Arab Women and Social Media

 The societal and political transformations taking place across the region played an instrumental role in challenging stereotypes about Arab women as oppressed and subservient. In particular, the leading role that women have played in orchestrating and participating in social movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen has cemented their position as equal partners to men in transforming the political landscapes in their countries. The most obvious acknowledgement of this leadership role was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to an Arab woman, Tawakkul Karman, a leading female Yemeni political activist. Whether Arab women’s civic and political engagement will be enhanced in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” remains to be seen.

Although social media has been a powerful tool throughout these popular movements, whether for mobilization or disseminating information, Arab women’s use of social media is low compared to men in the region, as well as in comparison with the global female social media usage average (for example women make up about half of Facebook users globally, while Arab women only make up a third of users in the region).
The role of social media in women’s empowerment in the Arab world has been highlighted repeatedly during 2011, but hardly any research has been conducted on the subject.  As a first step in studying Arab women’s use of social media and its potential for women’s empowerment and civic engagement, the Governance and Innovation Program (GIP), in collaboration with the Gender and Public Policy Program (GPPP) at the Dubai School of Government conducted a research project aiming to address the following questions: 
  1. Explaining the “Virtual” Gender Gap: What are the factors contributing to the low level of social media use among Arab women, as compared to men’s and to the global female average?
  2. Trends in Social Media Usage: Do Arab women perceive social media as useful to their needs? What are the usage trends?
  3. Social Media as a Tool for Women’s Empowerment: Can social media potentially increase women’s civic participation in the Arab world and contribute to their political and economic empowerment?
The online survey ran from mid August to mid October 2011, targeting men and women of all ages from all 22 Arab countries. We received 469 full responses, and 62% of these were from women. At the national level, we highlight three Arab countries—Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE—to illustrate similarities and variations between country responses. The typical respondent was aged between 15 and 40 years old, holding at least a bachelor’s degree (with 40% holding master’s degrees). The findings were analyzed at both a national and regional level, with an emphasis on gender variations in responses. Overall,no major gender differences in responses to our questions were found between participants at the regional level, and even when breaking the responses according to nationality, we only found slight variations between male and female responses.
In its first part, the survey explored and highlighted the gender gap in social media usage in the Arab world. Given the sizable difference in percentage of male and female users in the region (the latter constituting only a third of Facebook users, respondents were asked to identify the main barriers that they perceived were holding back Arab women from fully utilizing social media. The largest of these barriers was identified as the societal and cultural constraints placed on women in the Arab world.
To further benchmark women’s use of social media against men’s in the Arab world, the second section of the survey explored Arab men’s and women’s social media usage trends; these proved to be very similar, with networking, access to information and jobs, as well as activism ranking as top purposes for the use of social media among both men and women. Follow-up questions about how social media was used for activism provided a more in-depth exploration of how men and women used social media as a tool for political engagement.
Lastly, the survey delved into male and female respondents’ perceptions of how social media impacts Arab women, and its potential as a tool for women’s empowerment. Most felt that social media could, in fact, enhance women’s participation in the legal, political, economic, social and civic arenas, although there was some ambivalence as to whether the empowering effects of social media are limited in the absence of actual changes in gender equality legislation and rights on the ground.