The Sultan’s harem in the technological era

A gloomy day. It is raining in the hot and dry desert of Jeddah, the Islamic capital of Saudi Arabia. For local people it is a perfect weather to celebrate, but not for her, princess Mishaal bint Fahd. She was blindfolded, forced to kneel in the public square where dozens of people are gathered to assist to her execution because she had tried to leave the country without her father’approval, with Khaled, her future husband.

On the explicit instructions of her grandfather Muhammad bin Abdulaziz , the 19-year-old princess was shot three times while severing Khaled’s head took six blows according to the testimony of a British worker who has accidentally witnessed that scene and secretly took some photos that appeared, a few weeks later, on the front page of a British tabloid, in 1978.

At that time, there was no internet, no social media, and so little was known about the repressive and oppressive practices of many governments’ and  countries’ rulers all over the world. Therefore, the development of mass media communication technologies, such as televisions, has offered, at that time, a glimpse of hope for civil rights activism. The international TV coverage of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo is just an example.

Today, since the advent of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), the Internet and social media, such horrific practices cannot be hidden anymore. Furthermore, Saudi women have been enjoying new rights. Indeed, since August 2018, women over the age of 21 are allowed, in the Saudi kingdom, to obtain passports without seeking the approval of their ” male guardians” and they have even been granted the right to drive.

It is a pity to know though, that the young Saudi-woman activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned against the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, via social media, is still imprisoned since May 2018. Being denied access to legal representation, Loujain, according to Amnesty International and the testimony of her sister to the symposium of human rights organisations in Geneva,  was beaten, water-boarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed, and threatened with rape and murder. And she is not alone, many other jailed women activists are still languishing in the kingdom’s prisons.


The inevitable question which comes to mind- considering the general theme of this blog: New Media, Activism and Development – is what are the challenges, role(s) and effects of the contemporary activism being embedded in digital tools and new/social media?

To proceed with this analysis we first have to fix some guiding parameters, such as the observed time period, which is the one between the Jasmine Revolution of 2011 and the time of this post’s publication;  the geographical area of our attention which contains the countries of the Arab region;  and bringing to focus women rights.

Women, Democracy and Arab societies

In Democratic Transitions in the Arab World, the editors, Ibrahim Elbadawi and Samir Makdisi (2017) examine specific economic, political and social conditions influencing the transition to democracy across the Arab region after the Arab uprisings of 2010–2011. They explain that the “democratic deficit”, prior to 2011, is due to a combination of oil wealth and conflicts that autocratic regimes took advantage of,  to keep their power immune from the threats of democratic directions. Meanwhile, the increasing pressure of fast economic and technological modernisations has generated increasing levels of inequality and declining levels of secure employment affecting, as first target, the youth population. The latter is, however,  the same generation of modern communication technologies and the Internet. Young people are better educated and informed and then more aware of their social rights. Their hunger for change has sparked the wave of an infinity of uprisings, placing often women in the front lines.

The question which arises naturally here is: is this democratic deficit a birth feature of the Arab-Muslim societies?

Bernard Lewis, exploring the decline of Islamic culture in his book What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (2002), argues that “ if we compare Islam at the time of its advent with the societies that surrounded it—the stratified feudalism of Iran and the caste system of India to the east, the privileged aristocracies of both Byzantine and Latin Europe to the west—the Islamic dispensation does indeed bring a message of equality”(p.82). He also confirms that “for most of the Middle Ages, it was neither the older cultures of the Orient nor the newer cultures of the West that were the major centers of civilization and progress, but the world of Islam in the middle.” (p.155).  In his analytical reflection,  he identifies freedom as a key reading: “the medieval Islamic world offered vastly more freedom than any of its predecessors, its contemporaries and most of its successors”.(p.156).

Besides, Habib Jenhani , one of the most respected historians and intellectuals,  reminds us in his book Civil society and democratic transformation in the Arab society (2005) that “people’s need for freedom is the same as its need of air, water, and food”.  The value of a nation, he notes,  depends on its elites and on its capacity to renovate and advance. In this dynamic,  he places knowledge as the key factor.

If we dig deeper into studying the nature of contemporary Arab regimes, according to Jenhani,  we find their relationships with the intellectual elites tense in all cases. The main reason, for such strained relation, consists in the suppression of freedoms, starting from the freedom of opinion, expression and publishing.  These regimes, he explains, instead of benefiting from the elite’s culture, rationality, and its familiarity with historical experiences, past and present, they often seek to neutralise it, both by subordination and intimidation. The last 50 years, Jenhani outlines,  are the worst: political powers have succeeded, by means of dumping and bestowal of privileges, in attracting a group of intellectuals whose main role has been to legitimise illegitimate authorities and justify bad and failed political mistakes.

Consequently, these elites which were supposed to be promoting forces towards a civil society, have contributed to marginalise the concept of civic activism in both theory and practice,  in the Arab societies.

Women liberties after the Arab spring

Back to the Arab uprisings, after nine years, we can easily observe, in spite of the youth’s  hunger of democracy,  different courses taken by these uprisings in different Arab countries.

According to the most recent Arab Democracy Index, published in 2017, the Arab world has lost 10 points compared to 2012 scoring 571 points out of 1000.

Among the main reasons behind the overall decline, explains Bassma Kodmani, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, “stubbornness of Arab rulers to reform and the inability of state institutions to ensure a democratic transition are the gravest challenges”.  “They – she adds- continue to believe that they can placate their people by simply enacting new laws and not applying them in practice.”

It is also well worth noting, as reported by Bassma,  that the overall decline in the Index was largely expected because of the shrinking or closure of the space for freedoms that opened to the Arab communities in 2011. However, according to the report, Tunisia has seen the greatest progress and Egypt the greatest decline, but still ahead of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

At this point, another imminent question arises: why are there differences in terms of uprisings outcomes?

Focusing on women’s participation in the Arab uprisings,  there is no shortage of strong iconic images:   she is a young woman dressed in jeans and a sweater, with short hair, who climbs on a rack and starts to harangue the crowd in Tunis, on January 8, 2011; she is an elderly lady talking to a soldier at a roadblock in central Beirut and sneering at him like she would do with her own children, in the early days of the October 2019 uprising; she is a girl beaten and stripped by the security forces in the streets of Cairo, on December 17, 2011, and whose blue bra becomes the symbol of violence against women; she is one of the mothers of thousands of prisoners who died in detention, who opened the series of street mobilisations in Libya, in 2011, standing in front of  the court of Benghazi with portraits of their sons; she is among thousands of Iraqi women who took to the streets, last February 13, to reject radical cleric’s calls for gender segregation chanting “Banatek ya watan” (Your daughters, oh country!).

There is no doubt that the Arab world is changing.  The role of women has undergone a certain evolution in recent years, but much more has to be done,  observes Nouha Belaid, Tunisian expert in media and communication. Among the factors that contribute to the achievement of more effective and solid women steps forward in their societies, or at least to avoid a decline, like what is happening in Egypt –  where the labor force participation of women is in a steady fall –  Belaid stresses on the very strong need for change that comes from civil society.

Moreover,  Elbadawi and Makdisi (2017), who have placed Tunisia on top of the list of Arab countries with major steps forward for democracy,  argue that this achievement is a result of two issues:  the choices made by the political elites,  and the strength of the social movements that were pushing for change in the country.

At this stage, a further question is mandatory: what defines the strengths of a social movement?

Following Blumer’s reflection ( 1969, p.99), social movements are ‘collective enterprises’ distinguished from other forms of collective action ‘such as panic or mass hysteria’ by what he calls ‘career’;  i.e., movements that follow a ‘temporal trajectory’ driven by change. Which explains, in the case of Tunisia,  women’s rights leadership, comparing with all Arab and Islamic countries. The much-vaunted women’s advantageous legal status is, indeed, the result of a long process that spread over a century.

Thinking about  Loujain al-Hathloul,   one of the charges against the young Saudi women is about  posting a video of herself with her face and hair uncovered. The same act though,  taking off the veil,  had marked the beginning of the history of women activism in Tunisia, a century ago. In January 1924,  the Tunisian young woman Manoubia Ouertani, attending a conference on feminism, suddenly rose advancing towards the tribune uncovering  her face and denouncing  the oppression suffered by women in her country.

More importantly, these movements of women’s liberation in Tunisia have trigged heated debates between the country’s intellectuals paving the way to reforms that have been taking place until nowadays. If  it were not for the remarkable and determinant contribution of Tunisian first  thinkers and reformers, on top of them the president Habib Bourghiba and Tahar Haddad, Tunisian women would probably share, today,  the fate of their Saudi sisters.

ICT for development between reality and virtuality

Following Amartya Sen’s understanding of development (1999) where freedoms of individuals is considered ‘ the basic building blocks’, his reflection  on  ‘constitutive and instrumental roles of freedoms’  provides us with additional instruments for analysis in order to better understand the role of ICT in the process of women’s liberation in the Arab societies.

He argues that the ‘constitutive’ role of freedom is related to the substantive freedoms and their importance in enriching human life. Substantive freedoms involve basic capabilities such as nutrition, sanitation and education and those associated with social interactions in all aspects. So that, development here ‘is seen as the process of expanding human freedoms’. Which is what the Arab youth has been protesting for and what has led and continue to lead women’s movements.

On the other hand, the ‘instrumental’ role, which sees development as a process of enlargement of human freedom, concerns “the way different kinds of rights, opportunities, and entitlements contribute to the expansion of human freedom”. Put differently,  the instrumental role is about the interrelation between each kind of freedom with each other which produces opportunities and instruments for mutual advancement not only at a society level but also for individuals. People’s capabilities represent here a central focus.

A person’s ‘capability’, according to Sen, is a kind of freedom that “refers to the alternative combinations of functionings that are feasible for her to achieve”.  The choice among these combinations implies an evaluation approach built on knowledge and principles which together form what he calls ‘informational bases’. This latter concept has solid roots in different approaches to ethic, welfare economics, and political philosophy.

At this point of analysis, we recall Richard Heeks’ definition of Knowledge to establish a direct connection between the instrumental role of freedoms and ICT.  He argues (2017) that knowledge is  “information that has been assimilated into a coherent framework of understandings (…) and can involve a person receiving information, processing it themselves, understanding it and fitting it into their existing base of knowledge”. In this  ‘revolution/society’, technology development and diffusion have a key role in enabling people both to access and produce knowledge. (Or also the contrary).

For instance, in Tunisia, Facebook was and is still a very effective mean to mobilise since it allows the quick spread of information – enabling people to access  knowledge – and becomes an alternative space for the construction of identities and the stimulation of new and different active  attitude- i.e., to produce knowledge.

This bring us to the question of whether this knowledge, to which women have access and produce,  is really decolonised from authoritarian and repressive powers? If the answer is yes, are Arab women really taking advantage of this knowledge to develop their capabilities to advance both individually and collectively in the same way they use knowledge to claim for their rights’ expansion?

Well,  reflecting on the above questions, the enthusiasm about these new technological and digital opportunities fades away as we observe growing ‘new realities of platform power and multifaceted political interference’(Denkus, 2019).

The same way ICT and the Internet have been helping social movements and activists against dictatorial regimes,  they provide help to authoritarian systems in their determined efforts to hold-on to power enabling them to decide about their people’s  knowledge in terms of access, quality and quantity (Aday, Farrell & Lynch, 2010).

In conclusion…

Nowadays, Arab women are fighting a double battle. One against internal and external powers who want to take advantage of the state of public agitation and disorder, in their countries,  to achieve their own objectives which are far distant from the common interests of citisens, and the other against male fundamentalists and fanatics who want to oppress women and reject their rights. Both of these battles are centered on the access to and the production of knowledge.

Arab women knew though, from ancient times, that knowledge is a synonym of women empowerment. Their eagerness for knowledge was equal to their passion for life.  Otherwise, Sheherazed, would neither have had the ability to tell fascinating and captivating tales attracting the attention of Sultan Shahraiar over One Thousand and One Nights,  nor the capability to postpone and re-negotiate her death sentence.



Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M. et al. (2010) Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.

Blumer, H. (1969) Collective behaviour, in A. McClung-Lee (ed.) Principles of Sociology. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble.

Denskus, T. (2019) Social media and peacebuilding (Links to an external site.), in: Romaniuk, S.N., Thapa, M. and Péter Marton. The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Global Security Studies. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

Elbadawi, I. and Makdisi, S. (2017) Democratic Transitions in the Arab World. Cambridge University Press

Heeks, R. (2017) Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). Abingdon: Routledge.

Jenhani, H. (2005) Civil society and democratic transformation in Arab society. Tunis

Sen A. (1999) Development as Freedom. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Lewis, B. (2002) What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. Orion; First Edition

Author: Nabila Zayati

Mediterranean Region is her home, journalism is her passion, and  strategic communications her profession.  Currently working for the leading Italian news agency ANSA, Nabila has been dedicating her professional career to develop and manage media and communication projects in different countries for national and international companies and organisations in the Euro-Arab Region. Her huge passion for professional challenges, in order to meet ever-changing global development goals, is her motivation's engine to study for the master Communication for Development (ComDev) at Malmö University . Nabila holds a bachelor degree in Information and Communication sciences, a Master in International Relations, an MBA degree,  and a training diploma from Al-Jazeera Media Center.  She is also a member of the National Order of journalists in Italy.

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