Post-Revolution, Many Egyptians Seek Online Communities
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Social media played a big role in the Arab Spring. Protesters used those sites to share ideas, organize and then mobilize. Five years later, social media continues to provide a safe space for conversations that otherwise might not happen openly. There's one called Confessions of a Married Woman. It's an invitation-only Facebook group that's just for women, as you might guess. It's got about 50,000 members, and it's become a place where women can open up about topics that remain generally off limits. Twenty-eight-year-old Zeinab al-Ashry created the group.
ZEINAB AL-ASHRY: What made me start the group, I got married and I faced the regular problems that any newlywed couple face. But what hit me that the marriage - anything related to marriage is considered as a taboo here in Egypt or in the Middle East in general. The big number of issues that we get are, of course, of cheating husbands, sexual relations. The sexual education in the Middle East is, like, zero.
MARTIN: For more on these sites and their impact on Egyptian culture, we reached out to Sherine Hafez. She's a gender and sexuality studies professor at the University of California Riverside, and she is the author of "An Islam Of Her Own." She joins me now from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.
SHERINE HAFEZ: Thank you for inviting me. This is wonderful.
MARTIN: So we're talking today about this particular Facebook group called Confessions of a Married Woman that's really popular in Egypt right now. But there are other groups like this out there, too, right? I understand there's a group called Cairo Confessional. Can you tell me what that's about?
HAFEZ: OK, so this group was founded in March 2013, and the group is supposed to help people with issues of mental health. And, you know, they have, like, a whole staff of psychologists who are waiting in the sidelines, you know, just to step in and help people with their issues.
MARTIN: So obviously in that case, talking about people who have mental health problems and the Confessions of a Married Woman, these are situations where people are clearly feeling like they don't have another outlet. I mean, is that why these Facebook groups are becoming so popular as a safe space to talk about things that perhaps don't have a place in the public discourse in Egypt?
HAFEZ: Yeah, I think that this is a very accurate assessment of what these confessional websites are - I mean, Facebooks are about. Many of the people - young people in particular, and specifically after the revolution of 2011 - feel alienated from any sort of public participation. Whereas, you know, during the revolution, there were millions of people in Tahrir almost on a daily basis interacting together, talking about their issues in a public space - a safe public space, if I might add.
MARTIN: We should remind people Tahrir Square was the physical location, that big center square in Cairo, that attracted hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries, really, during the Arab Spring that unseated President Hosni Mubarak.
HAFEZ: Absolutely. So this was in 2011 and continued for years after. And I feel that these virtual spaces that are now, you know, appearing on Facebook and so on are sort of like a satellite of Tahrir in a way that, you know, provides people with the same kind of camaraderie, the same kind of support, mutual exchange of ideas, but also affords them the anonymity and the safety that they need because right now the government is really clamping down on civil liberties and putting a lot of political activists in jail.
MARTIN: What do you think the upshot of all of this is? I mean, what do people do with this kind of online community? I mean, do you think it stops at individual self-help or is the use of these Facebook pages, is it in some way fomenting a larger kind of cultural or social change in Egypt?
HAFEZ: Look, you know, most certainly anytime there is a collective endeavor, anytime there is collective action, there is also social change. And not only is this an expression of the need for certain kinds of services in the public sphere or certain kinds of safe spaces in the public sphere to express their opinion, but it's also a call for social change and for a future that is more interactive or more realistic in its way of dealing with social stigma and issues that are otherwise - you know, may be silenced or not given a voice in the public sphere.
MARTIN: Sherine Hafez is a professor at UC Riverside. She's also the author of a forthcoming book called "The Women Of The Midan: The Untold Stories Of Egypt's Revolutionaries." Sherine, thanks so much for talking with us.
HAFEZ: Rachel, this was a pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.