Building a Social Network for Arab Women
[Panel at Recent Saudi Workshop to launch Women's Social Network. Photo by Laurel Papworth]
Laurel Papworth is an Australian social media consultant, trainer and lecturer. She is best known on Twitter as Silkcharm, a name she adopted during her many years as an online game moderator for Ultima Online and Everquest among others.
More recently, I followed Laurel with fascination, as she blogged reports from inside Saudi Arabia where she was speaking and teaching at a workshop for Saudi women who have since launched a pan-Arab women's social network. I learned through Laurel that some of my perceptions of the lives of Arab women, social media and what they do online was pretty much offbase. While much of the outrages we read about are factual, there is more going on than oppression and suppression. While the fashions being imposed may be circa 6th century, the thinking and online activities is very much modern times. There is even flirting, so long as you do it anonymously and a family member doesn't catch you.
I asked Laurel to expand on what she has already written. The following is excerpted from our email conversation.
1. You have two blogs.
One shows an almost stern-looking corporate sort of woman. The other portrays a
free-wheelin' Aussie with pink hair. How do you reconcile these multiple personalities?
undefined, my Twitter and one blog presence evolved from the late 90s when I was a game moderator.
In those days, we kept our real identity separate from our online
persona. SilkCharm is the name I have used for my primary avatar since the late '90s.
LaurelPapworth.com is for those who feel more comfortable with a brochure 1.0 website than
the aforementioned freewheeling exuberant blog. I keep it as one does a
professional site - no comments or user content. Simply stark
information: where I appear on TV, what keynotes I'm doing, which
public courses. Plus the usual marketing guff: "this is the strategy I
do with investors in Social Networks, these are my clients, this is my
work at the University of Sydney and University of Western Sydney. "
and so on.
I'm building a bridge from social networks back to traditional
companies and these two personna suit my purpose. I want to have both sides of myself out there:
the part that knows that to grow an audience one needs to have fun and
play with them. And that part that knows that conservative companies
would completely freak if they had to rely on my SilkCharm to sell my services to their organizations.
We are taking people on a journey, and if I need to start off by
pointing them to a my 'corporate' site and then move them across to a
more gonzo style blog, so be it.
Twitter is pretty well full of people who 'get it' - therefore I don't have to worry Laurel. I point my profile to my Silkcharm
blog. Blogs are, in marketing terms, one-to-many distribution channels
for depth-of-content. This means the blogger sets the topic and tone
for the discussion, which is usually indepth and thought out in
isolation and then published. And the commenter's respond in a similar
tone, usually succinctly in a few sentences. Pretty well the opposite
of Twitter which is many-to-many of streaming content. Step out of Twitter for a few days and
the conversation has moved on. I use the blog to develop and build
ideas and then Twitter and Facebook to distribute them.
Incidentally, the academic Laurel (Lecturer Laurel) is different again from Corporate Laurel. But like most people, I can only cope with one or two nicknames at a time.
How did you come to be invited to Saudi Arabia? Why did
you decide to go? What scared you about going and can you talk about your problems getting into the country?
Why did I
agree to go? Because I thought that giving Arabic women a voice was not
only darned important but truly a social media revolutionary act. How could I
How I got invited is a longer story.
I'm an irregular on several Australian podcasts including Extraordinary Everyday People with David N. Wallace and Mike Serfang. Eventually, Mike asked me to
help him write a job description for a Community Manager position for
an Arabic women's network for the Middle East. Then I was asked to
keynote and run computer lab workshops at woman's network launch event in Saudi Arabia.
We did this on the fly. Dates kept changing. Until the last minute I did not believe this was actually going to happen. There were difficulties with tickets and reservations. But there were four bigger barriers imposed on women by Saudis:
- Women, are not
allowed to enter the country without a husband or father-a
male guardian or "Mahram."
- There is a special area at the
airport to escort women through.
- Women are not allowed to
stay at hotels without a male family member.
- Women are not
allowed to drive or be transported in a car without a male "guardian."
I was not shocked by these rules imposed by Islamic culture.
In 1999, I lived in Fes, Morocco, to study
Arabic, sort of on a whim. But Saudi Arabia is not Morocco.
And I had some real concerns.
First, kudos to Queen Sam--not her real name, but it suits her--
a young Arabic woman who was able to swing some visas for us. I
don't know how she did it, but she did. So I
met Sam at the airport in Dubai and got in line for Jeddah with a group
of modern/traditional mixed Saudis. Some of the women wore their hair
down and jeans with tops. Others were covered in the black Abaya (gown) and Tarha (headscarf), collectively called
The coverup rules are based on Koranic quote: "O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the women of the
believers to draw their cloaks all over their bodies, that is most
convenient that they should be known (as such) and not molested."
About 10 minutes before we landed in Jeddah, the women changed into their Hijabs. Queen Sam
and I put ours on as we were flying over Mecca, that most holy of
Islamic sites. By the time we de- planed, the women were covered. All
were guided to the special waiting area for their Mahram to collect
Except Queen Sam and I didn't have a Mahram.
So she rang up Mideast Broadcast Company (MBC) a sponsor who added great credibility to this project, and requested a driver to collect us. Yousef, our driver, showed up 3 1/2
hours later, an apparent indication of how important picking up two women guests at the airport is considered. .
undefined delivered us to the Jeddah Hilton.
Thankfully, we were allowed to check in. I was told the laws had been recently amended to allow women to stay in hotels. Some hotels - presumably those run by
fundamentalists - still don't allow women to stay, but the Hilton was fine, and we would wear our abayas but our scarves stayed only around
our necks, not over our hair.
One thing that intrigued me was that the alcohol-free restaurants were split into two areas. "Men" and "Family." If men are
sitting in the family area and women come in, the men get up
and move, not the women. It's more embarrassing for the men
to be sitting where the women are, than dishonoring for the women to
be sitting with the men. Sort of reversed to what I was expecting. It
clued me in to a way to gate the online community for women only - use
'shaming' to identify male intruders. If Arabic men use the women's network, it
should be made 'embarrassing' for them, not amusing. Shaming doesn't
work in the West though! Some communities don't need to be 'gated'
(where the member controls access to her profile) as the community
manages themselves to get rid of interlopers.
3. Tell me about social media in Saudi Arabia. How is it used and by whom? How much access do people have?
This is one of the most switched on, connected, socially networked
cultures I have come across - and trust me, I've worked in Amsterdam,
Italy, England, Singapore, Indonesia, and right across Asia. I
suspect it's because when you block one form of communication - men and
women chatting and going to school together and so on - we use other
First, the guys wrote their cellphone number on bits of paper
and threw them out of car windows at the black clad women walking along
the road. Then Bluetooth came along and changed all that. Turn your
phone on, give yourself a sassy pseudonym--it's important! not to use your real name--
and wait for the offers to flow in.
And flow in they do. The guys don't
know which woman is which: "are you the girl by the DVD shelves or the
one by the ice cream shop?" So it's pot luck. But it doesn't matter, as
most girls would never meet the guys in real life. This is cyber
flirting, never to cross over from the virtual to the tangible.
So, why a pseudonym/avatar? "... a new Saudi law was submitted
to the 150–member Majlis al–Shoura, calling for stiff sanctions for
mobile phone "pornography," including 1,000 lashes, 12 years in jail,
and a fine of 100,000 Saudi riyals, or around US$26,670."
A bit more serious than being grounded for the week end because you got caught flirting on the phone...
was told that YouTube and MySpace were banned in Saudi. They weren't -
at least not at the Hilton in-room broadband, which was very fast (and
better than Australia's). By the way, the Australian Government bans
youTube and other social networking sites in government offices in
Australia, and it's banned in schools in some states. So we have our
fair share of censorship. I guess Australian children say "oh I
better not go on YouTube if the adults are banning it". Heh.
I thought I was going to Saudi Arabia to teach Arabic women how to
blog and protect their identity online. Yeah. Right. I was kidding
myself. These women are completely savvy and au fait with privacy and
locking up their content. Whereas we are slowly waking up to the
invisible audience and what can happen if someone mashes up our
personal RSS feeds from Facebook, Twitter and blogs, Saudi women have
They are on Facebook but with a pet name like "Queen Sam."
They experiment and flirt and are outrageous on instant chat channels -
but in secret, privately. In a country where women are not allowed out
of the house without their father's permission and a brother to drive
them, they stay in contact with married sisters in other cities and
best friends in the neighboring suburbs by sharing (gated/locked down)
photos and poems and music. Poems more than music, interestingly.
4. In one of your posts, you wrote about an "as yet unfounded"
online community for Arab women. Tell me more about it? How did these
women enroll and what countries are they from? .
Why is this project important if this is nation whose women already
connect, flirt, create and express online? It has to do with
changing society from top down as well as grassroots up. MBC 4 (the Arabic
women's TV channel) got behind creating a social network for women. And
that makes a world of difference – no longer an underground movement
but an online community that is ratified from the highest level – from
the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps the biggest leap is that MBC is behind ths project. Based in Dubai, MBC is believed to be funded by the Royal House of
Saud. Some say it was set up to compete with Al Jazeera, which is regarded as being anti-Saudi and pro-Qatar. For a media company funded by
the establishment, 'giving' or supporting social media is a big step.
Consider the Egyptian woman, Esra Abdel Fattah, who was jailed for creating a
Facebook group complaining about price rises in Egypt or the Saudi Arabian girl beaten then shot and killed by her father for being on Facebook.
A brave and commendable act by MBC to launch imatter.mbc.net.
The women's online network launched just two nights ago as of this interview. It is now open to
Arabic women all over the world. 286 signed up yesterday, bringing the
sum total to 575 members in 48 hours… not bad! Unfortunately, in my
opinion, the British agency that installed the community solution
–Dolphin – adapted the template poorly, didn't integrate (a simple
bridge) the forum user database with the main community database and
basically showed a lack of understanding building a community. It
would've been helpful if they had got behind this project and made it a
world leader, but never mind.
You will see on the site that the primary purpose is to encourage women to submit applications for awards
- Art Matters,
- Community Matters,
- New Media Matters and
- Entrepreneurial Matters.
All to encourage women in the Middle East and other Arabic groups to
state why they matter to the world and that their ideas matter.
The first 50 members were enrolled through the classes that I ran at the Effat
College for Women in Jeddah. The others were encouraged in the last 48
hours through promos on MBC 4 TV station in Dubai and across the
region. Queen Sam sent me a message on Facebook to say how excited she
was to see the signups coming in and didn't want to go to bed. I fully
understand –there's nothing so exciting as seeing a new community start
to become populated rapidly!
5. How were you received at the conference? What was the biggest
single takeaway for you? What did you say or do that surprised the
Saudi women the most?
The conference and workshops were
fun. The young women were interested in what I had to say, and most
were well traveled and educated (Saudi is a rich nation, and this is
the best University for Saudi women). We talked non-stop, they made
jokes about not wanting to drive cars anyway because
Saudi men are such bad drivers. Every January there is
talk about allowing women to drive but it comes to nought. I saw a school bus
cross four lanes of traffic at high speed to take an exit.
I think my biggest takeaway was that there is no clear
stance on any issue. Even I was starting to get confused – was my
wearing the Abaya and Tarha a mark of respect for the women of another
culture, or was I endorsing the patriarchal suppression of women? One
or two women were ribald, telling naughty jokes and having midriff tops
and a peeking g-string in private, yet genuinely prudish and covered up
in other situations.
I surprised them the most by showing how concerned I was about
keeping my headscarf on. I really worried it would slip and reveal my
hair and that would be massively disrespectful. It turns out that in
Jeddah at least, most of them don't care so much except at evening
prayer times when the religious police patrol the malls at prayer time five times daily to find people who are not in the mosque and not
covered up. In fact, I was encouraged to remove my scarf
when lecturing. Women don't cover up in front of women. It's seen as
old-fashioned to remain covered at all times, and it also doesn't
necessarily set the precedent for how the women lecturers want the
students to relate to them. I removed my scarf, once I was convinced
they weren't just being polite.
6. You wrote that for Saudi women, " one photo, one chat with a
male alone can totally disrupt you life." Can you expand on that in
terms of social media?
Saudi Arabia is an "honor" society. Like Asia, with their "keeping face," identity, reputation
and trust are tantamount. In online communities, we develop our identity
through our profile. We then build our reputation by submitting content
which is judged (ratings, reviews, comments). After a period of time of
building our reputation, we gain a trust quotient – the eBay method –
people read our profile, watch our interaction with friends, consume
our content and then decide what trust value to place on our responses
to their questions and media submissions. In simple terms, a newbie on
a network with a history of 1 day and 2 posts and 3 comments will not
have the identity, reputation and ultimately trust that an Elder or a
Leader will have. The long tail of engagement and performance works
for/against us in social networks.
In Saudi, the long tail of behavior in real life is also rewarded/punished.
August, the capital Riyadh had witnessed the murder of a young woman by
her father, after he came into her room and saw she was chatting with a
young man she met on Facebook. Security sources assured Al-Arabiya.net
that the father beat up his daughter then shot her."
While not all cases are that extreme, a woman who is discovered
talking to a boy at the age of 15 may never live down the shame. A
girl who continually breaks the rules will have trouble getting married
(and as jobs are limited, marriage IS her career path). The shame is
wrought on the whole family – the police routinely pick up the girl's
mahram (guardian) and warn him if she misbehaves or is found in a car
with a man not her husband or sitting in a café in a mixed group. The
shame for the father of being hauled into a police station is no small thing.
This is an interesting article on Saudi Arabia that goes into greater depthnon social media and Arab culture.
8. When building a woman's community, how
can you ensure one is not a male? What would happen if that occurred?
Intriguingly, Arabic men may not like registering at the site. It's girly, pink and not macho. Not an environment these men will want
to be caught in, even if the rewards of reaching a pretty Middle
Eastern woman is high. A little like suggesting the football team dress
as cheerleaders to pick up women – funny yes, but not typical dating
I think the girls will tease and shame the men who join. Men
who join may keep their profile low key – an avatar picture of flowers
instead of their own photo. There seems to be a sense of 'this stuff
happens but it can't happen blatantly'. An acknowledgement that women
get messages via Bluetooth on their phone, but as long as they don't
act on them, it's OK.
The community can vote up or down participants so they'll mute badass boys. The usual community tools to reward good
behavior and smack naughtiness. In fact, like any online community,
setting up the Code of Conduct and Etiquette Statement, creating
moderator sub-communities, ensuring that usability and sociability
reinforce appropriate behaviors, setting good examples - tell them,
show them, reward them. Reward leadership, assign roles and
responsibilities, introduce karma and rating systems. They all bring about appropriate behavior and serve
to limit the impact of inappropriate ones.
8. I was surprised that you said older women were pushing for
change, but younger women are not; that younger women wear the Abaya
[black cloak] and Toma [head cover] as badges of pride. It's a
response, you say to 9.11. How so?
When my sister and I were little, we would fight each other,
being nasty as only little girls can be. We could've killed each
other. Yet, if a stranger attacked either one of us, we turned in
unison to protect our sisterhood and trounce the outsider. We still do
it today, only not when her children and my niece and nephew are
Perhaps it's easiest to see it this way: Some Americans may not
agree with American Foreign Policy – or how politicians implement
global initiatives overseas. They may even speak up about it – blog or
talk to friends and family.
Yet most Americans would not blame individual soldiers – it would be
unpatriotic and downright disgraceful to be abusive to a man or woman
just because he or she is in a uniform.
Now, imagine every time you travel, you are abused. Your
passport is checked and triple checked. You and your wife and your
children are hauled into immigration offices every time someone notes
you have an American passport. Then you are questioned about why your
wife wears a headscarf. Your children are called names and blamed for
wars in far off places they can't even spell yet.
I think in that case, even American sons and daughters would change
their mind about disagreeing with foreign policy and start to be more
"patriotic" or at least, less willing to put up with criticism. Stop
disagreeing with the State and keep quiet. After all, when under
attack, we must band together and forget about "petty" differences.
I suspect that is what happens to these women. They see their
brothers refused entry to foreign universities, (We've just had a witch
hunt against Saudi male students at some of our Australian universities,) their fathers humiliated at airports and their cousins
reviled while walking down the street. I think I would be more
patriotic to the abaya and scarf in that case too, a quiet show of
solidarity and strength to one culture against another.
So it was easy for a woman one moment to say that women should be more
free and not be penalized for not wearing the abaya, and the next to
say it is a patriotic and religious duty to wear the national standard
of dress for Saudi Arabia.
9. How do you think social media will change the life and
culture of Saudi women? How do you see it impacting Saudi culture and
relationships with the West overall? Let's stretch a bit: Do you think
social media can contribute to greater peace and understanding between
Arab and Western cultures?
Well to extend the discussion above, it could go either way: "Others
stated that Saudi women suffered as a result to their presence on such
websites, since they sometimes found mocking or insulting comments
mostly written by extremists who browsed these websites and pages. "
Web 2.0/3.0 changes the game not just in social media.
Think recruitment and project management for examples.
eLance and Rentacoder break the "dating" model of recruitment sites –
brokerage and introductions – and manage the whole development and
project cycle. Because a job on eLance covers the whole project
management and escrow process, why can't an Arabic female architect or
engineer, take on a project overseas, complete it, with no one the
wiser that she is Saudi and not supposed to work in that field?
For women who don't have much time for themselves – family and
religious duties are heavier in Saudi Arabia than the West - blogging
and self expression online is a "personal me-time" that we take for
granted. Also, as usual with the internet, anything banned immediately
becomes more accessible and popular, so an openness is to be expected.
What we read changes our views.
we also stay the same. If there's one thing I've learnt about social
networks is that we do MORE of what we usually do. So if we are
fundamental Islam or fundamental Christian, we are drawn to those
communities. If we are academics interested in observing, ditto. Gun
lovers find gun communities. If we are cosmopolitan, well educated,
literate and polyglots, we will find a community with our values.
Rednecks who are xenophobic love their online communities too. On a
media platform where we don't just create the content but also filter
(acting as a censor for oneself) we will continue to form and reinforce
the world in our own image. For better or for worse.
10. Additional comments?
When I lived in Morocco for a
year, studying Arabic, a young Moroccan woman asked me shyly "is it
true your father sent you out to work and made you get a job when you
turned 18?". Well that's one way of seeing it, though I doubt good ol'
Dad will understand. We can't judge another's world can we?