How Social Media is changing the feminist landscape in the Middle East



Feminism can be broadly defined as an ideology that strives for equality between men and women. It holds that women should be treated as intellectual and social equals to men and have the same rights, same pay, same contribution to society. Though feminism now is generally seen as a women’s-only struggle, it is one that can be fought by any member of society.

Often described in waves, modern day feminist movements can be directly linked to the suffragettes’ struggle for the vote – this is the first wave of feminism. Protests, activism and war-time inclusion in the workforce lead to the various forms we see today.

Second-wave feminism still exists today and exists alongside third wave and post-feminism principles. Second-wave concepts are concerned with issues of equality other than the right to vote such as equal pay.

The popular image of angry bra burning women striving for sexual freedom is linked to the third-wave of feminism which has its roots in the United States in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. It questions sexual practices, strives for sexual freedom, and claims that sexual politics are the roots of inequality.

Third wave feminism can be seen today with events and protests such as the ‘slutwalk’ which was first held in Toronto in 2011 to stop rape victim blaming. An important part of this era were the LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans-sexual, Intersex and Queer) movements which were born from and alongside this wave.

It has been held that movements such as this have led to an era dubbed ‘post-feminism’ where disenfranchised women declared themselves non-feminists – and continue to do so. This post-feminist era had led to major separations in what before could have been described as a collective movement.

Suffragettes, slut walk and so on form part of western history but what about others’ history?

Islam and feminism in the 20th century

When talking about women in the Arab world, we need to consider the role of Islam. The countries that form part of the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) region are predominantly Muslim, so it would be hard to separate Arab countries from Islam when talking about feminism.

Though there have been citations of ancient forms of feminism in the first reforms of Islam in the sixth to eighth centuries, the origins of modern day Arab feminism can be traced back to Egypt in the 1920s. Egyptian feminist Huda Sha`arawi is believed to be the first woman to unveil in public in Egypt in the 1920s.

Also in the 1920s, Turkey’s strongman Mustafa Ataturk imposed compulsory unveiling for women stepping out of the house in a bid to Westernise the country.However by the mid to late 20th century, after a failing of democracy in the Middle East whose countries were run by long ruling dictators, the Arab world gave up on Westernisation and moved instead toward a different self-identifying modernity including a modernisation/ re-discovery of Islam as their ‘authentic core’.

The ‘re-veiling movements’ and Islamic branding feminism started in the late 1970s to early 1980s – coincidentally when third wave feminism was hitting the Western world. An Islamist movement also started in Egypt (earlier) but gained momentum from 1970s onward as an anti-Western, return to roots but modern reformist religious movement.

At least some were modern adaptation of Islam and that’s the link to Islamic feminism.

Scholars have conceptualised Islamic feminism as feminist ideology articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Muslim feminists seek answers to inequality through the teachings in the Qu’ran –the central religious text in Islam.Besides, Western Feminism is generally viewed with suspicion in the Arab world.

Sexual identity politics and the like alienate many Islamic women not only in the Middle East, but also in the West. It just doesn’t fit with the culture which sometimes can be hard to separate from religion.

In the Arab world, sex, free the nipple, slut-walk and other such movements involved with sexual liberation isolate women as many advocate for issues that are still considered ‘first or second wave feminism’ such as property and marriage rights.

That’s not to say there are no LGBTIQ activists who are Muslim, of course there are. The community is just as diverse as our own.

British Muslim LGBT activist Noorulann Shahid started a hashtag #lifeofamuslimfeminist in early 2014 to explain the “Difficulties Muslim feminists face” in an article published in the Feminist Times. The hashtag quickly gained a large momentum among feminists in the Arab world and is still in use today.

“Lots of Muslim men and women telling me that Islam had given me all the rights I’d ever needed and that feminism was a Western concept that had no place in Islam,” she says in the Q&A. “So, I had to prove that feminism and Islam were not mutually exclusive and attempt to de-stigmatise the f-word amongst Muslims.”

Online Islamic feminism manifesting itself via twitter

[<a href=”//” target=”_blank”>View the story “The #lifeofamuslimfeminist hashtag over the past year” on Storify</a>]


Social media movements such as #lifeofamuslimfeminist highlight the growing discourse on the separation between what is considered ‘white feminism’ and others such as Islamic feminism.

“I found mainstream feminism to be quite hostile as it was dominated by white feminists who had lots of misconceptions regarding Islam and the hijab,” says Noorulann. “Mainstream feminism shuns most minority groups such as women of colour, queer and trans* people so the idea of Islamic Feminism did not fit their narrative; they saw Islam and feminism as incompatible.”

Another example of women using social media to highlight issues was when a Saudi Arabian woman filmed her husband groping their employed maid. The video was posted to social media and quickly became viral in Saudi Arabia then around the world under the hashtag #SaudiWomanCatchesHusbandCheating. The action led to the woman’s arrest and she now faces jail time or a fine under the country’s defamation laws.

However, it did not take until now to show itself online. Early forms of modern Islamic feminism online were manifested through chat rooms, then dedicated websites, now, more recently social media.


Social media had a powerful effect in the 2011 Arab uprisings, known as the Arab Spring. Photo: Wikipedia

From secret Facebook accounts and groups which informed about rally times and locations, to a rise in political blogosphere, to more than 3 million passionate tweets advocating for change.

Social media had a powerful effect in the 2011 Arab uprisings, popularly known as the Arab Spring. Networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube played key roles in mobilising large groups of protesters – mostly the young .

According to a 2011 study, just before the overthrow of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt discussions on social media would often be a leading factor to when and why people took to the streets. Talk of politics, democracy, liberty and revolution online often preceded and led to major events. It was also social media which carried inspiring stories of protest across borders.

It has been held that the uprisings also gave women a stronger voice as they joined their fellow countrymen demanding liberty, equality and democracy. The populations wanted change, more freedom and equality and less oppression and poverty.

Women also took to the street in the 2011 Arab uprisings, Nadia Al-Sakkaf explains.


It is important to note that in most of the other Gulf Cooperative Countries, social media played a different role. Many of the countries have monarchical rule, meaning a more legitimate hold to the throne.

People in the rich states of Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were observant and used social media to share their frustrations but there were fewer protests.

One long lasting syndrome associated with the Arab Spring is the fact that, now, the Arab world are amongst the highest users of social media. Sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are popular and fit with global trends. But more recently Snapchat has become the fastest growing site for Arab users.

The tech-savvy youth have capitalised on social media to share stories showing modern, vibrant and diverse societies.

During this year’s Ramadan there was an explosion of stories, photos, videos and messages shared under hashtags such as #Ramadan2015.

Social media are also platforms to express one’s self and women from all over the world using sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram as tools to connect and empower themselves.


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