On Wednesday February 15, another edition of the Feminist Lunch Hour took place, featuring guest speaker Dr. Victoria Tahmasebi, who is an assistant professor of women and gender studies at the Department of Historical Studies at UTM.
Tahmasebi began her talk by discussing Khaled Said, a young Egyptian man who was beaten to death by the Egyptian police in 2010. Following the incident, a Facebook campaign called “We Are All Khaled Said” was started, and led to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
Tahmasebi said that the Facebook campaign “played a significant role in mobilizing Egyptian activists on the ground.”
According to Tahmasebi, women in the Middle East have increasingly started to create online communities, referred to as the “network public sphere,” to combat systemic oppression.
“They have created these public spheres to connect with large communities, to share information, to educate broader sets of communities about women’s issues in the region, to build transnational advocacy networks, and to create feminist online campaigns,” she said.
She showed several examples of the use of technology and social media by women in the Middle East as a form of social activism.
One initiative that was launched is “Harassmap,” which was created in 2010 and run by Egyptian women. The app was created “in response to rampant sexual harassment.” Tahmasebi explained that “the app operates in both English and Arabic, in order to monitor, control, and raise awareness about the sexual harassment of women in the streets of Egyptian cities.”
The app allows women to report sexual harassment, and contains various categories, such as “catcalling” and “sexual assault.” It also displays a map including the number of reports in each city.
This app was influential in making sexual harassment a visible issue.
“By creating this map, the organizers hoped to identify patterns of sexual harassment so that they can challenge the silence around this issue,” said Tahmasebi.
Another successful campaign she discussed is the hashtag #sendeanlat, which was started by Turkish feminists, after a woman in Turkey was brutally killed for fighting off a rapist. The hashtag, meaning “tell your story too,” allowed women in Turkey to share their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. More than 800,000 tweets have used this hashtag.
Tahmasebi stated that “Iranian women activists have a highly visible and increasingly significant presence on social media.”
According to Tahmasebi, there are two types of Iranian women who use social media as a platform for activism: ordinary women and female activists.
According to Tahmasebi, although Facebook is banned in Iran, a 2016 survey suggests that about 58 percent of Iranian internet users are on Facebook.
A highly influential use of social media can be seen in the Facebook campaign “My Stealthy Freedom,” which allows Iranian women to share their stories by posting photos and videos online. Tahmasebi described it as “a notable example of Iranian women’s online activism.”
The campaign was started by Iranian writer and activist, Masih Alinejad.
“The Facebook campaign began in May 2014, originally as a means to challenge the compulsory wearing of hijab in Iran,” Tahmasebi explained. “On her initial invitation posted on Facebook, Alinejad invited and encouraged Iranian women, especially those inside the country, to post images of themselves in public without the headscarf.”
The campaign garnered widespread attention and public support.
“It immediately gained international visibility and support from people around the world, from grassroot movements, women’s activists, and Western media,” Tahmasebi said.
The Facebook page has over one million likes and about 30,000 posts.
The page allows Iranians to post their life stories, pictures, and videos under their real names, and often times with their faces displayed. As Tahmasebi describes, most social networks are called “low-risk social activism,” as they involve anonymity. However, this campaign is a clear exception, as the Iranian women who participate in it take considerable risks and go against the law by posting unveiled photos of themselves online.
Due to the large audience, the campaign has gained “international hyper-visibility, and is now considered to be one of the main voices of online Iranian women,” Tahmasebi said.
However, hyper visibility can sometimes become a problem. From a colonialist perspective, a hyper-visible group may be seen as a problem in need of a solution. “In this context, there’s always an inherent risk that the My Stealthy Freedom campaign is reduced to one woman and one cause, especially in corporate media,” Tahmasebi explained.
This is evident in the case of Alinejad, who has been harassed by the Iranian regime, and heavily criticized online.
Another problem is the way in which the liberation of women is described. “The campaign and its agenda can easily appear to be aligned with the colonial interests of the global north, and divorced from Iranian women’s grassroot struggles for social justice.”
According to Tahmasebi, this is exactly how the Iranian regime wants the campaign to be portrayed.
The most important aspect of the campaign is how it allows ordinary people to contribute and participate in something monumental. It also offers a platform for self-expression and connecting with a larger audience.
Tahmasebi stated, “Women’s use of social networking sites for political mobilization contributes immensely to the structure and content of struggle for social justice.”
She expressed that online networking allows women activists to create “heterogeneous and increasingly democratic spaces.” Unlike traditional activism, it does not restrict participation to any national borders or geographic regions.
Tahmasebi stated how social media cannot replace traditional forms of activism, such as protests, but it can allow for individual action and rebellion in places like the Middle East, where citizens are faced with oppressive regimes and highly-censored media outlets. In such situations, it is important to look beyond traditional activism and observe the role of social media in providing a social justice platform for both ordinary people and activists.