IGMENA Hangout: Exploring Gender Internet Policy Gaps in the Mena Region  

The second IGMENA Google Hangout of 2016 addressed the topic of Exploring Gender Internet Policy Gaps in the Mena Region. The debate was moderated by Mr. Hamza Ben Mehrez, the Policy Analyst Lead at IGMENA. The participants in this debate were prominent women Internet governance leaders from across the MENA Region:
 
  • Ms. Oumaima Elsherif, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Promising voices foundation for human rights and participatory development, Egypt 
  • Ms. Nour El Nemr, Political Science Student at the British University, Egypt
  • Ms. Sarah Attafi, Law Research Student, Tunisia
  • Ms. Sana Ali, Internet Policy Specialist, BA, MSc. Internet Governance and Global Affairs, Pakistan
  • Ms. Azaz Elshami, Independent Consulate and Researcher, Sudan 
  • Ms. Enas Kanan, Internet Governance Researcher, BA, MSc. Computer Science, Jordan
 
Here is a summary of the points they addressed, from their own perspectives.
 
Ms. Oumaima Elsherif talked about gender gaps and Internet policy in Egypt:
 
At the beginning, I'd like to share some numbers about Internet use in Egypt. There are more than 48 million Egyptians using the Internet in their lives. Many of them are women. For example, Facebook is used by more than 27 million Egyptians, and there are 35% are women among them. This reflects that Egyptian women have the ability to use the Internet, but in reality there are some challenges that create gaps in use. Some of the areas preventing women from accessing the Internet include:
 
  1. Illiteracy: Still more than 30% of women in Egypt suffer from illiteracy. There is also digital illiteracy, even though Article 25 of the Egyptian Constitution states a commitment to eliminate illiteracy, including digital illiteracy, and there has been a related initiative launched by the Supreme Council of Universities called the “Digital Citizen Certificate.”
  2. Poverty: Female poverty is a huge challenge preventing women from using the Internet, especially the price of computers and Internet services.
  3. Discrimination: social customs and mores create gender-based discrimination. Because women are always busy with work, child care, and their home duties, most of women don’t have time to use the Internet or learn how to use it. Also, with the violations that women may be exposed to online, we are facing social and cultural barriers that prevent women of using the Internet.
  4. Geography: Few women in rural areas can access the Internet.
 
There is a very large gap in Internet use by gender, although it may have decreased relative to before the Revolution. But there are many other factors impacting this gap, including differences between rural and urban areas, with a lack of infrastructure in the rural areas. Another is the lack of awareness and incentives to learn about the Internet among women; the design of the websites; and language issues that all can prevent women from using the Internet.
 
I believe that gender equality hasn’t been fully achieved in all areas including Internet use. We need a lot of work in many sectors to reduce the Internet gender gap. First, there must be fundamental infrastructure improvements to enable women’s access, especially in rural areas. Then, we need digital literacy programs for women and motivation for them to learn how to use the Internet to improve their lives. Finally, the government must facilitate access to computers and Internet connections, by decreasing prices while still increasing the quality of the services.
 
At the same time, there is a need to enact legislation and adhere to international conventions, charters, and national laws to protect women online and reassure them that their personal information will be safe. The Egyptian Constitution states that the international charters that have been ratified by Egypt are part of the national law, so there is an obligation to respect and activate them. That means all human rights must be applied and respected online, but there are continuing violations by people and by the government, so we still need to respect the legal texts and promote the rule of law.
 

Ms. Nardine ‘Nour’ Alnemr continued to discuss the Internet gender gap in Egypt:
 
The Internet gender gap is not very sizable. In a UN report, 33% of men have access to the Internet in developing countries, compared to 29% of women. In Egypt, an Intel report shows that 32% of women have Internet access. Comparing the regional statistic and the socio-economic condition of the developing world, the statistics are not very alarming. However, these figures do not reflect the challenging reality of the diverse communities in Egypt in relation to Internet access. There are two phenomena that contribute to a latent Internet gender gap.
 
First, the socio-economic structural condition of poverty and illiteracy cripples a great number of women’s access to the Internet. For the basic Internet surfing function, a user must have a threshold of literacy that would enable them decipher their way into accessing the desired material. Moreover, over the years, the rural and less developed/marginalized communities of Egypt have been out of the centers of decision-making, resource allocation, and participation. The accumulation of this disadvantaging position needs to be changed in order to introduce the Internet as a participatory and empowering tool.
 
Second, a pre-existing social stigma prevents women from actively participating online. Most women in rural societies assume that “the Internet” is a creation that is unfit for their lifestyle (which is heavily infused with gender role constructions) or an evil that should be avoided. For the first case, there comes forth a phenomena of two contradicting variables. The phenomena is online groupings of women that get to debate and articulate ideas, experiences, and opinions on many controversial issues that are largely categorized as “taboo” offline. The two variables are active participants that engage in such discussions, taking advantage of online platforms, in contrast with self-censorship enforcing participants. The second type of participants aim at enforcing offline taboo discourse and ambitiously attempt to abort such discussions online. All in all, the common feature between the two participants is their age bracket which falls between 20-40 years. The older generation is not present due mainly to the challenge of illiteracy.
 
Lastly, women tend to use social platforms for economic activities more than men. Participation of women in economic activities is both as sellers or service providers and as buyers or customers. This trend, however, is more vivid in central regions (main cities) and diminishes when expanding out of their circles. There are prospects to aggregate the interests of online sellers and buyers into a grouping that can influence governance measures that formulate their rights and expectations with appropriate advocacy and awareness interventions.
 
 
Ms. Sana Ali brought the perspective of women’s Internet usage in Pakistan:
 
Analog (offline) complements to digital innovations will always be necessary to reap the full potential for women’s empowerment that is offered by the Internet. Social attitudes and economic barriers to access, which prevent women from contributing content to online spaces, and fear of public reprisal resulting in self-censorship are all critical issues that can only be dealt with through education and promotion of social change. At the same time, it is essential that national governments be pushed to update legal frameworks that leave women particularly vulnerable, with little option of judicial recourse. The contemporary policy and jurisdictional quagmire associated with online sexual harassment, revenge porn, and threats of physical harm are only exacerbated in cultural settings where women are vulnerable entities.
 
The other critical issue is that of physical access and infrastructure. Women, particularly women in rural areas, tend to have the greatest barriers to access due to low purchasing power, high illiteracy rates, and socially ingrained gender roles that prevent women’s access to and use of public spaces like Internet cafes and libraries. The government has to play a role in increasing competition and promoting low service costs, while also increasing awareness of Internet activities that are of benefit to women. Access to health information, mobile finance providers, legal advice, and government services would be highly beneficial to women in these countries, in order to enable them to become included in the economy and also become agents of positive social change in their families and communities.
 
Pakistan has a particularly high rate of mobile Internet uptake, versus fixed broadband connections. This has implications for the gender gap, since men, the typical breadwinners, are the more likely users of a mobile phone. Broadband connections to individual households, on the other hand, end up providing women in a household Internet access by default. These considerations should thus be weighed and accounted for when determining the costs and benefits of investing in certain development initiatives.
 
Further, concerns about data costs mean that most users accessing the Internet through mobile phones tend to stick with select apps or websites for all their needs. Facebook is the most visited website in the country, with 70% of accounts being made by male users. Many users report using Facebook as a source for news updates. What this demonstrates is how critical it is to assess the impact of general development goals on truly meaningful Internet access. There has to be a call for greater gender-disaggregated data collection, as well as qualitative assessment of development outcomes across the board.
 
Ultimately, the gender disparity on the Internet is a product of the analog society that it hosts. As a result, the problem of the gender gap can only be solved by a multi-pronged approach that tackles social attitudes, cultural obstacles, as well as economic barriers in the region.
 
 
Ms. Enas Kanan described the causes of the Internet gender gap in Jordan:
 
The gender gap in Internet services is particularly noticeable in Jordan, as in the majority of Arab countries. Statistics show that 75% of Jordanians use the Internet, and males are more likely to use the Internet than females. The size of the Internet gender gap in Jordan is still uncharted, because we don't have the necessary data.
 
Women in Jordan mainly face three types of barriers to online access: Many women simply do not know what the Internet is or how it might benefit their lives; others have never learned to use the Internet, especially in remote areas; and cultural norms and expectations keep women away from the Internet. But the power of these barriers varies across cities and intersects with a range of socioeconomic indicators, including income, education level, and employment. As a women user of the Internet today, I feel ambitious, confident, conversant in the Internet, and more competitive because the Internet has opened unprecedented opportunities for women and girls across countries.
 
A root cause of gender Internet gaps in Jordan is the lack of experts at the intersection of technology and gender. Technology policies are often created without knowledge of the challenges that women face, while gender policies are developed without consideration for how technology could be incorporated. We need to establish programs that support gender-specific needs, to raise awareness of women to be capable to use the Internet and overcome existing barriers. We should invest in local female ICT leaders to serve as role models, trainers, content creators, and supporters for women and girls in their communities, and bring women to the table as leaders and decision-makers to advocate for inclusion of gender-specific considerations in policies, products, and services.
 
 
Ms. Azaz Elshami discussed the experience of Sudanese women Internet users:
 
There are no confirmed numbers of how many Sudanese women are online, but I believe that numbers are not indicative of the genesis of the gender gap or of the quality of participation for women online. Do women and men have similar abilities to express themselves freely? The short answer is no. In this aspect, women’s participation online is governed by the same restrictions limiting their active participation in the public sphere offline. Since my experience in the Internet governance field is related to human rights and self-expression, in Sudan in particular, I will speak about prevalent restrictions women face in this regards. Sudanese society at large is obsessed with women’s honor, and any statements she makes or stands she takes are measured by social norms stemming from this mentality.
 
Politics is a man-only sphere and women’s participation is welcomed and celebrated, but only if she endorses the winning side and adheres to the image of the approved “Sudanese woman” that is coy, conforming, complaisant, and of course not confrontational. It is safe to say that women’s thoughts are sanctioned as much as her appearance in Sudan. Despite this mild encouragement for women to be politically active, female political activists are often on the receiving end of criticism from the government and the public alike for their mere involvement in politics. A female activist blogging on human rights atrocities will be judged based on her appearance and how she fits, or not, the image of a “proper” woman, who actually should not involve herself in politics in the first place. Tackling taboos can earn a woman merciless lashes as well. Recently, a female blogger shared her personal story about wearing hijab, and she received sour feedback that was more harassment: Some of her opponents stated that she deserves to be raped forever for daring to reflect on the validity of hijab. The legal environment is not receptive to protecting women against cyber-bullying.
 
There may be laws governing online interaction, but there is still no confidence that the judiciary will support women if they were to present a case, since the general sentiment is to oppose women’s public presence. The general notion is that a woman is rarely a victim. She brings upon herself any hardship, by stepping across “red lines” created by society, culture, and religion. In addition to the above, there are host of reasons why women are not expressing themselves fully online and practice self-censorship, sometimes knowingly, to avoid confrontation with society (or the regime if they were to voice opposition sentiments). One might argue that resorting to anonymity could be a solution to this dilemma. However, many women Internet users are digitally venerable and know little about digital security.
 
Away from political activism, there is a budding entrepreneurial spirit among Sudanese women using social media platforms. However, these efforts do not amount to match other experiences in our neighboring counties, due to the financial restrictions that result from financial sanctions against Sudan. Closed groups created to discuss intimate issues usually drift to reproduce the same restrictive narrative that limits women’s ability to express themselves. Changing how women express themselves online will start from changing the gender prospective offline, for online interaction manifests reality and cannot reflect an imaginary reality.
 
 
Ms. Sarah Attafi closed the panel by discussing the Tunisian experience:
 
The basic problem that still persists here in the developing world, including Tunisia, is related to access – equal access to new technologies by women and girls. I think the problem is also related to the central question of whether inequalities in access to the Internet, and the types of content available online, are reinforcing social attitudes towards women. Issues in fact extend far beyond basic access, including the availability of relevant content and the participation of women in public policy-making processes, which are still lacking and far from being inclusive of gender issues in Tunisia up until today. So if you’re asking what my major complaint about the gender gap in my country is, I’d definitely say: lack of awareness about the importance of gender issues and the total neglect of the problem, by the government but also by Internet users as well.
 
Let me first of all highlight the fact that, in the developing world, there’s no data collection on this issue, making it very difficult to measure the gender gaps that already exist. Talking about the size of the gender gap at an International level, I think that male users outnumber female users: the global gender gap is estimated at 200 million fewer women online, according to the 2013 Information Telecommunication Union (ITU) report. This gap is currently more pronounced in developing countries, where 16% fewer women than men use the Internet, compared with only 2% fewer women than men in the developed world, according to the same report.
 
I believe there are different barriers preventing women from accessing the Internet. These are mainly related to affordability, accessibility, and the appropriateness of access. Another point is the role of illiteracy in inhibiting access to the Internet, which poses a greater barrier to online access by women than by men. Across all developing countries, only 75% of women are literate, compared to 86% of men (according to the World Bank), with far greater margins of difference in some countries. Without this fundamental skill, the Internet will remain out of reach for women.
 
Gaps in ICT access reflect broader social and cultural divides. The roots of these gaps are multi-dimensional. Digital gender gaps reflect gender inequalities throughout societies and economies, and a range of socio-economic and political factors affect gender divides. It is known that women are more likely to experience discrimination around the world and especially in the developing world, in fields such as employment, income, health, and education – all of which affect ICT access.
 
There’s also the point of social attitudes, and by this I mean the separations that societies make and teach to boys and girls from a very young age. For example, girls should not do this thing, while boys can, or this task is made for boys and not for girls. One of these separations is the idea that ICT is a field made for male users and not for female users, which enhances the anxiety of women when they are around new technologies and lowers their self-confidence and computer self-efficacy.
 
I believe that policy plays a key role in shaping ICT for development and overcoming discrimination against women, and now more than ever, ICT laws and policies should indeed be “socially embedded,” which means that these safeguards should take into consideration the social and economic situation of women in developing countries.
 
 
 
Conversation summarized by Mr Hamza Ben Mehrez Policy Analyst Lead, IGMENA