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Digital storytelling and women

ince 2004, social media has grown to become a determining factor in the reporting of any story we come across. Without it, one wonders what might have happened over the last 16 months in the MENA region, or if the Arab Spring would have occurred at all.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, Reddit, Digg – social media is what brings many of us together. And despite the sweeping changes taking place in the Middle East, one thing remains the same: there are not as many women using social media tools as men.

In December 2011, the Arab Social Media Report released by the Dubai School of Government (DSG) showed that there is an increasing use of social media by women in the region. However, Arab female users were still outnumbered by their male counterparts with a ratio of 2:1, compared to 54 percent of women using social media tools globally. 

It seems obvious, therefore, that workshops should be created to familiarize women with social media tools. Working with Lebanese civic initiative Hayya Bina, Lebanese enterprise Social Media Exchange (SMEx) has created a social media training program specifically designed for women.

“Shou Osstik?,” or “What’s your story?” in Arabic, is a six-month course that aims to educate women in digital storytelling and social media. Project coordinator Malak Zungi told NOW Extra that “we want to empower women by giving them a tool for their messages and ideas.”

Lebanese blogger Beirut Drive-by explained that “social media interaction is, in simple terms, word of mouth on a digital scale… Taking care of our resources, highway safety, the environment, dealing with the Lebanese government and blood donation are a few of the issues that one would see over and over again on the Lebanese blogosphere.”

The prolific blogger went on to say that it is because of social media, where cell phones have failed, that a digital coalition has been made possible.  Indeed, as the DSG report cited, “Lebanon is the most gender-balanced of the Arab countries,” but that is only for Facebook.

SMEx is hoping to introduce women to other social media tools to bring about desired change. Launching the “Shou Osstik?” course last week, workshops were held in Tripoli, Bekka, Tyre and Beirut to target women who are willing to take up the social media cause. “For me, personally,” said Zungi, “women are not given the chance to say what they want or the tools [to say them].”

Creator of SMEx Mohamad Najem concurred, saying there are a lot of issues women have to deal with in Lebanon. “There are a lot of movements in the last two or three years that show women are trying to be seen as [more than just] housewives [and] we want to remove this stereotype.” Lebanese anti-harassment campaigns, such as Adventures of Salwa and Kherr Berr are perfect examples of this.

Basic knowledge of and some experience with using the Internet are a must for women wanting to take the SMEx workshops. At the Beirut gathering, 12 women met, waiting eagerly to learn how to get their message online. “Everyone is like ‘ooh, it’s the new trendy thing’,” said Esraa Haidar, the workshop trainer in Badaro at the SMEx offices.

Present during the selection process of prospective attendees, Haidar became acquainted with why each woman wanted to take the workshop. “A lot of them want to be able to share [their] story but they just don’t know how,” said Haidar. “There were stories of change. One interviewee talked of how through her work, she and others had managed to change a certain culture in the community. We can’t wait to see this online.”

The women taking the class are a real mix. Elham Banna is a 60-year-old retired teacher. “I like to improve myself in any possible way. I use Facebook, but I wanted to learn about blogs and Twitter.” According to Haidar, as per the course requirements, all the women are active online “but really only for social activities, like posting photos on Facebook.”

For SMEx, this is a mentality they’d like to see shift. “I have a project my friends and I are working on,” said American University of Beirut student Rana Yassin. “It’s about spreading reading awareness and social media is of course something that will help.”

“If you look at the history of the last 2,000 years,” explained Najem, “there was always some communication tool used to help a revolution [take place]. I think change is going to happen but [social media] speeds it up.” Let’s hope he’s right. 

To learn more about the Social Media Exchange workshops, please visit their website here.