Women's Activism and New Media in the Arab World

by Ahmed Al-Rawi, State University of New York Press, 2020, 166 pp.
Hardcover, $95.00 ISBN 978-1-4384-7865-4 

Women's Activism and New Media in the Arab World

Women’s Activism and New Media in the Arab World by Ahmed Al-Rawi attempts to map and empirically investigate the role of new media in shaping and facilitating positive change within women’s lives in the Arab world. One main purpose of the book, according to Al-Rawi, is a desire to close “the gap in empirical research of the study on women’s activism in the Arab world” (xi). Al-Rawi investigates the use of new media technologies by diverse female actors and women’s organizations operating in religious, political, social, and cultural spheres.  

In the first chapter, Al-Rawi provides an introductory account of the social and cultural status of Arab women. Most importantly, he notes the changing beliefs and cultural values in recent decades due to the emergence of new media technologies. To make these claims, Al-Rawi relies on data collected from social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the methodological approach employed in subsequent chapters. Al-Rawi also gives examples of the tools he used to collect and analyze the data. Based on various resources from UN Women, UNICEF, and UNDP, the first chapter offers statistics about gender inequality in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region while admitting that such issues are also pressing worldwide. In particular, Al-Rawi notes that MENA countries have the largest gap globally in terms of labor force participation between males (75–76 percent) and females (20–22 percent) (2). 

Several leading female activists in the Arab world are discussed in the second chapter, especially those who have strived to create sociopolitical change in areas such as sexual literacy, ethnic and racial equality, and human rights. Al-Rawi shows how Arab women activists use social media to express their opinions and establish wider networks, influencing cultural change. To do so, Al-Rawi selects four famous women from the Arab world to examine as case studies. These include Yemini activist Tawakkul Karman, Algerian novelist Ahlam Mosteghanmi, Arab feminist pioneer Nawal El-Saadawi, and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi Iraqi survivor of enslavement by ISIS who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her activist work. 

In each the following chapters, the author focuses on a particular form of women’s activism: religious, political, social, and cultural. In each case, he demonstrates the positive changes enabled by new media technologies, discusses the affordances of the new technologies, and shows how women have used them as a tool of empowerment. Al-Rawi situates these discussions from a historical perspective, emphasizing changes that began in the early twentieth century and the role of globalization in women’s activism. Al-Rawi also makes an exciting connection to the Nahda movement in the Arab world in the nineteenth century, which witnessed many changes in the cultural sphere through the writings of famous Muslim and Arab thinkers such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801–73), Butrus al-Bustani (1819–83), Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), and many others who advocated giving women varying levels of freedom. Next, Al-Rawi sheds light on other factors that affect women’s movements, such as broadcast media. He also introduces the Arab Spring as an example of local circumstances that have influenced women’s movements.

Al-Rawi’s third chapter discusses feminist discourses in Islamic paradigms. While analyzing data from various female Muslim online communities, the author draws attention to pluralism within multiple Islamic public spheres. Social media outlets provide users with the means to create connective and collective identities that link users based on issues of gender, religion, ethnicity, age, race, activism, or other elements. These online gatherings serve women’s interests and agendas, thus creating a “sense of sisterhood within the online community, as offline, and online practices often merge” (41). 

Al-Rawi moves on to discuss political activism, where he argues that the Arab Spring empowered women to be more vocal and assertive in demanding political rights and equality with men. Therefore, he examines some popular social media protests related to women’s equality and freedom to express their political views without fear. This section includes a rich analysis of statistics from online activists’ groups.

Social activism and civil society are the focus of the last two chapters. Al-Rawi discusses many women’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and organizations that focus on improving Arab women’s social lives. According to the author, there are “thousands” of women’s NGOs scattered around the Arab world (72) (although later in the text, he references “hundreds” instead [74]). Regardless of the total number, Al-Rawi analyzes four NGOs—Nasawiyya, ABAAD, Arab Women Campaign, and Iraqi Women Rights (IWR)—based on interviews with leadership from these organizations and analysis of their posts on social media. Some social and religious limitations of these groups are discussed as well.

Chapter 6 focuses on antiviolence campaigns led by cultural activism. Al-Rawi confirms that there is no consensus definition of cultural activism, but it would have been helpful if he offered a functional definition based on his own findings. Nevertheless, he presents a rich corpus of statistics in various subjects such as sexual harassment, refugee aid, and domestic violence. This leads Al-Rawi to another discussion on social media’s affordances, which provides readers with tools to understand their environment and benefit from those affordances. Nevertheless, the final two sections could have been merged, and a section that analyzes YouTube videos to demonstrate antiviolence campaigns could have been consolidated in the discussions of such campaigns as Nasawiyya, ABAA, and IWR.

In conclusion, despite the usefulness of technologies, the author argues that women’s agency remains paramount in achieving equality and social justice amid the many social and political forces that resist such change. Al-Rawi confirms that globalization and new media have assisted women in creating change in their lives by empowering them in many ways. New media, with its convergence and affordances, has assisted in what is known as “globalization from below,” especially with the rise of transnational liberation movements. The author concludes by sharing the limitations of the present study, which may apply to any similar study in the Arab world. Al-Rawi also provides a few suggestions for future research. In sum, Women’s Activism is a valuable resource with valuable statistics and analysis on subjects related to women’s lives in the Arab world.

by Walid Ghali, Aga Khan University