Can social media empower Arab women?

After a year when popular movements swept across the Arab world, it’s maybe not surprising that the number of people using Facebook and Twitter in the region has shot up.

There were 36,016,664 Facebook users in Arab countries by November 2011 – almost double the number in the same month in 2010 and over 652,000 people were signed up to Twitter, according to a new report published by the Dubai School of Government late last year.

But despite the prominence of women during the Arab Spring, both in the protests and in online activism, one social media statistic remained unchanged; men in the Arab world remain twice as likely to use social media than women, who still only made up just over 33 per cent of users in the Arab world. Worldwide, they make up half of all social media users.

There was a strong belief among the women who took part that social media could enhance women’s participation in economic, political life, allowing them increased self-expression and the means of promoting social change.

Those Arab women who use social media are certainly part of a broader shift that has taken place in how it is used, according to the report. In the past year, social media has become more than a tool for social networking and entertainment, it “now infiltrates almost every aspect of the daily lives of millions of Arabs, affecting the way they interact socially, do business, interact with government, or engage in civil society movements”.

Most men and women in the Arab world primarily use social media to access information and connect with people, but 60% of all those who took part said they used it for community and political activism.

Marginally more men than women believed that social media promoted political equality between the sexes, although women were slightly more optimistic that the tools would make it easier for them to express themselves, enable them to participate in civil society and be role models for social change, and improve their rights and economic status

But the “real life” social and cultural barriers women face will have to be overcome if more women are going to participate in social media and see it impact their lives, the report concludes.

Some of the barriers women face such as ICT literacy, confidence in using social media for communication and lack of education could be overcome by practical measures including training.

But the most significant barriers are the social constraints women face in everyday life, the report says. Some women pointed out that reliance on social media alone was not enough to challenge discriminatory attitudes and practices:

“I believe the Arab women should not depend on the social media cover to express their opinion or produce role models, it starts out in the interaction with the people not behind the screen,” one respondent said.

Two examples show how for some women, social media is so embedded in their lives that they use it seamlessly in their campaigns:

Egypt-based Harassmap, launched in 2010 to raise awareness of and tackle sexual harassment. The group initiated a day of blogging and tweeting against sexual harassment last year using the hashtag #endsh and also launched an initiative against sexual harassment for a safe Eid holiday in August and a ‘catch a harasser’ day on 2 November.

In Saudi Arabia, Women2Drive, a campaign launched by Manal Al Sharif calling for women’s right to drive attracted worldwide support.

Both of these projects also show there is a balance to be struck – none of them focus solely on raising awareness, or communicating online. They recognise the importance of physical actions such as taking to the streets or getting in the driving seat of a car and of speaking out against practices that have long been held taboo.

This article first appeared on Huffington Post UK on 10 January, 2012