Circumventing the gatekeepers to tackle old taboos



 
The Internet is giving Arab youths the opportunity to discuss taboo subjects like homosexuality and sex that are shunned by the mainstream media, writes Esra'a Al Shafei, director of Mideast Youth.
 
By Esra'a Al Shafei
 
The Internet is becoming increasingly accessible in the Arab world. It seems as though the existing digital divide is slowly but surely disappearing. Thousands of people in the region rely on cheap Internet cafes to participate in cyber-activities such as blogging, local forum discussions and video sharing. Such things are no longer limited to people with advanced technical skills or those who can afford a computer and an Internet connection.

Taher is a 17-year-old student from Bahrain. "I learned about the advantages of the Internet mostly from friends. At school I only used it for games and fun. Now I have learned how to use it in another way. I read what hundreds of Bahrainis are thinking about many different issues, and in particular two of my passions: politics and cars."

Taher participates in local discussion groups and visits video sharing sites like YouTube because "it shows me a side of the world that I could only dream of seeing in reality."

He never traveled abroad. "My parents cannot afford to provide me and my siblings with many opportunities. I've asked them many times to buy me a computer, which is not very expensive these days, but they would rather save the money for my higher education."

For young people like Taher, the Internet is a visual eye-opener. He may not be able to travel, but for now, he says, "I have the Internet," a mental equivalent of traveling the world.

Due to the accessibility of the Internet, a huge amount and diversity of content has become available from every corner of the region and the world. People are using the net primarily to share and interact, as opposed to just consume.

One of the biggest advantages the Internet has over other media is the fact that it is instant and for the most part, censorship-free. An incident can happen and in less than an hour a video of it will be available to the world to witness.

The power of such instant participatory technology is determined by the difference it can make on a local scale. Videos exposing rallies, police brutality, poverty, and human rights violations can travel via blogs, mailing lists, and social networking platforms and sometimes even end up receiving news coverage in pan-Arab networks such as Al Jazeera.

Sex

There are many taboos in the Arab world that are rarely discussed, including homosexuality. There are several blogs and message boards dedicated to homosexuality and gay rights activism within the Arab and Muslim world. The Internet gives these groups a prominent and necessary voice in the region, as they seem to be shunned or considered irrelevant by our societies.

Another taboo is sex, which includes the need for sex education in the region, primarily for health purposes.

Today, there are journalism students who are tackling this taboo and who use blogs and YouTube for this. For instance, the "UAE students" blog published a video which discusses sex education in the Arab-Muslim world. Baraka TV has a YouTube channel which includes videos that cover topics such as AIDS and drug use in Arab societies. These videos target important issues, and point out how much damage we are doing to ourselves by not talking about them publicly.

Videos give power and recognition to these issues and are for the most part more compelling and easier to sit through than news articles or blog entries. Furthermore, many of the regional television networks consider these issues too sensitive or controversial for their public.

It is therefore safe to predict that video casts will be the new generation of blogs, and within the near future we should expect a rise in video blogs emerging from the Arab world. With videos being easily convertible and compatible with mobile technology, allowing people to send them via Bluetooth and SMS, it makes it even easier to both share and receive videos with people regardless of whether or not they are anywhere near a wired computer.

As noted initially, the increasing use and technical accessibility of the Internet has helped many local authors, readers and activists in terms of media outreach. For once we are  facing less obstacles in expressing our opinions and sharing our human rights efforts with the world, either via blogs, forums, or videos.

Even those who cannot afford their own computer manage to find a way to access the Internet, realizing the importance it has in our societies where not all issues make it past the gatekeepers of our media.

Internet is by far one of the most "threatening" media that our governments have ever had to deal with, particularly because it is almost impossible to silence.


Esra'a Al Shafei is a Bahraini blogger and the director of Mideast Youth's website, www.mideastyouth.org.