Influencers, much like avatars seamlessly navigate within a hybrid universe while the rest of us clumsily stumble through. Influencers and particularly female ones have honed the art of transitioning their private lives, their opinions, lifestyles and their daily routines into monetized, glamorous public displays that are emulated, adored, and idolized by their followers and abhorred by their critics. Female influencers have successfully created a space for women in the ethereal, online realm, in efforts that should be applauded and protected.
Lockdowns which entailed the closures of schools, universities and wholesale migration of the workforce to operate online, meant dwelling in a parallel world where public and private spheres merged, but not always in harmony. Today, this ether remains and is endured by us all.
Everyone attempts to find suitable settings to allow us to successfully negotiate the hurdles presented by our collective presence inside the home while bringing the world into it. Most of us aren’t experts, unlike influencers. Consequently, sometimes adamant children interrupt interviews, online classes and conference calls.
A few weeks ago, I was trying to explain to my online class the importance of creating boundaries between parents and their children and how these boundaries were essential for teaching children the importance of respect, individuality and independence, when, naturally, my five-year-old son barged in screaming “Mummy, I’m starving!” Needless to say, the entire class burst into hysterical laughter as I was hopelessly trying to convince him to lower his voice and wait for lunch.
Unlike my unintended mishap, female influencers consciously decide to share elements of their private lives. The cost of opening a woman’s private life to the prying public has always been quite high. Females have more consistently suffered online abuse than their male counterparts, whether it’s in the form of nonconsensual material posted online or cyberbullying.
However, for some women, an online presence can cost them their lives, why?
I believe to answer this question we must look at the true meaning of an online presence and what social media platforms provide to its users. Social media allows people to connect, but never organically in a physical sense. It’s an economy of exchange, a battleground for ideas and for some, the elusive promise of finding love.
Social media platforms have effectively created virtual city-states. Based on the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s division of the polis, males belonged to the public realm while females belonged to the private realm. Accordingly, women in Ancient Greece weren’t considered citizens since their presence in the public sphere was a transient anomaly. Aristotle’s division of the city is manifest for some Muslims who are oblivious to the Greek origin of their belief, mistakenly thinking that it is based on Islam.
Conversely, in early Muslim societies, a woman’s presence in the public sphere was natural and largely undisputed. Khadeeja, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, was a businesswoman who traded with men. Aisha, the Prophet’s most beloved wife, led an army of men into battle after her husband’s death. The prophet’s wives, whom Muslim women are encouraged to emulate and embrace as role models had no qualms about mingling with men or going out in public.
Yet for some Muslim men today, a woman who engages with “foreign” men, unrelated to her, over social media is considered a sinner. A woman who posts videos of herself is a seductress. A woman who writes her opinions and posts them online should be silenced.
The erasure of femininity from the physical public space is something men can do. There are tactics and strategies that can prevent women and girls from entering a certain area, where they sense that there is hostility.
The tactics can range from catcalling to extreme sexual and physical violence. Nevertheless, it is far more difficult to erase femininity online. The prevalence of smartphones has made social media platforms accessible and women are now maximizing their opportunities to create their own poleis, where femininity dominates the public realm.
Accordingly, governments should articulate and consistently enforce legislative measures that criminalize all forms of sexist abuse. In Egypt, for example, the National Council for Women (NCW) has partnered with Facebook and Instagram to create the Women’s Safety Resources initiative which aims to uproot cyberbullying. Legal deterrents coupled with civil society initiatives can help nurture and sustain safety and empower women online and offline.
Let’s embrace the spaces women have virtually carved for themselves and create a better world for all: women and men.