The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us all to enter a new normal; a new way of life that is pushing us to change the way we work, create and understand the world. Creativity, resilience and exploration of new methods is now necessary to be able to navigate through the crisis.
In the world of civil society and community-led initiatives, reaching out to others and empowering them often meant being in a room full of a hundred other people. Workshops, events, trainings and all other related activities came to a halt for all civil society organizations in Egypt, particularly the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights.
Yet there is still room for more impact. Communication has now become easily available; you can easily reach a million people in under one minute through one Facebook post. It is one of the most important yet often neglected tools when it comes to creating a wide impact in society.
To utilize this tool effectively, Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights focused on social media and Youtube to encourage physical distancing measures in parallel with discussing a variety of topics such as gender roles in the household, mental health, work and life balance, confidence, violence against women, and keeping a stable partner relationship.
Empowerment Through Indirect and Simple Narratives
While Egyptian television and media is known for its various programs directed to women, there haven’t been quite a program that focuses on feminist topics with an aim to raise societal awareness, as well as to simplify complex legal and gender knowledge.
“I believe that we have to first be able to reach [the minds and hearts] of the ordinary people, not merely speak to those with great knowledge or that are well read,” senior lawyer and gender consultant, Nehad Aboul Komsan, tells Egyptian Streets, “we have to find ways to transfer complex concepts on gender and women’s empowerment through a simple and indirect narrative that can be widely seen and understood by more women and men.”
Successfully reaching 7 million viewers on the Facebook page ‘Hekayat Nehad‘ in a month, the videos’ content are manufactured in a way that transfers messages on women’s empowerment indirectly to the viewers so as to allow them to absorb it gradually. For instance, the first video titled, “Free Time/Leisure Is Also Good,” discusses, through a conversational method, the importance of reducing the burden on women in the household and encouraging more cooperation from family members. As Aboul Komsan reflects on the new normal of staying at home due to the coronavirus, she is also addressing her followers on ways to appreciate and create solitary moments for themselves.
In this way, it is an attempt to change gender roles through bringing new understandings of lifestyles. Rather than ‘lecturing’, she is using conversational and informal ways of communication to be able to directly connect with her followers.
In other videos, such as “How Can Staying At Home With Family Not Turn Into A World War,” she addresses family conflict and domestic violence by providing ways on how to reduce the tensions and risks that can lead to violence. Once again, she emphasizes on the ‘conversational’ method, which reflects her understanding very well on the fast-changing pace of communication and how technology is in fact making it a much more personal and intimate experience. In one comment, for instance, the viewer expressed that “it feels like you are talking right beside us,” revealing the level of intimacy that technology is now creating.
The topics also cover building the woman’s personality, and confronting the countless stereotypes and ideas in society that shrink her or make her feel insecure, whether it is through her tone of voice, body image, or her expressions of anger, such as ‘Your Hormones Are Not A Problem‘.
“A lot of people think at first that they are merely for entertainment, but all of my content is directed towards women’s empowerment if they are carefully viewed and analyzed. It is transferring the message indirectly, and behind each video is a lot of research and effort,” Aboul Komsan says.
The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, represented by Nehad Aboul Komsan, has been working and advocating for women’s rights for nearly 24 years since 1996. They organized countless projects dedicated to improving the status of women in Egypt, namely sexual harassment through the UNFPA’s “Safe Streets for All: Campaign against Sexual Harassment”, which was the first campaign to tackle sexual harassment in Egypt, and raising women’s political voices through UN Women’s “A wave of women’s voices.”
Today, efforts in advocacy are starting to take new shapes. On top of the short videos shared on social media and Youtube, as well as legal consultations provided through the hotline and ‘Ask Your Online Lawyer’ website, the center shared a series of online training episodes on Youtube for capacity-building, particularly in regards to participation in local councils as well as civil society. They include a series of six lectures on a variety of topics, including the concept of gender and its role in development, the importance of involving women in decision-making, and ways to communicate with elected local council members.
Shaping an Internet for Women’s Empowerment?
It is important to note that there are still many challenges in shaping an internet directed towards women’s empowerment.
First and foremost, marginalized communities, particularly women, lack access and skills to digital tools. Though the numbers increase everyday, as of March 2019 there were over 35 million Facebook users in Egypt, representing 34% of the entire population. However, women only constituted 35.7% of that total, while men constituted 64.3%, which can hinder women from accessing vital online and job opportunities and further widen the gender gap in society.
Secondly, many women are still targets of online sexual harassment and trafficking. Women can still be sexually exploited or sold through live videos or sex chats, which can be recorded and shared online as pornography.
According to the Protection Project study, 49% of sexually exploited women in nine countries reported their abuse being used as pornography and was distributed through commercial pornography websites.
In a new report released by India Child Protection Fund, it was found that pornography is beginning to rise during India’s COVID-19 lockdown. Increased internet usage during this time means higher chances of exploitation by sex traffickers online.
Efforts are needed to ensure that justice and messages of empowerment are being shared online. While social media posts such as empowering campaigns and videos are increasingly becoming relevant in shaping the internet towards a more equal and safer society, governments need to implement stronger deterrence and surveillance measures in regards to harmful content.
“This is a beast we are not ready to face,” says Nobel Peace Laureate Mr. Kailash Satyarthi, founder of Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation.