One of the most noted aspects of the Internet is its anonymity: by and large, people online will treat you as whoever you say you are. In the West, this is often used for mischief or identity play, but in other parts of the world anonymity can have a much more significant and liberating effect.
Perhaps the area most affected in this way is the Middle East. Although this region has been slow to build a digital infrastructure -- the Arabic version of Wikipedia has only 65,000 articles, fewer than the Slovenian version -- people in the Middle East still find ways to get online.
This is particularly true for young people, who, like their peers in the rest of the world, outpace their elders in matters digital. For instance, Iran, where more than half of the population is under 25, has the third-largest number of bloggers in the world (after the United States and China). Under the shadow of a repressive regime, despite the government's attempts to ban high-speed Internet access, blogs and other forms of online communication have become an important source of dissent. This issue is explored in a striking animated film created by students at the Vancouver Film School:
In Egypt, which has a similar proportion of young people, the flashpoint has been Facebook: not because it lets people socialize, but because it helps them organize. In the spring of last year a protest arose against rising food prices. The focus of the protest was a Facebook page that at its peak had 75,000 members. The government cracked down on the protests, arresting one of its organizers, Israa Abdel Fateh, and contemplated banning Facebook (a "Free Israa" group quickly appeared, which gained tens of thousands of members). Of course, many Egyptians use Facebook for socializing as well. For citizens in these countries, for whom both physical travel abroad and access to foreign media is often restricted, the borderless nature of the Internet is its most appealing feature. As Cairo medical student Ahmad Belal told the New York Times, “For Egyptians, the visa procedures for any country are very difficult. You need a visa to visit any country in the world. Facebook and Wikipedia connect us to the outside.”
The Middle Eastern group with the most circumscribed existence, of course, is women. For many, the Internet has opened up an entire world they would not otherwise have access to. Young Bedouin women in Israel, for instance, manage (despite not being connected to an electrical grid) to use Instant Messaging (IM) to socialize with each other and to talk to boys, something that would be entirely forbidden otherwise. The Bedouin are an extremely isolated group -- separated from the mainstream of Israeli society by religion, separated from other Arab Israelis by customs and geography -- and the isolation of their women is even greater. As in many insular communities, reputation is everything; so for women -- particularly young women -- the anonymity offered by the Internet allows them a freedom they would not know otherwise. As Adnan Gharabiya, a Bedouin who studied this phenomenon as part of his thesis, puts it, “In Bedouin society there is rather strict separation of the sexes, and a chat room is the only place where they can talk with members of the opposite sex. It is especially significant for the girls, because their social circle is even smaller, and their freedom of movement is limited. Not all of them can leave their parents' community. Unlike the boys, girls are not allowed to go to town after classes, or to visit friends. In this respect, technology is very important.” It also serves as a source of information that would otherwise be unobtainable: “Among the family, it is not common to discuss all subjects, primarily when the children are adolescents. In a chat room, you can discuss everything, if you find someone who is receptive.”
Saudi Arabia -- sophisticated, developed and modernized, thanks to oil revenues -- may seem like the utter opposite to the Bedouin communities, but there too young people are using the Internet and other new media to break through traditional barriers. Saudi girls are at least as isolated as those among the Bedouin, although in Saudi Arabia a parallel economy of women-only malls, gyms and boutiques has arisen. For many Saudi girls even the freedom found by Bedouin women online in unimaginable: men may be permissible as Facebook friends, but chatting online is considered as forbidden as speaking face-to-face. Instead, the breakthrough technology here is the cell phone: a popular courting ritual is called "numbering," in which a group of men who spot a car they think has women in it try to drive to within Bluetooth range and transmit their phone numbers. According to the New York Times, many young Saudi men keep love poems loaded on their cell phones to be sent as text messages to any women they may see, a practice which neatly encapsulates the way the country combines the millennial and the medieval. As with the troubadours of the Middle Ages, though, these are flirtations and nothing more: beamed cell numbers and text messages rarely lead to voice conversations, and most marriages still come about by parental arrangement.
As noted above, in many Middle Eastern countries young people make up a plurality or majority of the population. While many of them are not interested in opposing their parents' values, nearly all have enthusiastically adopted new media technologies. Many writers have argued that these technologies promote openness and free expression by their very natures; as the wired generation takes its place in leading these countries, we may have a chance to see if these claims will be borne out.
- The video "Iran: Nation of Bloggers" suggests that blogs are "the true voice of the new generation." According to the video, what makes blogs appealing to young people as a means of self-expression? Do you think bloggers will be able to have an effect on their society through blogging? Why or why not?
- The New York Times suggests that one reason the Egyptian government cracked down so hard on the Facebook protest was because it was unexpected, the government having little knowledge and experience with the online world. Do you think the "digital divide" between generations is likely to cause more conflict in Middle Eastern countries? Why or why not? If so, in what ways might this conflict play out?
- How is the Internet and other new media changing the experiences of young women in Middle Eastern countries? Do you think this will lead to significant changes in the lives of young women, or will the changes only be on the surface? Why or why not?
- Global Voices is a site that excerpts and links to blogs from around the world. It's searchable by region or topic and is an invaluable guide to the effects of the Internet and other new media on the developing world.
- Digital Natives collects the experiences of young people online around the world. Their article "Unveiling the veil -- on the Web" looks at the some of the issues facing young Muslim women online.