Dr. Hend T. Alsudairy is professor of English Literature and a member of the English department, Collage of Arts, Princess Norah University, and Assistant Dean of admission at Alfaisal University. She has published more than thirty-five articles in academic journals.
Dr. Alsudairy is also an expert in the field of Saudi Women history and empowerment, and her upcoming book is entitled, The Role of Social Media in Empowering Saudi Women’s Expression.
The study dives deep into the world of social media in Saudi Arabia and connects it with official print media, investigating the degree of Saudi women’s freedom of expression, as well as the consequences of this expression.
European Eye on Radicalization: In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in general, social media plays an incredible role in society. How would you describe this role?
Hend T. Alsudairy: It becomes an integral medium of expression, especially for those who have demands and cannot reach out for help. It is now a medium for most people, regardless of gender, to reach governmental entities and express their satisfaction or demands. It is also a major source of news, and a place for many who aspire to different things — fame, status, or anything else. It is a key vector of knowledge for young people above all.
EER: Are men and women different social media users?
HTA: I did not notice any obvious difference, but women seem to write their demands and point of views more clearly in some ways.
EER: Do the existing Saudi women on Twitter constitute a fair representation of the general female population in the Kingdom?
HTA: I believe so, yes. Women participate more than men in social media. And observers will notice the varied social and educational backgrounds of women.
EER: What are the major topics the Saudi females tweet about and interact with?
HTA: There is a common interest among most Saudi women in female issues. For example, “Alquamah” [providing care] is discussed at length, talking about logic, the reasons behind its existence, and this then moves to address whether women need it now. The issue of driving used to concern women a great deal. Saudi women are not limited to female issues in their interests, though.
EER: In your book, you describe the contemporary changes in demands, words, and tone on social media. Can you tell us more about this?
HTA: Before modern social media, the tone and diction within the internet forums were not governed by strict rules, although each forum has its regulations. The masked identity allowed participants to attack people who thought differently without getting into trouble. Harassment, threats, and hacking of accounts, as discussed in the book, became commonplace. On the other hand, in the hardcopy newspaper, the tone was mostly calm and the choice of words was careful, but there was limited freedom. The freedom offered by social media attracted female writers, who could strongly condemn custom or situations in the society they found unjust. I have also noticed, as the book shows in more detail, the disappearance of traditional phrases in women’s writings that aim at smoothing the argument like “just” or “actually”. It is noticeable worldwide that women journalists and writers are more likely to be targeted and face online hostility than men, so it was fair enough to give them two chapters.
EER: Are there Saudi women who still do not have access to the internet in some form? Do you know the numbers? What are the implications of this exclusion?
HTA: I guess there is a good number but I do not have exact figure. Of course, that has implications: online harassment and hateful speech is a significant problem, therefore many women hesitate to interact. Stalking is another problem, so these women choose to stay far away from that. Another important reason is the patriarchal authority that may stand as barrier between the woman and online interaction. The difference in infrastructure between rural and urban areas, and the uneven distribution of technology knowledge, also affect access.
EER: Two chapters of your book focus on female social media activists and writers respectively. What is behind this choice and what is their impact on society?
HTA: These writers or activists took upon themselves the burden of voicing the demand for many of the reforms that have now taken place, especially regarding women, and have been attacked and stigmatised. Their writings have reached a wide section of society and made a change by spreading awareness, notably suggesting a custom and differentiating it from religion. This is an extra mile they took that the mass of people did not. They helped uproot harmful concepts and unfair customs. Their influence is reflected in the number of their followers.
EER: Social media can be a tool for change and progress, but it is also notorious for fostering and spreading radicalization, and serving to recruit people to radical causes. How does women radicalization happen online and how should it be fought?
HTA: This is interesting question as it is the subject of my next book. It happens by using psychological influence and playing on the theme of religion to spread their agenda. But there are many questions: Who is behind this violent content? Whose role is to report it? What is the goal?
EER: What is the outlook for gender equality in the near future — are you optimistic?
HTA: I have always been optimistic and the advances over the last ten years shows why. Still, one is looking for more.