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One of the few vivid memories from my upbringing in Algeria was when I was in the first year of high school (i.e., about 14 years old) where I was approached by a former schoolmate with whom I had never spoken. As he asked to speak to me in private outside the school, he showed me an ID-sized picture of me that he had. Bursting with confidence, the guy told me: “I have this picture of you, what would you like me to do with it?”
He said it as if he was doing me a favour by giving me the option to preserve my honour and dignity and that of my family with his possession of that small piece of paper with my face on it. As I glanced at the photo, I recall adopting a strategy in a span of a few seconds to avoid any escalation that could have resulted out of this encounter. I scorned at him and said: “Do what you like with it?” and walked away.
I just had to prove to him that I did not care, as it meant nothing for him to have that piece of paper. I did not want him to even realise that he had the slightest opportunity to threaten me by telling my brothers, whom he knew, and who were to be the family members to watch over my honour and “good behaviour”. Otherwise, the big question would have been: HOW did he even get to have this photo of me and what was the “socially” forbidden relationship he had with me? Interestingly enough, I still wonder how he got hold of that picture!
As trivial as this possession of his may seem, its cultural bearing was significant at the time. Growing up in a small city in the southern west of Algeria, a woman’s exposure outside her family and friends’ circle was problematic. Women were then conditioned to preserve and protect the exposure of their bodies and beauty to strangers. Hence, pictures of women were much more than a piece of paper, but were precious because they showed a piece of themselves in a way, and they were to be careful about who had access to them.
Girls were not – and still are not – supposed to date before getting married. When a girl secretly dated a guy and he was close to her, it was not uncommon to share with him a photo of her as a souvenir to think of her when they are not together, as well as a symbol of trust that she placed in him by giving him a part of her – the socially contained body. It was somehow giving a piece of yourself that you were culturally not supposed to do.
Fast forward to a dozen years later when I opened an account on Instagram and started browsing YouTube. I came across social media content by Algerian female bloggers and “influencers” I had never imagined I would see. I was astonished to see that an Algerian woman who, a decade ago, had to be careful about who can possess her hard copy pictures, now does a tour of her bedroom and house while she live streams her make up routine in front of her camera. As superficial as it can seem, it is also a huge cultural shift for a woman belonging to a conservative society, from being a contained precious privacy to having the freedom to expose some of her most private things such as the bed she sleeps on with her husband.
I do not assert that this cultural change towards women’s emancipation is prevalent and widespread all over the country. Having been an early member of Facebook, I witnessed that Algerian women’s exposure on such platform was limited at first. A lot of women and girls, most probably from conservative parts of the country, still do not post their real pictures on social media, but rather have a picture of their favourite actors, a flower, or poetry as their profile pictures.
But what is amazing is how social media platforms – especially Instagram and YouTube – established a new value and place for these women who, in the past, have been contained and controlled by traditional conservative social norms. It has created a space for these women through which they can learn to enhance their beauties, broaden their lifestyle horizons and economically prosper by establishing their online businesses.
I still recall conversations from when I was young of the portrayal of women who participated in TV shows, commercials etc. – who, in other words, were exposed outside their social circle – as being members of families who did not care about their honour and dignity. Thus, I realise that the open presence and access Algerian women have on social media (which is now somehow socially acceptable) is an important societal transformation reflecting new realities within Algeria that my parents’ generation did not have.
It illustrates the effects of the economic restructuring and openness adopted in the country since the 1990s that gradually gave access to a multitude of choices in goods and services by giving the private sector ability to flourish. Through the lens of photo and video sharing, one can see the changes in the lifestyle of Algerian families of becoming open and accepting to see their female members part of the public space, as well as having little reluctance in sharing with and enjoying participation in the public space: something that was not very common a decade ago.
Women’s presence on social media, not only in Algeria, but also the rest of the Middle East, does not only speak to changes in local social norms, but also alters Arab representation in the Western World. Muslim and Arab women’s stereotypes in the West have long laid on the opposite extremes of the pole: veiled, oppressed and victims of patriarchy… or the objectified belly dancers/commercial pretty things that nurture men’s sexual fantasies and pleasures. Therefore Algerian and Arab women on social media need to be careful not to objectify themselves further.
I am not a huge fan of the obsession with beauty and consumerism that social media platforms put forward, but a recent event in June 2018 during the holy month of Ramadan nicely highlights this shift in social norms. The harassment of a young lady, who had gone for a run shortly before the prayer call to break the fast, by man who claimed that her “place belonged to the kitchen”, generated a wave of solidarity among women on social media. Consequently, a collective run in the aim of challenging those who want to decide where women belong was organised a few days after the event.