As a college sophomore and member of technology-educated Generation Y, I tend to believe myself worthy of the title “tech-savvy.” I imagine, in true millennial style, that I have a pretty strong grasp on media technologies and their potential. But Ousseina Alidou‘s conversation on Muslim Women, Activism, and the New Media in Kenya on November 14, brought me down a notch. I understood the ways in which our (American or Western) thoughts could use social media to reach and aide activists on a global scale, but I had spent much less thought on the ways in which social media could not only provide a pre-made discourse for global voices, but also allow them to construct their own.
In her lecture and conversation on the topic, Dr. Alidou introduced the role of social media in the development of an alternative modern discourse for the self-representation of Muslim women within both secular and Islamic spheres.
Of course, social media facilitates discourse. That’s what it was created for, after all. We needn’t look very far to see social media’s organizing potential. Only look back to the eruption of the Arab Spring revolutions, and the demonstrations and protests organized through Tweets and Facebook posts. Or heck, how many events were you invited to today on Facebook? On small and large scales, social media provides powerful tools to be reckoned with.
Alidou explained that Muslim women tend to bear the brunt of the generally negative imagery of sub-Saharan Africa. You know the stereotype – the “oppressed Muslim woman,” reduced to only her religion and her sex. Alidou described how African Muslim women can undo this stereotyping by producing an alternative self-representation in various domains, creating “an alternative vision of their reality” that articulates their own stand on their status within their religious and secular communities.
Social media and other media technologies provide Muslim women of that silenced part of Africa, the sub-Saharan region, a voice that may speak louder than the existing victimizing and state-controlled discourses. Rather than executing humanitarian activism from within a defined “legitimate” — and often limiting — mold, Muslim women can forge their own activism.
Alidou cited the proliferation of private media, like broadcasting radio and television stations and magazines, as sites of interplay between democratization, media, and gender. These developments are significant as they offer increasingly educated Muslim women the opportunity to become active modern agents as media producers and social influencers. They are able to use media to challenge stereotypes about their lack of agency: Media becomes the ultimate outlet for rights discourse. Alidou explained that they may use media to expose their grievances and reclaim their rights. Alidou introduced us to blogs, magazines, and websites Kenyan women read and produced, notably theislamawareness.blogpost and the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) website. It was amazing to me that formerly local initiatives, like WISE, had become active in a global and international movement of solidarity with the development of new medias.
Alidou also discussed the ways in which these new discourses can open pathways to peace-building among and between Muslim communities. As she phrased the question: “What is it to be a Muslim from a different perspective?”
In a moment of the discussion I found particularly moving, Alidou showed us a video clip of Kenyan Muslim activist Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, who sadly died in a car accident just last year. Abdi is known for co-founding the Wajir Peace Committee, and received the Right Livelihood Award.
“The participation in a peace process is not about the mathematics of numbers and percentages in relation to who is in majority or minority. It is about plurality, diversity, participation and ownership of all affected by the conflict” – Dekha Ibraham Abdi
Dr. Alidou ended her discussion with inspiring comments on the importance of diversity in peacemaking and local, national, and international activism: “We need to use difference in a positive way, and address shortcomings in our own framework and look elsewhere for solutions.” Alidou stressed the New Media Culture need not only be another form of expression, but a tool for reaching out, for supporting international causes, and – perhaps above all – for activism.
An earlier version of this post appeared at the Barnard Center for Research on Women's blog.