Analysis |

New Wave of Arab Feminism, Bolder and More Outspoken, Takes Hold Online

Women are taking their battle to the internet, creating private communities for victims of sexual assault and public advocacy campaigns, and entertaining content to raise awareness

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Women, wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, pass through a street in the Moroccan capital Rabat on June 10, 2020.
Women, wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, pass through a street in the Moroccan capital Rabat on June 10, 2020.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“I did not sell Ikram,” said the father of a 6-year-old who was raped last month in her poor village in southeastern Morocco’s Tata district. After it became known that the court had released the alleged rapist because Ikram’s family dropped their complaint in exchange for money from the suspect, a firestorm of public protest erupted throughout Morocco.

Accounts were opened on Facebook and Twitter with the headings “We are all Ikram,” “No to child rape” and “Justice for Ikram,” and thousands of people demanded of the government to put the perpetrator back behind bars, try him and legislate tougher laws to deter rape in general and specifically pedophilia.

According to the latest reports, the prosecution has acceded to these demands and the 40-year-old suspect is back in jail.

The incident shed light on a particular aspect of abuse of minors: cases in which parents do not file a complaint, either out of shame or because they don’t want to hurt the family of the criminal, who in a good many cases is a relative or neighbor.

It seems that the judicial system also prefers these “private arrangements” and accepts the concessions of the prosecution as if no crime had been committed, instead of applying laws that mete out severe punishment to rapists and sexual harassers.

Since the 2011 wave of protests and uprisings in the Arab world, public discourse has changed with regard to sexual harassment, rape and violence toward minors and women. Legislation in most of the Arab countries has undergone reform, and penalties have been significantly increased. However, this is still a far cry from justice.

There is new hope for victims who can make use of social media to overcome obstacles like fear of lodging an official complaint. While social media is no substitute for trial and punishment, it can serve as a channel for frustration and anger and can create support communities for victims.

Stories of abuse are spread across the web, sometimes even stating the names of the victims. Videos that explain to women how to tell and disseminate their stories are now an inseparable part of campaigns promoting women’s rights. Specific groups dealing with specific crimes are being established across the Arab world, such as the “Feminists of Libya” Facebook page where women and girls victims of sexual harassment and rape by family members can post their testimonies.

In one such post, a young woman describes her experience of being abused by her uncle at the age of 6. He repeatedly assaulted her before she dared tell her brothers and sisters. Their response, she said was: “They beat me until my nose bled. What could I do? I was a baby.”

According to the administrators of the page: “The girls of Libya are breaking their silence and speaking out about sexual harassment that takes place behind walls,” and their mission is publicizing these stories to put an end to the phenomenon, because otherwise these crimes will go unpunished.

A similar Facebook page in Morocco is called “Enazeda.” Its members, who are accepted only after the approval of all seven administrators, now number 35,762. There too, women tell terrible stories of assault by family members, employers, friends and strangers.

Every day more and more horrific stories are added about the suffering of women who have found no support from their families or law enforcement, which have themselves become part of the problem. As can be seen from women’s stories, even when they dare file a police complaint, they are met with insulting responses, disbelief and are sometimes even harassed by the police themselves.

The new web magazine Khateera, meaning “dangerous”, takes a different approach, using dramatic means and humor to break conventions and reeducate women about their rights. The magazine’s motto states that it is designed for women who “are too smart for the old rules” and are overcoming the dictates of society. Each edition of the magazine is devoted to a different subject, such as the invisibility of women in technology, the vulnerability of black women in Tunisia and why more women are victims of the coronavirus. The high point is a series of 10 videos (with English subtitles) in which a woman facilitator explains, using humor and sarcasm, the misinformation men have about women, and explores questions like why most medications are made for men and why human anatomy is taught using male dolls.

Such discourse, more daring and outspoken, may not spark the revolution that is needed, but has already redefined the new Arab feminist struggle.

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