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What Does the Emergence of Arab Women Bloggers Mean For The Public Sphere?

December 13, 2012

The cover picture from the Middle Easter edition of Connected in Cairo features an Arab woman in a coffee shop using smart phone and laptop. What does the emergence of blogging as a new literary genre mean for the region?

The cover picture from the Middle Eastern edition of Connected in Cairo (AUC Press) features an Arab woman in a coffee shop using smart phone and laptop. What does the emergence of blogging as a new literary genre mean for the region?

[Article review by Monica Komer]

Cyberspace has blurred the line between public and private spaces. Since the late twentieth century virtual spaces have acted as a global medium for social interactions. The twenty-first century gave birth to a growing number of Arab bloggers, forcing the cyber world to play a large role in how scholars of the Middle East view the political and cultural issues of the region.

In the article, “Arab Women Bloggers: The Emergence of Literary Counterpublics,” Hoda Elsadda argues that cyberspace has welcomed the participation of Arab women. In turn, Arab women bloggers have created new literary spaces that are breaking down the conventional Arab literary establishment.

The article refers to “literary public spheres” as “circles, gatherings and groups” that communicate ideas and shape literary standards and traditions. Literary public spheres in the Middle East are changing, but this is not the first time.

Writers of the late nineteenth century met in literary salons, run by prominent figures and only open to a select few. Eventually, coffee houses, or qahwas, replaced literary salons. By the end of the twentieth century, new publishing houses had replaced coffee houses.

Private entrepreneurial publishers ran these publishing houses. Publishers varied ideologically, politically, and socially which encouraged a variety of publishing opportunities. Alongside these opportunities came a period of increasing internet access.  The blogosphere soon emerged as an entirely new public sphere with even greater opportunities.

Dar al-Shorouq, a private Egyptian publishing house, published a three-part collection of short stories in 2008. The stories, written by three female bloggers, demonstrate the opportunities given to Arab women through blogs and the rise of a new literary sphere.

The three literary blogs, from which the stories are drawn, are:

  1. Ayiza Atgawwiz [Wanna b bride], started in 2006 by Ghada ‘Abd al-‘Aal, humorously and satirically challenges the traditions of marriage in the Arab world. Her stories are about the difficulties of marriage in a society that “looks unfavorably on unmarried women…yet limits opportunities for men and women to meet.”
  2. Hawadit [Stories] is a blog written by Rihab Bassam. Her short stories are filled with her inner thoughts and multiple personas. Bassam’s blog may be her personal story, but it represents the day-to-day struggles of young intelligent women across the region.
  3. Ma’a nafsi [On my Own], written by Ghada Mohamed Mahmoud, is the third and final blog from which the stories were drawn. Her blog delves into questions of self-understanding and the search for happiness.

The publication of these stories enables readers, including those without internet access, to experience literature produced by female bloggers. The emergence of printed publications also acknowledge blogs as a new genre–but it is a genre that is not easily defined, as Elsadda explains:

They are forums for consciousness raising, social transformation and political mobilization. They are diaries, narratives of the self that are no longer locked up in drawers, but made available to an audience. They prove the intimate secrets of the self, which is on display, even if under a false name. They are also messages or letters sent out to an imagined virtual audience. In actual fact, literary blogs defy generic classification: they are invariably a mélange of diaries, memoirs, autobiographical stories, to-do lists, political manifestos, reflections, epistolary narratives, short stories, and novels.

[For a newspaper feature on the launching of the book at the Cairo Book Festival, see Al Asar, Marwa. 2008. Female bloggers invade Egypt’s literary scene. Daily News Egypt Feb. 14.  ]

Cyberspace provides anonymity, freedom, and accessibility. Rules and pressures governing physical spaces do not govern virtual spaces. These conditions “have a great potential for literary experimentation and the enabling of new voices,” writes Elsadda.

For Arab women, this potential means facing cultural taboos and for the Arab literary establishment it means the emergence of new literary public spheres.

[Monica Komer is a first year undergraduate double majoring in International Studies and Journalism. She is a participant in the First Year Research Experience program, through which she is helping me with a project on “New Media and Electronic Networks” which will produce a chapter for a forthcoming compilation book about anthropology in the Middle East].

References

Elsadda, Hoda. 2010. Arab Women Bloggers: The Emergence of Literary Counterpublics. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 3: 312-332.

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