Degrees of Caution, Arab Girls Unveil on Facebook

Posted: August 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

In this blog I will be discussing the article titled Degrees of Caution, Arab Girls Unveil on Facebook, written by Rodda Leage and Ivana Chalmers. This paper examined how Arab girls taking part in Leage and Chalmers’ study, expressed themselves on Facebook. As these girls lived in a very conservative area, it was quite interesting to read about their thoughts and views on expressing their identities on social network sites.  In fact, most of the participants viewed Facebook as a place to communicate and not a place to express their identity. Facebook users make choices in how they will use the technology’s features to express their identity. As individuals can actively control the information that is displayed on their Facebook profiles, users can also limit their visibility. An important point that the authors make is that much of the research on identity expression on SNS is focused on American and European youth. They explain that the lack of research on SNS in the Middle East could be due to various factors such as lack of Internet access, low Internet literacy levels, and low numbers of users. However, Facebook proves to be a good starting point for researchers wanting to add to existing information on SNS from other parts of the world.

Research on women’s use of technology in the Middle East has focused on its ability to empower, democratize, and allow women entry to the public sphere, allowing development of new identities. The authors explain that women in this region are empowered by modern technologies to create other discourses about their womanhood, citizenship, and political participation in society and are able to experience more freedom of expression and choices for social interaction. However, is this really true? Is today’s modern technology an avenue for such women’s liberation or a means of control? In this paper, the authors enclose various interesting methods that the Arab girl participants took in order to ‘express themselves’ on Facebook. They interviewed 42 girls between the ages of 18 and 22 whom were university students, unmarried, lived with their parents, and most practiced Islam. The data collection took place in Doha, Qatar which is regarded as one of the most conservative Arab countries and places a high value on its cultural and religious traditions. They asked participants three series of questions such as how participants expressed themselves to others and the strategies they used to perform their identities and how cultural norms regarding the behavior of Arab girls affected these processes. They also asked what types of SNS technologies they used and if their online identities corresponded to their offline identity or if they clashed. A very informative set of questions that the researchers/authors asked were whether the participants felt they were more or less free to enact their identities online than offline. As the same questions were asked to each participant, it was rather interesting how different some of the responses were.

Leage and Chalmers grouped their findings into four areas or ‘approaches’ used by the girls to express their identity. In the first approach, the girls chose not to participate in social network sites, in the second approach, the girls used Facebook but were cautious in abiding by the culture and used it as a way for limited self-expression. In the third approach however, creative methods were made in order to have more self-expression while also abiding by cultural conventions. Finally, the fourth approach involved users whom overlooked certain cultural customs in order to have more freedom of expression. I found it very interesting and rather creative how some of these girls found ways to express themselves on Facebook while also respecting the customs and values of their culture. It is important to note that the authors explained that each participant expressed themselves using various methods and did not necessarily fit into only one category, however, the range of responses showed distinct ways that girls negotiated identity expression within their culture. The girls in the first approach had quite relevant reasons as to why they chose not to engage with Facebook. For instance, Leila-one of the participants-introduced two important issues in Qatari culture; misrepresentation and the importance of religion and family for a young woman. Image was very important to her and the way in which she was portrayed out to the public reflected her family and therefore affected their honor. A big thing for many of the girls who did not use Facebook was the fear of misrepresentation online as people could view or portray certain images or things on their Facebook profiles in a different light; this in turn could negatively impact their reputation.

There were only 3 out of 42 participants who currently did not use Facebook, the second approach however, was more common. These girls used Facebook but made sure that they did not express themselves in ways that would be viewed as inappropriate by the culture. In this approach, many of the girls used it to just ‘keep in touch’ as Facebook was not really seen as a safe place for self-expression. Some of the girls did use it for self-expression but limited the type of information displayed on their site. The researchers found a wide range of ways individuals in this approach chose to display their information with some showing almost no identity expression while others displayed a lot. Some of the Facebook features discussed in the article were status updates, images, tools of expression, and freedom. Many girls felt uncomfortable with emotional statements on status updates due to them being easily misunderstood and they also felt it was not appropriate to express strong emotion in public. It is interesting how individuals in the West tend to underestimate the public power Facebook holds versus the girls in the Middle East where they are highly aware of this reality. The majority of the girls that the authors spoke to also had no images of themselves on their site; rather they found creative ways in posting alternative images that still expressed themselves. This was really cool as they used other images and pictures of things other than themselves to describe or illustrate their personalities since they did not trust the Internet and social network sites and found it very unsafe. Most girls did not find that not being able to post their image was a problem as Kaliyah had said ‘There are so many things that define me other than my face.’ Despite Facebook’s portrayal of freedom and self-expression on their site, does it actually involve complete freedom for its users? When participants were asked if they felt Facebook gave them the freedom to express themselves overall, most replied that it did not. They often mentioned the possibility for self-expression but few said they were experiencing it. One of the girls named Maram had an interesting response as she explained that her and her family have to consider what others think each time she uploads something. She felt that she had to manage the content of both her site and her friend’s sites in order to be sure that she is presented appropriately. Therefore this ‘freedom’ may be damaging or constraining in a sense as for example, you may not be able to control what representations others put of you on their sites in a sense which is not your self-expression or portrayal of yourself.

The behavior in the third approach stayed within cultural boundaries however, had more creative techniques. In order to accommodate the privacy challenges on Facebook while also expressing herself she created a system to fulfill both; she would write code words or phrases that did not appear relevant or obvious that only her friends would understand. For example ‘red lipstick’ on her status update would mean that she was going to a party-how clever! Other things these girls would do is they would find imaginative ways to express their identities through images, for example a perfume bottle could signify that they like the creator or a specific experience that related to the object. Another option was taking pictures of body parts other than the face since as the face is not shown, it cannot be tampered with online. What I found to be quite rebel-like was creating an alternate identity! Some of the participants creating fantastic, fabricated identities on Facebook inventing characters with Facebook profiles that had the opportunity to participate in activities that the girls would not actually be allowed to take part in. What do you guys think about this approach? Is it a positive or negative alternative?

Girls that wanted more communication of Facebook than the Qatari culture allowed found themselves taking more risks online as Nashwa for instance, joined an Arab dating site regardless of the fact that for females, dating is strictly forbidden. She enjoyed it because it allowed her to chat with males online that she would not be allowed to talk to offline. In the article the authors explained how many Arab girls explained that the reality for them in Qatar was inequality between males and females both online and offline. As many felt that SNSs like Facebook allowed them more freedom of expression, the truth was that living in a close-knit community means online information quickly leaks to the offline world which could be rather damaging to a girls reputation, therefore many of the girls use alternative identities to be able to ‘friend’ boys and communicate with them. As the authors express, this raises the question of whether or not this type of communication can be considered reaching a greater ‘identity expression.’

The purpose for this paper was to discover whether or not Arab girls living in a conservative community such as Qatar used Facebook as a place for identity expression. The authors expressed that the pressure many girls face to abide by cultural norms and protect their reputation usually limits their ability to express themselves to their desired extent. On Facebook they are caught between two worlds as they are using a Western based technology yet adapting it to their own culture. What I found to be rather significant was that in the beginning of the article, the authors explained how the girls felt Facebook was merely a place to communicate and not a place to express themselves. Many of the respondents ended the interview realizing that they did in fact express themselves on line, they just did not realize it. If they felt limited by their culture they found quite creative and unique techniques to express themselves that I found to be great! I encourage everyone to read this article as I found it to be a very interesting and educational read, there are a lot of specific stories and situations of some of the participants in there that I found to be fascinating.

Below is a link from a clip called ‘The Deen Show’ that talked about technological advances and how Muslims should not get distracted with them as they could lead you in the wrong path. I found it interesting how this man by the name of Deen was explaining how they should not become lost in these types of things. I also found it interesting that men were mentioned also as we usually hear that Muslim women are usually the ones who have to follow strict rules. If you decide to watch the video skip on to 2:43 as that is when he starts his discussion on Facebook. Another interesting link I found was on a Muslim dating site, it showed many couples meeting online and explained the success they had by choosing this method which goes against the ‘norms’ or traditional teachings. I found this to relate to the article as some of the girls did chose to join dating sites in hopes to find their future husbands, this site shows how women are able to take control with their future in a sense and gives hope for a successful match found online. Both Muslim women and men were able to express themselves online in ways they may have not been allowed to publicly do offline. This also illustrates that not all outcomes of actions online are negative; various positive outcomes can come from online sites and could maybe even empower individuals. What do you guys think?

-Mundeep Dhaliwal

  1. z.shad says:

    Facebook and related social networking sites have mushroomed in areas across the globe for people who have the access, knowledge and ability to use them. But expression varies as a cultural context divides and determines the way one makes use of such technology. Mundeep has asked in her blog about whether identities online on SNS’s help girls (Arab) engage in activities that they usually are not allowed to participate in. I believe that setting up alternate, fabricated profiles on sites such as Facebook still limit the freedom to express yourself. The author has already mentioned in her article that Arab girls are limited when it comes to expressing themselves in comparison to girls of other countries. And these limitations are not created by the problems of access but because of cultural expectations. They live in a nation where democracy has been adopted, where women now have secured the right to vote but tradition and culture are highly valued. There are certain boundaries that they cannot cross and therefore they cannot say it all!

    In comparison to the countries of the “great” West, these girls have to think twice before posting anything from a status to even punctuation such as the exclamation mark. They face great anxiety as to how the use of this new technology will affect their reputation. I believe that this is true for many people across the globe but depends on the individual too. I know that I have to think twice before posting a status with foul language or even an R&B music video that has “bad-mannered” dance moves. For most people who have siblings, cousins or even parents and teachers usually think before they make certain posts. The concept of rumors and gossip attached with women/girls is also is a universal thing that we all engage in regardless of whether the individual is an Arab or an American. Its pretty normal to go through your friends’ pictures on Facebook and then discuss about them with others.

    Next, the author mentioned how some girls choose the option of digitally altering their profile pictures so that maybe some parts of their face or even head is only showing. This shows goes to show that these girls are engaging with certain computer technologies where they are learning and developing new skills. They are further developing certain talents and pushing forward their hobbies such as photography. For example, the 18-year-old Fadia, got someone else to take a picture of the back of her head while she was doing a creative project for her class that shows her interest in photography.

    The issue of privacy and safety are very important as this new type of networking has many implications. This is one reason as to why parents of these girls and many others have set rules when using these sites. They do not want their daughters to be victims of cyber bullying or even having their profiles be misused by strangers. In the beginning of July, an American gay couple’s engagement picture was misused and that too for a political ad campaign against a senate. Check out the video below which shows the image, which was used against the same-sex marriage issue.


  2. I think Mundeep’s post is very interesting because it is trying to answer the question whether use of technology by women in Middle East is proving agency to them or women are restricted to express themselves on the social networking sites. As mentioned above, most of time girls in the Middle east are restricted to express themselves or post images of themselves on the networking sites because it is against the cultural norms and dignity of the family. At the same, time specifically on Facebook, since the privacy settings can be controlled and people can be restricted from the profile. I have seen Muslims girls [in Canada] recently, having two Facebook accounts. One account is maintained in a way how their family want it to be and another account is a medium to project themselves how they want to express themselves. I know few girls who are forced to wear Hijab or are just wearing Hijab for the dignity of the family, they express themselves on Facebook with a fake account name but with real pictures of themselves. They post pictures up in the party clothes, with their boyfriends. This shows that Facebook is providing them agency to express themselves in the way they want to be. At the same time, they have to be really cautious with their privacy settings.
    I think blogging websites are also providing agency to the Muslims girls. As mentioned above, pictures are not the only way to express themselves on the networking sites. Many of the Muslim girls are running successful blog sites to express themselves. In the “participatory culture” of blogosphere Muslim women are not only participating in the blogs by creating or commenting on the blog posts but they are participating in the blogs as consumers. As a consumers, they are gaining knowledge by readings the blog posts by others.
    So, in the end it can be concluded that technology has both pros and cons. It depends how someone is using it. Facebook has both positive and negative implications. With the use of technology women who feel suppressed in their cultures or are unable to express themselves , has used technology in a expressive way and Facebook, twitter and blogging sites are providing agencies to these women in order to empower them.

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