The internet continues to provide a gateway for those in countries with limited freedom, such as Saudi Arabia. It offers an opportunity for all areas of society to express themselves: The oppressed have once again found a way, through virtual forums, to revive and disseminate their voices.
“The virtual world has broken down many psychological barriers to open the door to self-expression,” says journalist Sakina al-Mushaikhas. “This is why many females have used it as a means of showcasing their skills, discovering themselves and developing their personal capabilities – especially as opportunities in the real world can be limited or not available because they are hesitant and frightened of failure.”
Mushaikhas regards the virtual world as an ideal opportunity for women in Saudi Arabia to discover new horizons and play a role that can be absent in the real world – a world that has deprived many of their right to develop their intellectual and cultural capacities, since interaction with others is necessary in order for this to happen.
This is why Mushaikhas believes that making best use of the virtual world can fulfill the need for human interaction while improving assertiveness and self-confidence, with each woman having her own talents and skills that she can offer and develop to benefit both herself and society.
Overturning preconceived ideas
Online magazine Jahanamiya was launched last year with the aim of overturning preconceived ideas promulgated by certain Orientalists about women in the Middle East, and in Saudi Arabia in particular. It sees its role as providing women with the opportunity to establish pioneering projects online, bringing together the voices of women and allowing them to express their innovation and excellence.
Working with artists and graphic designers in the region, the quarterly – which is published in both English and Arabic – is aimed at rejecting and overturning the oversimplified portrait of Saudi women and their lives as depicted in Western media.
It was in the city of Jeddah, before a large gathering of young and mature women, that Saudi scholar Ahd Niazy launched Jahanamiya [bougainvillea in Arabic]. It is the first cultural and creative magazine written solely by Saudi writers.
In addition to editing the magazine, Niazy is also studying creative writing and interdisciplinary studies at Emory University, Atlanta. Her magazine aims to give people a better understanding of society from the perspective of Saudi women, as well as showing the diversity of customs and traditions in Saudi society.
Every new issue coincides with each of the four seasons and examines a different topic based around the contributors’ interests. These include pieces of literature, journalism, art, poetry and prose. Each issue also focuses on a topic of direct concern to Saudi women; two issues have been released to date.
The most recent edition, published earlier this year, was subtitled “Ismik” (“Your Name”), since Arabic names are almost sacred. According to Niazy, our names are the first thing we learn about ourselves and about others, and are also a central part of our lives and personalities, from which we cannot be separated.
In Saudi society, mentioning a woman’s name is sometimes seen as a social taboo and vehemently rejected. That’s why Jahanamiya wanted to know more about the relationship women have with their names, and how these names impact on various aspects of their lives and personalities.
The Jahanamiya team is currently inviting female contributors who are interested in writing about gender relations to submit their personal stories about the men in their lives, for an upcoming special issue.
The internet as an outlet
Saudi novelist Salma al-Moushi no longer sees the internet as a virtual medium. Instead, she regards it as real and an outlet – possibly the only one – for Saudi women who don’t have many opportunities to showcase their talents and skills.
“We now have women with their own social media forums and a broad audience, and who use their presence in the virtual world to enter the fields of advertising and marketing,” she says. “As for e-commerce, both younger and older women have used the virtual world to change their lives and create serious investment opportunities: on Instagram, for example – to the point that a real-world meeting took place recently called the Instagram Female Traders’ Forum.”
Moushi continues: “Yes, women have used the virtual world to present their ideas and to discuss crucial and societal issues. And so we see the writer, the citizen and the amateur all using the platform to announce what they do through Twitter and many other social networking forums.
“Given their many capabilities and talents, in this virtual world women have a valuable opportunity to actually be effective through their presence and the opportunities available,” she concludes.
This article first appeared in pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat.