By: Callie Douthit – April 3, 2015
In the age of the digital world, activism has taken a new shape and direction by using social media to mobilize social movements. “Cyberactivism” has been seen effective in many social movements around the world in not only spreading awareness about issues but also mobilizing individuals to be a part of the change (Khamis & Vaughn, 2013). In the Middle East, social media activism has been seen circulating around issues ranging from foreign policy, terrorism, to social issues. Social media has played a large role in mobilizing the feminist movement, specifically after the Arab Spring in Turkey, where women used social networks to shape international and domestic political debates and discourse relating to women’s rights.
First off, it is important to investigate what made Arab Spring an appropriate time and space for social media activism. The Arab Spring refers to the series of revolutionary demonstrations, protests, riots, and civil wars that broke out in December of 2010 in Tunisia. Though this started as the Tunisia revolution, the sentiment and like-ideologies carried over to other Arab countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The Arab Spring does refer to a specific time in history, but its influence has a lasting effect and has been carried over, even years after. In these waves of revolution, social media created alternative space to organize, communicate, and raise awareness for the issues under fire. This cyberspace was critical in the midst of a revolution, as mobilization could advance online even if the state repressed physical opposition (Jamali, 2015). It creates “a place where traditional rules governing society can be set aside” (Newsom, 2012, p. 32). Social media also has the ability to reach farther than word of mouth or even print publications because of its reach-ability in terms of circulation, which will be applied later.
Based on studies conducted on social media activity during the Arab Spring, technology has facilitated the growing participation of women in political conversations. The Project on Information Technology and Political Islam conducted a study on the role of social media during the Arab Spring that revealed “social media was used heavily to conduct political conversations by a key demographic group in the revolution – young, urban, relatively well educated individuals, many of whom were women” (Howard, Duffy, Freelon, Hussain, Mari, & Mazaid, 2011, p. 2). In Turkey, these active women rose to challenge patriarchal laws when their government attempted to ban abortion in 2012. Their first step was to create a webpage for the opposition of banning abortion that included an online petition to collect signatures; all entitled “Abortion Can’t Be Banned”. With this, the involved women sent these resources virally out on their Facebooks and twitters in order to gain momentum to fight against the proposed law. What happened next was a sort of domino effect, with more online campaigns against banning abortion joining the opposition and digital conversation. Feminists deployed Skype to do a digital sit-in demonstration of solidarity in many main city centers, to show support for another. “The reactions towards the initiation to ban abortion were followed by Bianet’s online campaign My Body My Choice, where people posted pictures of themselves either with “My Body, My Choice” written on their bodies or holding banners saying “Take your hands off my body” and “Do not do politics over my body’” (Elsen-Ziya, 2013, p. 866). This viral campaign quickly grabbed international attention.
The viral aspect of this movement was certainly essential to its success. Alone, these individual feminists could not obtain the attention and awareness needed without the help of the louder voices of organizations that have large audiences. With international eyes watching, organizations advocating for women’s rights such as the Platform to End Violence, the Istanbul Feminist Women’s Collective, and European Women’s Lobby contributed in the discourse by sending letters to Turkish leaders and posting online opposition statements on their own pages. Even with these cyber successes, the opposition did no necessary culminate when the Turkish government announced that they would not to pursue any further restrictive legislature on abortion. The participating community continued to rally against existing anti-abortion legislature in order to obtain a fair law that reflects women’s rights. Finally, “the Turkish government dropped the anti-abortion legislation, and a new clause stating “the right not to give birth” was added to the new constitution on 14 September, 2012” (Elsen-Zaya, 2013, p. 867). But, this would not have been possible without the volume of supporters and organizations to vocalize the feminist view of abortion.
The online approach that these women of Turkey utilized in order to raise social awareness of the women’s lack of stake in abortion legislation is what led to the accomplishment of changing abortion law in Turkey. Specifically, these activist realized that a “single target” approach would not suffice in obtain action. In other words, a single target approach would have the activists working to lobby with the Turkish parliament (Elsen-Zaya, 2013). When they realized that they needed more leverage in order to influence the Turkish parliament, the “double target” approach was deployed. “The double target approach, on the other hand, refers to the situation where in a lobby is trying to inﬂuence a target group (ﬁnal target), ﬁrst has to lobby others—an initial target. The initial target in this case is deﬁned as the target group that has a closer contact and a good relationship with the ﬁnal target and therefore it can help to lobby such a target more effectively” (Elsen-Zaya, 2013, p. 863). The initial targets in this example are organizations like the Platform to End Violence, the Istanbul Feminist Women’s Collective, and European Women’s Lobby, and the media as a whole, who were able to vocalize the sentiments to a larger audience. These organizations provided a sort of leverage for the Arab feminists at this time, giving legitimacy to their ideas and goals of changing anti-abortion law in Turkey. Once these organizations were successfully lobbied, the group was given networking power to lobby their final target: the Turkish Grand National Assembly. The double target approach and the effective use of resources by these supporters are key to their model of cyberactivism.
In summary, the feminists’ use of social networking to oppose abortion law in Turkey proved to be an effective method of lobbying. “The development of social media created opportunities for Web-fueled social movements, or cyberactivism, to change the landscape of collective action” (Eltantawy & Wiest, 2012, p. 1207). The collective action is key to activism, too. With a supportive community and solidarity, we can see through the Turkish example that social media activism has the ability to gain global traction through its viral-ability which helps mobilize more supporters with the ultimate goal of change. Given the achievement of changing Turkish abortion law, social media activism does have the ability to facilitate change once campaigns gain broader attention and interest which amplifies the movement to the direction of fundamental change.
Eslen-Ziya, H. (2013). Social Media and Turkish Feminism: New resources for social activism. Feminist Media Studies, 13(5), 860-870.
Eltantawy, N., & Wiest, J. (2011). The Arab Spring| Social Media in the Egyptian Revolution: Reconsidering Resource Mobilization Theory. International Journal Of Communication, 5, 18. Retrieved from http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/1242/597
Howard P. N., Duffy A., Freelon D., Hussain M., Mari W., Mazaid M. (2011). Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media during the Arab Spring Project on Information Technology and Political Islam. Seattle: Department of Communication, University of Washington.
Jamali, R. (2015). Online Arab spring: social media and fundamental change. Waltham, MA : Chandos Publishing, .
Khamis, S., & Vaughn, K. (2013). Cyberactivism in the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions: Potentials, limitations, overlaps and divergences. Journal Of African Media Studies, 5(1), 69-86.
Newsom, V. A., & Lengel, L. (2012). Arab women, social media, and the Arab Spring: Applying the framework of digital reflexivity to analyze gender and online activism. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 13(5), 31-45. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1314732801?accountid=7418