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Feminist cyber activism on the Nile

January 17, 2023
topic:Women's rights
tags:#Egypt, #feminism, #social media, #podcast, #women's rights
by:Frank Odenthal
Podcasting as a way of fighting for women‘s rights is on the rise in Egypt.

There is no universal way to challenge or end the patriarchy, especially since new channels of mass communication have become broadly available.

Kim Fox and Yasmeen Ebada, both researchers at the American University in Cairo, conducted a study about Egyptian feminists spreading their stories through podcasts. FairPlanet had a word with them.

How many podcasts are there in Egypt?

Kim Fox: We don‘t know. Everybody is publishing nowadays on different platforms, so it‘s really difficult to track. And in Egypt we would have to track them in English and Arabic. It‘s really hard to keep up with.

Is it dangerous for women to produce podcasts about feminist topics in Egypt? Is there any censorship?

Kim Fox: We actually don‘t like to talk about that because we don‘t want the government to get any ideas that they should be censoring. I think for the most part with podcasts we‘re not finding a lot of censorship globally. Transcripts of podcasts make them more accessible, like for people who can‘t hear, but they make it also more accessible for authorities. It‘s a fine line as a podcast creator.

Social media at the forefront of cyber activism 

What does cyber activism look like in today‘s Egypt?

Kim Fox: I think social media platforms are much more a centre piece of cyber activism than podcasts.

Yasmeen Ebada: When we look back at the Arab spring in the beginning of 2011, and you see that strong sense of cyber activism as the power of social media, and that is very different from podcasting.

Podcasting was introduced in Egypt a few years ago, whereas social media was introduced way back. And that‘s also a reason. Social media in Egypt is more established than podcasts. 

Kim Fox: Initially, cyber activism came in the form of blogs, and then social media picked up on it as well. I would put that at the forefront of cyber activity in Egypt.

In terms of podcasts, it‘s still too young and gaining its presence and its footing in Egypt to be something that‘s more dominant than those other platforms.

In July 2020, a 22-year-old Egyptian woman named Nadeen Ashraf exposed a sexual predator on Instagram. Her account called Assault Police was seen as an accelerator for the egyptian #MeToo movement. Even the New York Times had the story covered. Is Nadeen Ashraf a role model for cyber activists in Egypt?

Yasmeen Ebada: Absolutely! She used Instagram as her main platform for exposing a sexual predator. She was anonymous under the account of Assault
Police for a period of time before exposing herself as Nadeen Ashra. And it created that huge spark not just in Egypt but in the whole Middle East. 

Kim Fox: It was nice to see how Nadeen used that platform, because I recall Nadeen knew some of the victims and was trying to understand and find some support for them. And she really felt like she didn‘t have anything to contribute to help them. But she said: I know how to use social media. So she started to develop that platform and had some other friends helping to spread that story. And as a result, she surely is a role model.

I know a lot of my students look up to her. I think Nadeen was a senior at college when this happened. So incoming freshmen, but actually everyone, even people that are older than her, are looking to her for inspiration. It has been a game changer for us. I mean, that guy was convicted and is in jail.

A range of feminist identities

In 2022, you jointly published a study called Egyptian Female Podcasters: Shaping Feminist Identities. The purpose, as you point out in that paper, was to explore digital feminism as expressed through podcast production. It explores four young Egyptian women using podcasts as a tool to express their feminist identities in a Muslim-majority country with a long history of patriarchy. 

The four women featured in your study oppose the patriarchy, obviously. But religion, on the other hand, seems to play a minor role for them. Do Egyptian feminists not oppose religion as much as they do in other countries?

Yasmeen Ebada: That‘s a good question. What was really interesting was seeing how they all adopted a kind of feminism that works for them, something like a Muslim feminism or an Egyptian feminism that works for them. At least two of our podcasters that we‘ve been analysing adopted such a feminism that works for them in Egypt. It was Nazli Abaza who said that she calls herself a postcolonial feminist. She understands she can't walk around the streets of Cairo wearing shorts.

And then you have someone like Jeje Rajab, who took a completely different route, which I think was really interesting. She was our last podcaster that we interviewed. She [adopted] a completely individualised, Western feminism, abandoning any affiliations with a culturally-relevant feminism or an Egyptian feminism, like some of our other podcasters. And I‘m pretty sure she doesn‘t live in Egypt anymore. 

As you describe in your study, Nazli Abaza’s podcast deals with blind dating and arranged marriages in Egypt and focuses on a 28-year-old female relative who was pressured by other family members to find a husband while she was still in college.

Kim Fox: I had lunch with Nazli the other day. And she said that now she is the one who's 28 and single. But she also said that there is no pressure. In her family, they are not putting the pressure on the young women to get married right away and have families. So even though you have that religious component and you have that patriarchal component, it seems like there is a bit of a shift.

Is that an exception for the younger generation in Egypt? Or are these traditional structures being challenged broadly across the country?

Yasmeen Ebada: There definitely is a transition. I think there is more flexibility now. For me, for instance, I wouldn‘t mind being set up, in a sense. But it has to be on my terms. But as Kim said, it depends on the class structure. Families are starting to go in the opposite direction of not interfering at all. My parents are doing kind of the same thing, but I‘m kind of in the middle ground. I‘m not completely against it or completely in favour. It‘s like I have to find my own path as well.

Kim Fox: I think it is important to point out that there shouldn‘t be any generalisation. It should be seen on a case-by-case basis depending on a lot of variables. And again, class is going to be on the top of those variables, and religion as well.

My students at the university are all questioning this system. Why is there a curfew for me, when my brother who is roughly the same age doesn't have a curfew? And if you look at Kanzi's statement in our interview - she was studying abroad, and she said that they were up until four o'clock in the morning. But we were just hanging around with our friends, she said, 'we weren‘t in the streets doing anything loud and crazy.' And then she comes back home, and there is a ten o'clock curfew, and she asks what that is for. She'd already experienced freedom.

And her point was, they didn‘t abuse freedom. She said you need to trust me as a young person to make my decisions so that I won't embarrass the family.

A class-based issue

The four women you interviewed were all students of yours, though. So that's not an average view on Egyptian society.

Kim Fox: That‘s right. And I think it is a class-based issue. But as I said, it is important not to generalise. There are so many variables that come into play, and every case is different. 

Did one of the interviewees surprise you at some point with their responses?

Kim Fox: Well, all of them were my students, so I knew them pretty well before. Some of them didn‘t want to embrace the idea of calling themselves feminists. They didn't think they were feminists. 

Yasmeen Ebada:I thought what was really interesting was that Kanzy answered 'no' and Nazly answered 'somewhat' when asked about whether they intentionally picked a podcast topic that had a
feminist perspective. They just happened to pick a topic, and it happened to have a feminist perspective.

But we came to realise that through how they were brought up, and the family dynamics, and then practising feminism that led them to choose a topic that had a feminist perspective. Even though they said they didn‘t do it intentionally. 

Did these women get into any trouble with the authorities or community members after podcasting their stories?

Kim Fox: Some of the scripts are available, and mostly they are on Soundcloud and other platforms, so they are public. People have listened to them. But when I think about activism and cyber activism, the way they tell their stories is really settled. It‘s more inspiring. So even when I play these podcasts for my current students, the women react immediately. Like: 'I see myself in that story.' Like: 'She is me.' And Yasmeen knows it too: We see ourselves in their struggle. 

Yasmeen Ebada: Yes, I remember the first time I ever heard these podcasts when we were working on the study. And I remember listening to them and my first reaction was being furious, being enraged, but also feeling really powerful. Feeling like I want to get up and talk about it more. That was my instinct.

Kim Fox: When I play them in class, I play them as examples of what you can do as a podcast. But my students want to talk about the content. They want to have a conversation about what she is talking about. Things that she is experiencing, that we're experiencing.

Are there any male Egyptian podcasters talking about female issues?

Kim Fox: I may have had some in the past. It's really tricky on how men can tackle this topic. I remember one, and he called his podcast Catfishing in the Nile. It‘s about sexploitation and how women were blackmailed and exploited online. It's really, really good, and it even won some awards.

Kim Fox is a professor of Practice in Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

Yasmeen Ebada is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo, teaching mass media writing and online communication courses. 

Image by Ian Antonio Patterson.

Article written by:
Odenthal Frank_Autorenfoto
Frank Odenthal
Kim Fox.
© Ian Antonio Patterson
Kim Fox.
Yasmeen Ebada.
© Satrajit Ghosh Chowdhury
Yasmeen Ebada.
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