of political protests, she was not the last. These women inspired their fellow
citizens with their fearlessness in the face of repression and willingness to traverse red lines,
challenging stereotypes in the process (Radsch 2012b). The Arab Spring unveiled
numerous examples of courageous Arab women heroes risking not only their reputation
but also their physical safety for the sake of reform (Amal Al-Malki, David Kaufner, Suguru
Ishizaki & Kira Dreher 2012, p. 81).
In addition to influencing their fellow citizens to participate in the uprisings, many
young women cyberactivists became influential as media outreach coordinators, citizen
journalists, and translators or bridges to the international press, particularly Englishlanguage media. Citizen journalism was a particularly powerful form of cyberactivism
because of its capacity to shape the public agenda and put traditionally hidden issues, like
sexual harassment or human rights, on the agenda (Karin Karelekar & Courtney Radsch
2012). With the exception of Egypt, there were almost no independent media outlets in the
countries studied, all of which consistently ranked Not Free in Freedom Houses annual
surveys of press freedom. Citizen journalists thus played a critical role in the media
ecosystem.
For example, in Tunisia citizen journalists and bloggers, like Lina Ben Mehni, reported
on the uprisings taking place throughout the country via social media from a country that
had few international correspondents and whose domestic media was tightly controlled.
Likewise, Libyan activist Hana El Hebshi was widely recognized for her role in reporting
firsthand on the siege of Tripoli (in a country with no independent media outlets), and she
received the International Woman of Courage award from the US State Department. She
was calling television channels and giving information, even as Tripoli was under siege. She
was very brave. She played a major, amazing role, explained al-Firgali. Such comments
reveal the admiration that these young women felt for each other, and how they became
each others role models as they became media resources.

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Several young women said their English language skills made them feel that they had
a duty to reach out to international media. This was particularly true in Bahrain and Libya,
where activists demanded a response from the international community as their domestic
uprisings dragged on and turned violent. One Bahraini activist explained: I think women
played a very huge role in two things: in the publishing of information and talking to the
media, especially because of their ability to communicate in other languages.1 The role of
these young women highlights the significance of international media coverage and
shaping global public opinion about the uprisings, particularly in forcing countries to
withdraw support from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, trying less successfully to do the
same in Bahrain with respect to the monarchy, and building support for military
intervention in Libya. As Egyptian journalist and activist Yasmine El Sayed explained in a 15
November, 2012 interview, the goal of cyberactivism was to link inside struggles with the
outside world, in order to secure support for the legitimate fight for freedom and change
from the international community and from those in the diaspora.
Many women said their English language skills and ability to establish successful,
symbiotic relations with international media were absolutely critical in this respect (such
bilingualism also denotes the educational and socioeconomic levels of these young
women). Darwishs story about Bahrain was illustrative:
I started advocating because there werent that many activists that speak English fluently and
can deliver the message to the world, so I started reaching out to media and they were very
interested in talking to me. CNN visited me, so did Reuters. Afterwards I was quite interested in
Twitter, because you can follow the news and so many people can follow you back and you
can share news in a very efficient way. I consider myself a Twitter freak. Im always on Twitter, if
not writing then reading, and based on what I read, I write articles and blogs.

Women cyberactivists used social media during the revolutions to raise awareness inside
their countries about the causes of the revolutions, as well as share and spread information
about the revolts, whereas their male counterparts focused more on the former (Radsch
2011b). For example, Libyan student Danya Bashir began using Twitter extensively to
provide information about events on the ground during her countrys uprising to
journalists and activists around the world (18 January, 2012, pers. comm.). She said she
would spam Twitterati like Mona Eltahawy, NPRs Andy Carvin, and Arab commentator
Sultan al-Qassemi, who all have tens of thousands of followers. They amplified her voice by
retweeting and liking her posts, thus spreading revolutionary coverage while endorsing
Bashir as a reliable news source (Radsch 2012b). Many young Libyan women, including
Bashir, had to leave their country temporarily as the fighting and unrest continued, but
stayed engaged by disseminating information through social media, specifically targeting
international media in hopes of influencing public opinion and building support for NATO
intervention (Radsch 2012b). This engagement also made them feel part of the revolution,
even if they were not physically present. I couldnt have done this without social media.
The world would not have known, said Bashir, underscoring, as many other interviewees
did, the cyclical, amplifying, and empowering characteristics of social media (W. Lance
Bennett 2008; Stephen Coleman 2005; Howard 2011; Courtney Radsch 2007).
The efforts and words of these young women activists themselves document the
cyclical, ongoing processes of knowledge production and representation of women in
the public sphere made possible through reliance on social media tools, underscoring the
simultaneously reflexive and reactive process of cyberactivism (Bennett 2008; Coleman

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2005; Howard 2011). Unlike critiques of Grrl Zines, or other manifestations of third-wave
feminism, for focusing too much on a narrowly construed type of individual expression
without drawing out deeper political implication, (Bell 2002) cyberactivism via blogs and
social media in the contemporary Arab world is proving to be both individual and political,
which ultimately challenges the dichotomy between private and public spheres.
The Arab uprisings turned social media, particularly Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,
into central facets of these young womens daily lives. This was reflected in the fact that
regional Facebook users increased by 68 percent in 2011 and that among its forty-five
million users in 2012, about fifteen million were women (Mourtada 2012). Women activists
adopted social media practices that enabled them to articulate their identities in the public
sphere and to participate in the uprisings in multiple ways, resulting in a sense of personal
empowerment and collective potentiality that was fundamentally linked to the
communicative platform. As Nasser put it, This is a revolution of making our voices
heard, noting that half of Yemens population is under eighteen. We are now creating a
new form of political awareness in Yemen that has never been talked about before, a new
form of politics, she added. Blogging was not very popular before the revolution, but now
thousands of people are creating blogs and Facebook accounts, because they are platforms
for knowing whats happening, and they dont trust [mainstream] media, Nasser explained,
underscoring the centrality of consciousness-raising and credibility. Youth activism and
womens activism are two sides of the same coin. You cant separate one from the other,
remarked Bahraini journalist Nada al-Wadi in a 15 November, 2012 interview.

Concluding Remarks
The above stories indicate that there is no turning back when it comes to young
women wanting to be heard and to participate. They reject the idea that social relations and
the perceptions of womens roles could go back to how they were before the Arab uprisings.
Women emerged as true leaders, both before and during the Arab spring. There is no
turning back on their leadership, as Al-Wadi rightly observed. Blogs and social media, in
general, changed the discourse about Yemen and challenged stereotypes in the international
media, particularly with respect to women, observed Nasser. Moreover, the translation of
womens online experiences and relationships into the real world blurs the lines between
public and private life, and provide new and varied opportunities to expand womens circles
of influence and contact, enabling them to interact with people they would not have been
able to interact with otherwise. Cyberactivism made the invisible visible, gave voice to the
voiceless, and embodied a commitment to free expression and itjihad, or independent
judgment, which seem irreversible for this new generation (Radsch 2012a, p. 36).
Optimism about womens continued activism, leadership, and visibility is at least
partially linked to their increased reliance on new communication forms and mastering of
social media tools, as these have come to play such an important role in agenda-setting
processes and mainstream media coverage. All interviewees agreed that a fundamental
mind shift must take place in order for women to make sustainable gains in the embodied
world, since for most of them, authoritarianism is experienced in the private, as well as the
public, sphere. Translating personal empowerment and agency into institutional change is
a significant challenge. Egyptian activist Dalia Ziada underscored the challenges that still
remain, noting that a poll of more than fourteen hundred people revealed not a single
person wanted to see a woman president in Egypt one day (Radsch 2012a). According to a

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recent survey, young men felt more optimistic about the direction their countries were
heading (58 percent) than young women (50 percent) (Arab Youth Survey 2012, p. 17). This
is partly because women have to fight to remain visible in the new spaces they have
claimed in the public sphere. In other words, although they fought alongside men to
overcome dictatorship and autocracy, unlike men, women face two battles: the first for
political change and the second to obtain a real change of their societal status to become
fully equal to their male counterparts (Kendra Heideman & Mona Youssef 2012, p. 14).
Adopting a feminist standpoint, which acknowledges and hails womens voices,
this study revealed how young women interpreted their communicative potential as
empowerment, since it enabled them to act as agents of change in their own
societies, through enacting political, social and personal transformation (Khamis 2004,
2010; Radsch 2012b). It also showed how, in doing so, they were acting as subaltern
counterpublics (Nancy Fraser 1992), who actively defied the hegemonic, dominant
power structures in their societies, through engaging in multiple forms of resistance to
restructure the boundaries between public and private spheres, social and political
domains, online and offline activism, and citizen and mainstream journalism.
Therefore, we conclude that the Arab Spring is not just a political revolution, it is also
a personal, social, and communication revolution as Arab women activists upend traditional
norms of participation and visibility and bring new issues into the public sphere. By so doing,
they are writing a new chapter in the history of this region, in general, and the history of Arab
womens feminism, in particular (Khamis 2010). However, in projecting the future of their
leadership and activism, one must also consider the overall picture in this rapidly changing
region, with all its political, economic, and social challenges and uncertainties. Yet the mere
fact that women in some of the most traditional and conservative Arab societies have broken
out of their cocoons and rallied in huge numbers on and offline signals a new era in the
history of this region and womens evolving roles in it.
That is not to say that the popular uprisings in these countries and the political
transformations underway will automatically put an end to all forms of discrimination,
inequality, or injustice against women in the Arab region. Rather, it means that young women
today are much more willing to openly and bravely fight for their rights and are more capable
of fighting back against stereotypes and barriers to participation, as the myriad online and
offline activities that Arab women have been engaging in over the last couple of years in this
highly volatile region clearly indicate. Just like there is no turning back in the political history
of this region following the uprisings, it is also safe to predict that there is no turning back for
young women empowered to speak, despite any hardships or obstacles.
Ultimately we have to agree with a young Yemeni activist who remarked that these
are exciting times, full of promise and disappointment, hope and fear!
NOTE
1. She requested anonymity due to safety concerns since she still lives in Bahrain.

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RADSCH, COURTNEY

Courtney C. Radsch is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the American


University. Her current research focuses on cyberactivism in Egypt. She is also a
journalist, media expert, and freedom of expression advocate who writes frequently
about the intersection of media, activism, and technology, with a particular focus on
the Middle East. E-mail: cradsch@gmail.com
Sahar Khamis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the
University of Maryland, College Park. She is an expert on Arab and Middle Eastern
media. She is the co-author of the books: Islam Dot Com: Contemporary Islamic
Discourses in Cyberspace (2009) and Egyptian Revolution 2.0: Political Blogging, Civic
Engagement and Citizen Journalism (2013). E-mail: skhamis@umd.edu

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