When it comes to women’s rights and digital activism in the Middle East, there are many stories that have yet to be told. The sensitivity of these topics makes advocacy challenging. Nonetheless, one Lebanese NGO is working hard on changing that situation.
Founded in 2012 by a group of young women activists in Lebanon, Fe-Male is a non-profit, organisation with the aim to raise awareness on women’s rights through mass communication and social media. Their goal is to empower and eliminate the stereotyping and objectification of women and work towards policy change. We discussed with Alia Awada one of the co-founders of Fe-Male digital activism in the Middle East and how it is positively affecting women’s rights.
1. What are some of the biggest challenges for activists working on women's issues in the Middle East? Specifically, how is advocating for these causes different than say environmental or political causes?
Unlike other causes where you can immediately begin working on changing things, with women’s rights issues there are layers and layers of barriers that you have to overcome before actually tackling the real issue you want to address. This is especially true given that in so many different parts of the Middle East, women are not seen as citizens. Instead, they are viewed as objects that everyone wants to control. Hence most if not all of the issues pertaining to them are not regarded as a priority.
Moreover, funding is also another challenge that we have to constantly overcome because the causes that women’s rights organizations advocate for aren't given importance in Middle Eastern society.
2. How is digital advocacy changing the scene for women’s rights specifically in the Middle East?
We have been using digital tools for more than six years now. However, the way that we are using these tools has definitely changed over time. For starters, we are no longer using social media to simply raise awareness instead they have become a tool for us to both raise awareness and conduct campaigns at the same time. We have launched several successful campaigns exclusively online. Our most recent one was “Sell your products, not her body” campaign. This lasted several months and tackled the bias between women and men in the media and aimed at highlight how women are objectified in Lebanon and the Middle East through a series of caricature images and videos.
Another way digital advocacy has supported our efforts is through the power of connectivity. Today we can reach any politician, any policymaker with a tweet. This is something we never dreamed of before! And not only are you directly communicating with them, but also the public can see your conversation. This puts pressure on influencing figures to be more open and transparent about their position on a certain issue.
3. In an age of digital activism, do you feel that online campaigns are more likely to succeed and attract people than offline campaigns happening on the ground?
Today advocacy is no longer viewed as online versus offline, we need to look at the bigger picture and take into consideration several things:
- Who is our audience? What are their interests and priorities and how does my campaign affect these priorities? I might be advocating for women’s citizenship rights but a big part of my supporters are working or have household responsibilities that make it hard for them to participate in protests. Knowing this makes us reevaluate our campaign strategy to see what method will attract the most participants. It could be a combination of both on the ground or digital platform, but it doesn't mean that one of them is better than the other. It really comes down to knowing what works for our cause and our audience during this period of time.
- What am I trying to achieve? Am I looking to collect signatures for my petition? Or do I want politicians to increase the quota of women’s participation in politics? Having a clear vision of what we want to achieve makes it easier to utilize the different tools that we have. There is no point in collecting signatures if we do not physically share our petition with the policy makers. After all, a thousand likes on a post without action is meaningless.
This is why I think people shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that in today’s digital age all advocacy takes place online.
4. What are some of the challenges that accompany digital activism?
Advocating online creates a safe space for people to express their opinions and show their support, but digital security is always a concern. The speed of the digital world puts us off guard sometimes and it is not something that we were trained in or learned how to do in school. We must always learn as we go and sometimes that can be a challenge because a lot of people don’t really consider digital security as a “real” threat.
The abundance of digital tools for activists today is also a challenge and figuring out which ones really bring value to us can be a hassle.
5. What advice would you give those wanting to venture into the world of activism?
- You don't need to be called an activist to be a changemaker. Everyone should do what they can regardless of how small or big that may be.
- Equip yourself with the knowledge and qualities that allow you to work with and engage with others.
- Know what it is you're fighting for, understand your cause as it is viewed from different perspectives.
- Always be honest with yourself and your audience.
6. What are some of the tools/applications that activists in the Middle East rely on the most and what is one skill that you think activists should have in their pocket?
Believe it or not, WhatsApp is one of the most common tools for activism in the region. Knowing how to utilize your mobile phone as tool for activism is one of the easiest ways to amplify your message. Learning the basics of video editing is also extremely important because it can transform dull content into engaging material.
Interested in launching your own campaign? Check out Advocacy Assembly's free “Media outreach for human rights activists” course. All courses are available in Arabic, English and Farsi.