Women and bloggers in the Cities of Salt

NCR The WebKeeping up the trend inaugurated by Time (magazine) with the nomination of “You” (the entire community of the Internet) as Time’s Person of the Year 2006, the January issue of the monthly M magazine of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad has published a particularly interesting series of articles related to the power of the Internet. One of them (Dictatorship Vs Free Web) is covering the problem of censorship, in China, Russia and The Middle East. I’ve only translated (from Dutch) the third article of this long press coverage, since it’s the only one underlining the growing role that (Arab) bloggers are playing in the democratic reform process in a region ruled by tyrants, social taboos and religious radicalism.

This article is written by Carolien Roelants, Middle East Editor of NRC Handelsblad.

Like all other regions, the Arab world is also submerged by bloggers. Many regimes react in the same way they do with any other defy: they declare the war. Meanwhile, four Arab regimes have been labeled as “enemies of the internet” by the independent international organization Reporters Without Borders (in a list of 131 countries): Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia.

Each country is developing its own oppressive mechanism against outspoken bloggers. Although, according to Reporters without Borders, Egypt is blocking numbers of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood websites, bloggers are relatively often arrested and detained for few months. The Saudi standard method consists of filtering the internet and blocking websites – according to the Saudi English language daily, Arab News, more than 45.000 have already been blocked. But the aim in the whole Arab world remains the same: like the old media, it is time to tighten its grip on the new media.

The majority of bloggers can do as they please: they still not exceed the level of the ordinary diary writers. And in general, the authorities are targeting websites who are producing pornography/erotica and dissent activists. But as long as there is no cyber-weapon-of-mass-destruction that can be used against them, bloggers still have the upper hand. Besides, the Weblog is a terrific invention for activist. He can criticize his regime, mobilize his fellow activists for the struggle and inform the whole world without a lot of effort. Much more efficient than the flyers that people had to do with so far.

And so, the Free Kareem campaign has been launched by The Arabist, a blog run by the Egyptian journalist Hossam al-Hamalawy, after he heard that his colleague, the Alexandrian blogger, Abdul Karim Nabil Sulaiman has been held for the second time in November on charges of defaming the president and incitement to hate Islam. “We’ll have to start the “free abdul karim” campaign one more time” have groaned earlier The Big Pharao (who, for security reasons, declined to be identified by his real name).

Abdul Karim (22), a Law student at the University of Alexandria, is struggling on his blog for political reform and women rights. He was arrested the year before after he has blogged about the involvement of Muslim fundamentalists in the sectarian attacks on the Coptic Christian churches in Alexandria. “More details are emerging about Abdel Kareem’s case that make me wanna puke,” said The Arabist. “According to HR-INFO, Kareem was expelled from Al-Azhar University, the so called most prestigious Sunni institution in the world (bla bla bla), for his ‘secular ideas’ And if that isn’t bad enough, the university itself reported him to the authorities. The religious academics have turned into police informers“. That is the tone on the Egyptian blogsphere.

The Egyptian blogsphere is relatively young compared with the Saudi one. The Saudi government techniques of filtering the web and blocking access to websites did not stop Saudis from expressing their outpourings on the Internet: according to some estimates, last year the number of bloggers has grown from one hundred reaching an estimated 2.000, roughly half of them are women.

But this is not a miracle. In the ultra-fundamentalist kingdom, women are segregated, they are educated in separate girls’ schools and universities, are not allowed to travel abroad without the company of a male relative, they need permission from their legal supervisor to start business, they are barred from driving cars or sipping a cappuccino in Starbucks. They are not allowed to get access to internet cafe. But starting a blog, they can do it by them-selves.

Due to religious taboos prevailing in their country and because of the peering eyes of the religious police, Saudi female bloggers are making frequently use of anonymity to write about their love life. However, because they were telling stories about their erotic fantasies, Saudi Eve and Mystique had their blogs blocked. That also appeared to be the case with Farahs Sowaleef who advertises her blog as ‘the everyday natterings of an exhausted, repressed, and bored “Saudi” Arabian chick’: her blog has ceased to exist.

In an interview with Global Voices, prominent Saudi political blogger Fouad al-Farhan, has confessed that the limitations on freedom of expression in his country lead him to start blogging: “The television stations are completely owned by the government. The newspapers are highly censored, and some of their chief editors have been in their positions for more than 30 years. This is why you find our media boring and primitive.” He also “thinks that blogging can help young Saudis to make the government hear their voice, and to let the world know that they share the same human values, and ambitions with them“.

Last year, Farhan and his companion Ahmed al-Omran, who blogs in English as the Saudi Jeans (www.saudijeans.blogspot.com), were busy to bring together like-minded Saudi bloggers in a new group called the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Bloggers, with an open membership, for both mal and female. “we lack the concept of “collective action” in our country, Omran wrote on his blog Saudi Jeans. “But I hope that blogging will help to change that. The social networking aspect of blogging can play a big role in building recognition of such concept, through groups of bloggers who work together in what can be called “online activism,” he added.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Bloggers was, in some ways, the liberal respond to the conservative The Official Community of the Saudi bloggers (OCSAB) which has been formed by Mohammed Al-Mossaed -aka Green Tea. Blogs that want to join OCSAB must adhere to some guidelines: like not to insult Islam nor to preach liberalism or secularism (in conservative circles these are code words for anti-Islamic and western immorality). “Well, I don’t think that being a liberal contradicts with being a Muslim,wrote Omran on his blog Saudi Jeans, “I’m a liberal, and I’m damn proud of it. In the same time, I try to be a devoted Muslim, and I don’t feel any contradictions between the two,” he said.

Yet, Rasheed Abou-Al-Samh, the Saudi blogger based in Jeddah and blogging at Rasheed’s World has pointed out that Farhan, Omran and their friends did not come yet to an agreement about their charter. Should they ban criticizing religion? And what should be done with blogs containing sexual topics? “I just hope they will be able to keep their membership open to the widest possible number of peoplehe said.

  • Cities of Salt (Modon al-Melh- مدن الملح) is the title of a novel (classic of modern Arabic literature) written by the Saudi Abdelrahman Munif (he died 2004). Published in 1984, the novel was banned in Saudi Arabia and in several other Arab countries. It describes the early years of oil exploration and the development of the petroleum industry and the unusual wealth in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.