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Publicizing the private: Egyptian women bloggers speak out

Issue 1, Spring 2007

By Sharon Otterman

Women are taking to blogging more than ever across the Middle East.  Photograph by Kim Badawi.

Women are taking to blogging more than ever across the Middle East. Photograph by Kim Badawi.

As word of a wave of sexual harassment attacks in downtown Cairo spread through the Egyptian blogosphere October 25, 2006, Nermeen Edris, who blogs under the name Nermeena, began thinking about how to respond. She called for suggestions on her website, and after a few days, settled on an idea: a silent protest of women wearing black, each holding a sign calling for an end to the sexual harassment on Cairo’s streets.

Nermeena, 28, is one of the longest-active female bloggers in Cairo. She’s had her blog, http://nerro.wordpress.com/, since February 2004; a veritable eon in Egyptian Internet-time. Since she started writing, the number of Egyptian blogs has mushroomed from less than 100 to somewhere around 3,000 (like many statistics on the Egyptian Internet, exact figures are not known). Not only are women involved in the blogging explosion—they appear to be more active bloggers than men, says Alaa Seif Al Islam, a well-known Egyptian blogger who collects statistics on the blogosphere through his website and blog aggregator, www.manalaa.net. “At the start, some 70 percent of bloggers were women. Now, they are probably just over 50 percent. The men are catching up,” he said.

There are many reasons why Egyptian women have embraced blogging (see also Rania Al Malky), but primary among them, say female bloggers here, is that blogs offer a place to express themselves, often anonymously, in a way that would not be possible in other public forums. Most women on the Egyptian blogosphere try to create sites that reflect their personalities; they tell personal stories, share political and cultural views, post favorite pictures, and talk about their daily frustrations. “My blog is a way to remind myself that I am not alone, and also it’s a way to vent. Even if no one read it, I would still keep writing,” said Isis, an anonymous 22-year-old blogger who writes about her past as a drug addict and has criticized in a post what she calls Arab society’s “continuing obsession with female virginity.”

Egyptian women make up 30 percent of all Internet users in Egypt, a statistic that generally exceeds their presence in the formal work force (24 percent of the workforce is female, according to 2005 United Nations statistics). Fewer women than men in Egypt are literate—just 44 percent of women can read, compared to 67 percent of men. But the middle and upper class segment of Egyptian society that is turning to the Internet as an alternative site for discussion and information has large numbers of educated women. Since 1999, for example, a majority of university graduates from the faculties of Arts and Social Sciences have been female, according to Egypt’s National Council of Women. And with the average marriage age in Egypt now at 24—and unemployment among women more than double than that among men—young women may have more time on their hands to write.

Whatever the reason, the blogopshere has become one of the few public spaces in Egypt where men and women are represented more-or-less equally, and this helps make possible some discussions that are uncommon off-line. Strangers from across the ideological spectrum are participating in discussions of arranged marriage, homosexuality, and the necessity of veiling for Muslim women on the comment section of female blogs. And activism fueled by the Internet is also making possible male-female collaboration on social issues—such as sexual harassment—often thought of in Egypt as “women’s problems.”

“There’s equality between men and women on the Internet. If your blog is good, we read it. If it’s not, we don’t,” says male blogger Wael Abbas, whose pro-reform political blog, Al Wai Al Masri (The Egyptian Conscience), at www.misrdigital.com, is perhaps the most popular blog in the country. “Men find women’s blogs very interesting, probably as a clue to what is going on in our minds,” says Nora Younis, a female political activist who posts news of anti-Hosni Mubarak protests and other opposition events on her site, www.norayounis.com. “There are usually as many men commenting on women’s blogs as women,” she said.

When women talk about deeply personal issues online, the responses they receive range from intensely supportive to deeply critical—and in some cases are offensive. This is especially true with female writers who try to break social taboos, such as the two or three sites run by lesbian or bisexual women.

“You are just trying to make excuses. If you want to be a homo, just be a homo. Don’t try to bring religion into it,” wrote one angry male reader in Arabic about a post on a blog called Gay Woman, emraamethlya.blogspot.com. The blogger, who is Muslim and writes in Arabic, had argued that while lesbianism may be a sin in Islam, it’s not as bad as male-male sex or adultery.

Vicious comments from male readers actually inspired a group of 200 women bloggers this year to carry out a solidarity campaign online. Called We are All Leila, (Kolona Leila) http://laila-eg.blogspot.com/, the group took its name from a classic female character in Egyptian literature who has come to represent the struggles of all women. For one day, September 9, 2006, each blogger shared her thoughts on feminism and femininity in Egypt. The sites were linked together through the We are All Leila homepage.

In her contribution to the We are All Leila effort, for example, Ain Shems Univeristy student Walaa Emam responded to the perception of some men that all feminists support abortion, man-hating, and lesbian relationships. In fact, she wrote on her blog Sheer Mental Garbage (http://sheermentalgarbage.blogspot.com/), feminism is a positive force which can strengthen male-female relationships in society.

“Feminism fights for you too,” she wrote, addressing her male readers. “Even if you can't believe this, then think of feminism as fighting for your daughter, your mother, you sister, your wife. When the women you love are safe and happy, aren't you much safer and happier too? We are not enemies. We count you as some of our strongest supporters.”

While Kolana Leila has yet to coalesce into an ongoing project, bloggers argue that even individual efforts of female self-expression on the Egyptian blogosphere have helped raise awareness of the difficulties Egyptian women face. They set the stage, for example, for a strong Internet response to the wave of sexual attacks that took place in October, during the Eid holiday that followed Ramadan.

In the weeks and months before the attacks October 24 and 25, a number of female bloggers were writing about sexual harassment.  The anonymous blogger Forsoothsayer was complaining about the daily verbal harassment she was facing as an unveiled Christian woman during Ramadan. Manal Hassan, a female blogger who runs www.manalaa.net with her husband, Alaa Seif Al Islam, created a stir earlier this year by revealing that a man had masturbated in front of her on an airplane. Some of her online readers blamed the incident on what she was wearing.

“I already knew that sexual harassment was a problem, but when we first heard about the attacks, we thought someone must be exaggerating,” said blogger Wael Abbas, who was sitting at a café October 24 when someone told him there were crowds of men running after women downtown and grabbing them.

But it was no exaggeration, he said afterwards. Leaving his table with four other bloggers, he went into the streets, where he saw large groups of young men chasing after women, surrounding them, and ripping their clothes. The targeted women, who were both veiled and unveiled, were attempting to escape into taxis, restaurants—anywhere they could find refuge.

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