An internet café near Tahrir Square in Cairo, where social media played a prominent role in anti-government demonstrations. Photo: Julie Dermansky, Corbis An internet café near Tahrir Square in Cairo, where social media played a prominent role in anti-government demonstrations. Photo: Julie Dermansky, Corbis

Chapter 3 – At home in the network

Women’s digital and social mobility in Egypt

Writing in blog space has a peculiar intimacy: Your uncensored thoughts are online for all to read, and the friends who comment on your posts are anonymous strangers. This “public privacy” has attracted many Egyptian women to write in the blog genre. Indeed, the blog gained a reputation in Egypt as a women’s genre as early as 2006, when three blogs by women were turned into bestselling books by the Shorouk press.

The authors used the confessional intimacy of blogs to tell stories usually exchanged among female intimates. Ghada Abdel Aal’s misadventures with potential bridegrooms in Ayeza atagawwiz (I Want to Get Married) and Ghada Mahmoud’s anecdotes from life as a young wife and mother in Ma‘ nafsi (On My Own) were online phenomena that maintained gendered associations of women with private space and intimate discourse. Conversely, political activists Asmaa Mahfouz and Mona Seif used the digital genre to claim a space where they could perform the role of authoritative public figures by invoking gender identity only strategically.

However, these prominent examples of bloggers who used the genre to enter public life obscure an important aspect of the digital phenomenon: the way in which it participates in a spatial transformation that often makes the public-private divide irrelevant. Digital writing genres did more than bring formerly obscure voices to public prominence; they also created interactive new sites for conversation through posts, responses and reciprocal comments.

In this paper I examine the transformation of women’s social space through digital media in Egypt, with a focus on new mobilities that these media produced. In my work with professional women in their twenties, I found that they used blogs as nodes in which to integrate spaces of home, work and political interest. These women’s hybrids of physical and digital bodies incorporated them in new circuits, like Donna Haraway’s cyborgs, while their blogs drew these circuits together into a new kind of a digital home. 1

A 2007 survey revealed that “personal” blogs accounted for a formidable 47.5 percent of the Egyptian blogosphere, far outnumbering literary or political blogs.2 Many Egyptians were using blogs to socialize, rather than to make statements. In a subsequent review of the first decade of blogging in Egypt, Ahmed Naji defined the major blog genres as those of Islamists, gender interest groups, political activists and religious minorities, pointing to a further trend of using digital media to consolidate networks marginalized in the public sphere. 3 Since women particularly lacked urban social spaces they could call their own in Cairo, it was fitting that they embraced blogging and microblogging.

The three women whose stories I tell here moved frequently around the city to work and meet friends. But since each lived in her parental home, her social home was more often than not online. I compare their uses of online blog “homes” to assess how each used hers as a meeting ground. Moreover, I describe how their lateral movements on networks allowed the women alternatives to prescribed paths of upward mobility through careers (or marriage) and afforded them connections beyond work, family and university. As they came to inhabit their homes on the network, I show how the habitus that each cultivated here carried through offline, revealing ways in which digital sociality was a rite of identity formation.

Publics within homes

Lobna, Fatma and Eman came home from work, logged on to their networks, and often “went out” again without leaving the house. Their digital public life was both social and intellectual, resembling discursively the nineteenth-century German salons analyzed by Seyla Benhabib, who showed how these institutions combined forms of rational communication with intimacy among relative strangers.4 
The blog medium seemed at first glance to have perfected the integration of public and private discourses with which salon-goers of an earlier era experimented.

Lobna was a 23-year-old news photographer whose job was well suited to her personality. She told me she had always been an information addict. Her job at a daily newspaper entailed traveling all over the city on assignment, but she still found herself using social media to experience a different sort of mobility. Most of her college friends had become more housebound, and she met them these days almost exclusively on Facebook or online chats. “If they don’t have to go out to work, many of them don’t go out at all,” she lamented.

For Lobna, digital social media were a crucial means of maintaining her older social circle and integrating newer professional acquaintances into it. She sat before the television set in her parents’ living room with her computer on her lap, chatting with friends and relaying bits of news from news websites to family members. Lobna seemed very comfortable with this combination of familial and professional roles, perhaps because she had always been what she called “the Reuters of the family.”

But without digital media, she could hardly have combined her childhood and adult communities so artfully. Her Facebook page, which combined links to news stories, her comments and playful social chatter, frequently shifted the line between serious and whimsical communication and gave Lobna a way to consolidate her social persona as both an effervescent young woman and a professional journalist.

But other young women, who could not combine familial and adult roles so smoothly, used separate online spaces for different communities. Blogs tended to be their favored digital genre over social media outlets such as Facebook. Eman, an engineer turned literary blogger, uses her blog to get away from her exemplary persona as an upwardly mobile young professional.

She began her eclectic bilingual blog in 2005, while still a student, as a space in which to dabble in writing in Arabic while she studied in English. Since Eman started blogging when the Egyptian blogosphere was very new, she ended up conversing with people who wrote about very different things. She spoke about the blogosphere then as something of a frontier territory and space of adventure. Her own blog also maintained elements of surprise, moving between Arabic and English. Eman said she did not like being tied to a writing genre, either. “I don’t want to forget that 
I was happy or sad … leaving aside concerns with politics or any issue – I just write.”

Eman’s notion of friendship was just as iconoclastic as her notion of writing, and just as much enabled by digital media. She treasured her blog relationships more than many of her childhood friendships. After a conservative upbringing and an Islamic education, her views had become leftist over the years, and she felt distant from the world of her childhood. “When I speak to old friends now, we end up arguing because we’re different.” On social media, she is too closely tied to that familial world.

“Here you’ll find the kind of people who said ‘We are sorry, Mr. President’ after the revolution. I still check in on Facebook, and enter into debates with friends, but I find it aggravating.”

In friendships formed online, by contrast, differences of opinion made for livelier conversation. Eman compared her exchanges with readers on her blog and the microblog Twitter to the kinds of conversation she used to have when she called in to a live broadcast on Radio Cairo. The anonymous intimacy of these exchanges with regular visitors made blogging worthwhile for her. But when her blog became somewhat famous, Eman found it tedious to clarify her views to strangers. “When I got recognition, I found I didn’t want it any more,” she confessed. 
“[My blog] wasn’t the home that I loved anymore; it became too noisy. There were times when I shut it down.”

Eman’s concept of home, like Lobna’s, was a space where she felt in her element. It was where she could combine her different personas into a habitus with its own space. She could link her different voices and embody herself most fully here.

But she did not want this online persona to become a public figure, as with so many celebrity bloggers, since that would compel her to act according to the norms of a bourgeois public sphere. It was in the playful voice of the personal blogger that Eman was best able to maintain her idiosyncratic identity. Her ideal home was made of layered spaces and discourse genres, and it gave her the freedom to refine her opinions and change her mind.

This mobile and flexible access to multiple friendship networks via her blog and Twitter was more rewarding for Eman than the status of a public figure.

The latter was too impersonal to offer the pleasures of friendship, and perhaps too convention-bound for Eman to make it her own.

Eman made an exception to her rule of writing in an inexpert voice, however, when she started a group blog for women’s social critique called Kullina Laila (We Are All Laila). 5 Together with a friend who also resented the constraints on women’s mobility in urban and public space, Eman called for a day of blogging in 2006 on the topic of women’s lives in Egypt. By 2009, We Are All Laila featured participants from eighteen Arab countries and lasted an entire week, forming a network that emboldened women to write personal stories as a matter of public concern. The gender solidarity that produced this network allowed and indeed prescribed an affect of intimacy, even without the form of conversation, and the bloggers were free of the responsibility of representing women’s lives. Eman found it therapeutic to write here. But when she felt this group blog had helped her enough, she moved on to other group projects – she did not want to assume the role of a public feminist intellectual

Eman’s story, as an example of how Egyptian women use digital media to form intimate networks, resembles what Michael Warner has called “counterpublics.” Members of a blog community have an embodied relation to one another, as in Warner’s counterpublics, and the blogs maintain “a repertoire of highly temporalized affects and interests.” 6 But since this aspect of the media genre is not specific to women’s blogs or subaltern identity politics, we can rethink the subordinate status of intimate communities in Warner’s argument from an earlier historical moment. Eman and many of her peers were blogging not to project a subaltern public, but to create alternative homes, away from the normative constraints of the public sphere.

Their personal blogs gave them a liminal space to cultivate personas more complex than those of dutiful daughters and competent professionals. In cases such as Eman’s, the support of other bloggers and readers gave her the courage to plan on a career change. She began to take evening classes in project management, and planned to quit her job and work full-time with Global Voices Online and other networking projects. Eman’s blog home thus accommodated an alternate self, enabled new connections and made lateral mobility possible.

Remaining home and the world

Eman was one of a rising demographic of Egyptians in their twenties who abandoned a conventional career path of upward mobility in favor of horizontal and, particularly, transnational networking. They searched foreign websites for grants and jobs, and often joined chat rooms to meet people of different backgrounds.

For those who worked in transnationally oriented professions, such as translation and international human rights, networking cultivated cosmopolitan knowledge and hopes of opportunity. I’ll conclude this paper with the story of one young woman whose transnational trajectory took her to study abroad, then to work in Egypt, and who used her blog to synthesize the two parts of her life.

Fatma was a 29-year-old researcher from a middle-class background who worked at a feminist non-governmental organization in Cairo and traveled to conferences abroad. She first established a digital presence by writing on a group blog with friends. She then started her own blog when she returned to Cairo to bring together her multi-sited personal and professional worlds. A quiet and determined young woman, Fatma was something of an exception in the elite bilingual world of Egyptian human rights organizations for not having a foreign-language education or family connections to the profession.

She counted herself lucky to have found friends at university who were lifelong comrades and who helped her into the field. They were politically radical, like herself, though she was a devout Muslim and her friends were not. Fatma had often been an outsider, whether as a foreign student abroad or a non-secular feminist in Egypt, and her online home was a space for consolidating her multiple identities. Her blog is particularly interesting for its mix of scholarly feminist posts and very personal stories.I analyze it as a contentious home that staged these incompatible voices or positions across online networks.

Fatma’s feminist commitment to bringing personal questions into political debates was clear: She met me in her office and spoke candidly about her life as colleagues walked in and out. But on her blog, she wrote of the difficulty of combining personal and professional roles, and of being a perpetual misfit.

She blogged, for instance, about her recent decision to stop wearing a hijab after fourteen years. She had lately found herself convinced by the writings of Islamist thinkers Gamal al-Banna and Amina Wadud, who argued that covering was not a religious duty. But convincing friends and families of her decision was a delicate matter.

Some of Fatma’s friends cautioned her against making a declaration on her blog, concerned that her extended family would read it. But she did so anyway. She did not see a blog post as a public statement of identity so much as a place to write about the process of claiming an identity.

Fatma decided to write this post in English, as she sometimes did with controversial topics. “A lot of constraints fall down when I use English,” even though she was not fluent, she said. She wrote about her journey from being persuaded to veil on theological grounds, to coming to question the social meaning of hijab, then ended with a bitter summary of how little room there was for her story where she lived:

I want to say that what struck me [was] the polarization of the Egyptian society, that [had] on a side the conservative powers, which includes my family, my extended family, neighbors, and many other categories of the Egyptian society, and on the other hand the progressive powers, which include the human rights defenders, academics and journalists who constitute my social circle. I hated [the] unstopping nagging and the covered threats of my family, and I hated the extra warm congratulations of my progressive friends. 7

Gone was the tactful, careful attempt at community building 
in many of Fatma’s other blog posts and at her job in the NGO. 
She admitted failure on her blog when she could not do so elsewhere. But even this was an attempt to connect with readers who might similarly struggle to explain themselves and suffer the dismay of their intimates. “If you’re a feminist, you must write about your experiences so others can learn from your struggles,” Fatma asserted.

Fatma was fluent in a transnational discourse of academic feminism and wrote several blog posts in this register that drew comments from Islamic and secular feminists abroad. Every now and then, however, she wrote about experiences that were thoroughly local, which tested the limits of her social networks. When she wrote a post about a new boyfriend and her anxieties about sexuality, some friends warned her not to expose herself.

One told her bluntly that she was performing “an emotional striptease.” It seemed that such confessional writing risked inviting not recognition, but voyeurism. The blogger’s body seemed exposed without a feminist discourse.

Yet Fatma continued to blog about matters with which her local interlocutors would more likely identify and to leave highly personal posts up for their scrutiny. She wanted sympathy from closer to home than her transnational feminist networks.

In Fatma’s effort to represent experience that was distinctly her own, with cautious references to academic feminism, the architecture of the blog proved useful. She personalized her online home with a mix of scholarly and other writing genres. And like other female bloggers in Egypt, she made strategic use of girlish décor and naïve biographical statements such as “I’m just an Egyptian girl” to personalize political and social critique as part of a young woman’s intellectual development.

Even the occasional rant against people who did not understand her seemed forgivably adolescent in this setting. While Fatma’s personal and professional worlds collided in often uncomfortable ways, her blog let her act as still a liminal being in the process of coming into adult identity. Here she could write the ever-unfolding story of reconciling her social background and idiosyncratic professional journey.

I have offered some stories from the blog lives of these Egyptian women as examples of place-making through networking. The connections that they made online enabled women to socialize and rehearse the habitus of independent-minded young women in digital versions of intellectual salons.

Returning to Bourdieu’s concept of habitus as an embodied repertoire for relating to one’s world, I have shown that these Egyptian women used blogs as digital homes from which to rehearse personas that were girl-next-door, cosmopolitan and critical all at the same time. Eman’s blog persona became more rewarding than her professional identity, and she decided to switch to a career that allowed her to live that persona. Fatma’s blog was conversely a space for inhabiting her professional feminist persona in everyday social terms.Their digital homes made these women not just upwardly mobile, but able to move across roles.

Of course, there are women bloggers in Egypt who are public figures (Nawara Negm, Asmaa Mahfouz). They write authoritatively about politics and use newspaper-like templates for their blogs. The blog genre in Egypt has certainly made a place for female political commentators, where women were previously more often seen in the lightweight role of current affairs talk-show hosts. But political bloggers have only occasionally been able to perform authoritative roles offline, such as at protests.

Their declining role in post-revolution politics would suggest that it is not so easy to carry the habitus of a digital political space into the public sphere. By contrast, an unassuming army of personal bloggers has forged alternative careers in literary writing, translation and feminist activism, through networks developed from their digital homes. These online spaces of work and play – or playing at work – gave them room to fashion paths to professions outside a prescribed progression from student to adult identity.

Notes

1 Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature 
(NY: Routledge, 1991).

2 Otterman, Sharon, “Publicizing the private: Egyptian women bloggers 
speak out,” Arab Media & Society 1.1 (2007), www.arabmediasociety.com? article=13.
Also cited in Wael Salah Fahmi, “Bloggers’ Street Movement and the Right to the City: (Re)claiming Cairo’s Real and Virtual ‘Spaces of Freedom,’” Environment and Urbanization 21.1 (2009): 93.

3 Ahmed Naji, Blogs from Post to Tweet (Cairo: ANHRI, 2010). 
Available online at www.anhri.net/en/?p=670
accessed August 2013.

4 Seyla Benhabib, “The Pariah and Her Shadow: Hannah Arendt’s Biography of Rahel Varnhagen,” Political Theory 23.1 (1995), 5 – 24.

5 The blog’s title referred to Laila, the activist protagonist of Latifa al-Zayyat’s 1960 novel Al-Bab al-maftuh (The Open Door). It can be accessed at kolenalaila.com/en/

6 Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14.1 (2002), 71.

7 atbrownies.blogspot.com/2011/06/latest-decision-taking-veil-off
accessed August 2013.