As word of a wave of sexual harassment attacks in downtown
Nermeena, 28, is one of the longest-active female bloggers in
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
Egyptian women make up 30 percent of all Internet users in
Whatever the reason, the blogopshere has become one of the few public spaces in
“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
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.
Abbas and two other bloggers quickly posted pictures and accounts of what they had seen. From there, an independent Egyptian television station picked up the story. After a week, the state-media finally mentioned the event, accompanied by official government denials that anything had happened. Meanwhile, the blogosphere response continued. A video was posted on YouTube, a free video-file sharing site, which alleged to show a similar gang harassment attack by men last January. One victim of the attacks even started her own blog, http://woundedgirlfromcairo.blogspot.com/ with pictures of an injury she sustained escaping into a taxi.
“We felt like we were in a war—I had emptied my self defense spray on the endless number of guys who surrounded us and yet it still wasn't enough. We, girls, had our butts, breasts, and every inch of our bodies grabbed,” she wrote.
An informal coalition has since formed to bring more attention to the long-concealed problem of sexual harassment in
“What gave the issue traction after the Eid attacks is that it became a male-female issue, not just a female issue, in a society that often excuses male behavior as a result of their nature and their frustration with life, and relies on women to control and restrain society,” said 25-year-old Sandmonkey, (www.sandmonkey.net), who anonymously runs a snarky, right-wing political blog which gets some 10,000 international and Egyptian visitors per day—among the highest of any Egyptian blogger.
The response to the attacks showcased the Egyptian blogosphere’s small but developing role as a societal watchdog and instigator of social and political activism. In early November, the demonstration Nermeena called for took place outside of
What They Write
Blogs written by women in
Female bloggers write about arranged marriage proposals they accept or reject; demonstrations they attend or shun; their trials at work; Muslim-Christian tensions; their opinions of movies and concerts; discussions with friends and boyfriends. In short, they write about what’s on their minds. The following are short sketches of four Egyptian female bloggers:
Nora Younis runs what many believe to be the most popular of Egyptian women’s blogs, though she does not keep track of how many visitors she receives. Active in the Kifaya protest movement, the 29-year-old posts information about past demonstrations and upcoming opposition events. She also posts eyewitness accounts and photographs of things the state-run media does not cover. In December 2005, for example, she documented in detail how the Egyptian police broke up a 3-month sit-in by Sudanese refugees, an action which killed some 20 refugees. Her posts, which are in Arabic—though some are translated into English—often convey a sense of frustration that by forgetting some core human values, Egyptians are betraying themselves and each other.
“I try to keep it uniquely my blog, reflecting my colors and my life. It never crossed my mind to be anonymous,” said Younis over a recent coffee in
Isis, a senior at the
“I saw first hand how the government handles the drug market,” she wrote. “The police supervise drug selling and buying. Most of the friends I had in the police force were either drug users or addicts themselves. I saw how the police used to protect heroin dealers and get kickbacks. I saw how heroin was smuggled across the Sinai border into
Wahda Tania, a 31-year-old bisexual woman, talks about her personal experiences and emotions on Other Things, http://otherthings.manalaa.net/. She does not reveal her identity on her site but friends and other bloggers know who she is. She has shocked some readers with her willingness to describe sexual experiences with women in Arabic that borders on the erotic.
In one recent post called “An Open Experience,” she wrote about a friend who had attempted suicide after her marriage to a man she did not love fell apart. The two women took a weekend in
“Before, I was looking at my relationships with women as kind of an experiment, or a mirror, through which I wondered about myself,” she wrote. “Does what pleases me please them as well? How do I look when I am having an orgasm? I spent so much effort to look outside of the box, but was never brave enough to escape from the box itself.”
One of Wahda’s devoted readers is Raouf Mos’ad, an erotic writer in Arabic who lives in the
The anonymous blogger Forsoothsayer, http://forsoothsayer.blogspot.com/ writes about her daily life and thoughts in a funny, tongue-in-cheek way: she counts American humorists Erma Bombeck and David Sedaris among her inspirations. Educated at an American school in
Forsoothsayer, who describes herself as a “liberal, Westernized person” writes in a lite, Bridget-Jones diary style, referring to her boyfriend as M. and her workplace a Large Corporate Law Firm. “I effing hate my job. I have absolutely no reason to do so, but I still do,” she wrote in a recent post. “The bathrooms here are really nice and I have my own phone and office supplies…But NO INTERNET. This galls me to the bone.”
Forsoothsayer can also get serious. For example, she recently complained that social pressure on women to veil to protect themselves against street harassment does not take into account the fact that some 10 percent of Egyptians—including her—are Christians. “I've always liked the fact that even though I'm a minority in my country, I'm not a visible one. That, alas, is fast ceasing to be the case—in a country where difference is never tolerated.”
A Limit To Expression
Though they agree that the Internet has given them unparalleled freedom to express themselves, female bloggers in
Woman blogger Asmaa Ali, whose political blog is called Details, (tafseel.blogspot.com) was arrested last May 7. Her crime was protesting the detention of campaigners who took part in a sit-in supporting greater independence for
Asmaa and the other bloggers were arguably jailed not for their blogs, but for their off-line, real-world political activities. But some witnesses to their arrests claim that security forces specifically targeted the bloggers, while letting other protestors go, said Elijah Zarwan, the Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. And one blogger currently in detention, 22-year-old Abdulkarim Nabeel Sulaiman from
Kareem, as he is known, was a law student until 2005 at Al Azhar,
Kareem has been charged with defaming the president, incitement to hate Islam and “highlighting inappropriate aspects that harm the reputation of
“I actually think it’s the bloggers who write about religion and sexuality—culturally sensitive issues that could upset Al Azhar and other conservative institutions—that are more at risk than people who write about politics,” says Al Islam, who was arrested along with Asmaa Ali last May and spent 45 days in prison. He figures that the Egyptian government has gotten used to political criticism through Egyptian opposition newspapers such as Al Masry Al Youm and Al Dustour —which print anti-regime articles daily and are only occasionally penalized.
“The main no-go area for bloggers is anything that can be seen as inflaming Christian-Muslim tensions, whether by criticizing Christianity or Islam. All the recent cases of arrests of Egyptians for online activities had to do with this subject,” Zarwan said.
Egypt ranks a low 133 out of 168 countries in a 2006 global press freedom index complied by Reporters Without Borders. The organization also recently labeled
“Until we have legislation that truly allows us freedom of thought and speech, our personal safety is going to continue to be at risk,” said blogger Nora Younis. But, she added, “I still think more Internet activism is the next stage for the Egyptian opposition. The streets are becoming more and more dangerous, and the Internet is still safer.”
Shining Light on the Private
By any measure, the Egyptian blogosphere remains tiny.
But the number of blogs is growing exponentially, doubling every six months, according to statistics kept by Al Islam and other bloggers. And blogging has become a focus of research and scholarly observation because it remains one of the most open arenas of expression in Egyptian public life. Anyone with basic computer knowledge and access to an Internet connection can start a blog, regardless of political opinions, gender, and age. As a result, the blogosphere is remarkably diverse; there are Islamists and homosexuals, liberals and Arab nationalists. And the high rate of female participation shows that Egyptian women have much to say that the male-dominated, state-managed mainstream media sector is missing.
Egyptian women bloggers are breaking new ground, often by challenging cultural assumptions in
Egyptian bloggers are well-organized, and many meet off-line as well, forming friendships and networks that go beyond the virtual. This contributes to the construction of activist networks which challenge traditional conceptions that some issues should be the realm of women’s activism, other of men’s. “Women are going more often to political protests, and we are going to the sexual harassment protests. So we are helping each other,” blogger Sandmonkey said.
“It’s easy to speak about issues, but hard to write them down. When you try to write, it makes you think through the issue better,” said 25-year-old Mozn Hassan, who co-authors an Arabic blog (www.taboohat.blogspot.com) with another woman and two men. Wahda Tania agreed. “The Internet is a great tool to teach people how to express themselves and how to fight for their ideas,” she wrote.
Sharon Otterman is a contributing editor for Arab Media & Society. She has spent the last year and a half researching and writing articles about women and political reform in