Verge Magazine: The Struggle for Feminism in the Middle East

As featured on Verge Magazine’s website:

After eight months living in the Middle East, I’ve experienced and witnessed countless adversarial and discriminatory acts against women simply because they are female.

Trying to make your way in a career as a female in the Middle East is a lot harder than anywhere else in the world. There aren’t the legal protections against these acts that typically exist in the Western world. And, most terrifying, it’s not just the locals taking advantage of this—it’s the expats working for well known international organizations, too.

During my time here, I’ve grown comfortable with the “can’s” and “cannot’s” of being a woman in the region. I’ve made my share of mistakes, swapped horror stories with female coworkers and adjusted my behaviour. I no longer feel strange keeping my eyes on the ground when I walk through town. I don’t question whether or not I’m supposed to sit at the dinner table with men; I know to wait until after they have finished and left the room to fill my plate. I’m finally comfortable with my position in society and the day-to-day routine I’m restricted to.

Now, the problem has become just how comfortable I am being second best to any male. Recently, I travelled home to visit family in the United States, and realized how much this behaviour has affected me. I naturally make these adjustments, even at home where I don’t need to.

In light of this realization, I embarked on a research binge into whether or not these “cultural adjustments” that I and other expat women in the Middle East have had a negative impact on overall gender equality in the region. It may come as no surprise, but they definitely do.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, more women attend university than men in two-thirds of Middle Eastern countries. Access to education and overall literacy has increased significantly over the past decade. This is something that has been and should be celebrated. However, this progress in education equality has not translated into participation in the labor force. In the Middle East, only 20 per cent of women participate in the workforce. This is the lowest level of female workers of any region in the world.

Expat women are also restricted and treated differently. Female friends have reported being leered at, insulted and even groped during professional meetings.

If a woman consciously makes the choice to stay at home, raise a family, and tend to the household, she should be supported in the decision. But the problem occurs when the decision is not so conscious. A lot of the women I’ve met in my travels espouse an inability to do anything without the guidance of a man. Widowed female refugees can not stand in line to get documentation without a male companion. Others can not find work and therefore settle for the stability of marriage.

According to the Guardian, laws in 100 countries around the world restrict the type of job a woman can do. In 18 of those countries, men can stop their wives from accepting a job offer.

Unfortunately, writing it off as a tragedy known only to the citizens of those countries is—as I and my female coworkers have sadly found out—inaccurate. Reporting in the field with some of my male colleagues has shown me this repeatedly. If our interviewee is a male, he will only address the man in our group. We expat females are also restricted and treated differently.

While my male colleagues plunge into the field concerned about getting the right quote or the perfect shot, I’m constantly held back by fear for my safety. More than once, I’ve conducted an interview that went from professional to flirtatious without any invitation. That would never happen to a man. I’ve also had female friends who have been leered at, insulted and even groped during professional meetings.

Worse, I’ve pushed my way into professional conversations about promotion with American and European male managers, only to be turned away when I refused to take the conversation back to their apartment. If we were on American or European soil, they wouldn’t dare be so cavalier about a solicitation for fear of a lawsuit.

It’s not a “local” problem if expats take advantage of the disparity too. It’s not a local problem if foreigners turn the other cheek when it happens to their female colleagues. Then, it’s a gender equality problem. Around 70 per cent of the 1.5 billion people in the world living in poverty are women. In both developing and developed countries, women earn 60 to 75 per cent of a man’s income on average around the world.

We are not exempt from the discussion or fight for equality based on where we’re from or who we are, and it will only ever be eradicated with a united front from people of all nationalities and genders.

Facebook looking for new friends: Many users are moving away from social media giant

BUSINESS MATTERS COVER STORY
Sunday, August 12, 2012

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Mike Abraham of Worcester uses Twitter more than Facebook. (T&G Staff / RICK CINCLAIR)

Patrick Hopkins sits in the Leominster Starbucks, browsing on his Macbook Pro.He clicks the search bar and types in what could be the No.1 social media site in the world today: Facebook.com.

Launched in 2004, the site’s mission is to make the world more open and connected. There’s no doubt Facebook does this in ways never dreamed of, with people who are already friends but also those who have lost contact or never met.

The question is whether the tremendous success that is Mark Zuckerberg’s creation will last.

Numbers show that the growth in U.S. unique visitors to Facebook is slowing, and that it is losing unique users as well.

In recent interviews, some Central Massachusetts people said they remain thoroughly involved with Facebook, while others complained about time spent with Facebook or said they were lured by competing social media and used Facebook less.

Facebook says its big challenge as user growth rates slow is to increase user engagement.

Mr. Hopkins is a believer. The 37-year-old Stow resident runs the online marketing company Green Room Interactive. For him, Facebook is a tool used not just to keep in touch with old friends, but to promote his business in Facebook’s virtual world, which is comprised of 955 million monthly active users, around 168 million of whom are in the U.S., according to Facebook’s second-quarter financial report.

Mr. Hopkins joined Facebook three years ago.

“Initially it was just to catch up with old friends,” he said. Now, in addition to promoting his business, he uses the network to keep up with current events. The father of two children, Mr. Hopkins said Facebook has allowed him to interact with family and friends whom he doesn’t have time to see in person anymore.

However, Mr. Hopkins also recognizes that Facebook makes it difficult to separate his business life from his personal life. It’s hard to separate things like the invite to the company Christmas party from the invite to the family Christmas party.

“They don’t make it easy to say this is what I want to share with this group of friends, and this is what I want to share with clients,” Mr. Hopkins said.

Businesses that have set up free Facebook pages are concerned that the newly public company will begin charging a fee for that service.

But others see Facebook for its advantages.

Maura McPhillips, an 18-year-old, soon-to-be freshman at Worcester State University, said Facebook helps her as a consumer. “If I like a product, I’ll see if they have a Facebook page for newer products or offers,” she said. Ms. McPhillips uses Facebook to browse Coach’s new line of handbags or to keep up with Red Sox Nation.

Ms. McPhillips thinks Facebook will also help her stay close with high school friends through college.

“I think it will bring us closer, and we’ll keep in touch more,” she said.

Megan Belanger, 34, of Worcester believes otherwise. She joined Facebook in 2006 because of a friend’s bridal shower.

At first, she was impressed with the possibilities Facebook opened up. Ms. Belanger would check her Facebook every morning, lunchtime and evening. “I was addicted to Facebook for definitely a period of time. You can get lost; it’s a time suck,” she said.

But for her, the social network’s sparkle faded. Ms. Belanger canceled her profile over a year ago.

“I communicate just fine through calls and email. I don’t need Facebook for that. My close friends are still my close friends,” she said.

Her biggest complaint: over usage and drama. With updates almost every minute, Facebook has created a new meaning for information overload.

“I grew up with payphones, for god’s sake. You don’t have to know everything at all times,” she said.

Ms. Belanger isn’t the only one losing the Facebook fever.

Sincere Jones, a 24-year-old Fitchburg State University student, thinks the network will soon become a thing of the past.

“They came out with better social networks. It’s on its way out right now,” he said.

Mr. Jones continues to use his profile, but only sporadically. He prefers networks such as Tag and Instagram.

Lunenburg High School student Mia Reynolds has deactivated her account on numerous occasions, because she claims Facebook stresses her out.

“It’s overwhelming,” she said.

The biggest failure of Facebook is safety, she said. “It’s a dangerous thing. … You will get yourself into trouble. The things you say are going to be on there forever.”

Tyler Begnoche, 17, of Fitchburg has experienced this trouble firsthand. He was punished by his high school for posting pictures of beer cans on his page. Because of this and other incidents, Mr. Begnoche has decreased his usage. He now uses Twitter more than Facebook and believes that to be the next big thing.

Mike Abraham, a 19-year-old Worcester native, is also switching networks. He joined Facebook during his freshman year of high school in 2008, but is now using Twitter more religiously.

“I actually like it more than Facebook now. It’s not as busy. … It’s very simple,” he said. Mr. Abraham checks his Twitter account 10 to 15 times a day. He said he uses Twitter to follow close friends, as well as professional athletes.

He believes you don’t need Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends. As an out-of-state student athlete at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., Mr. Abraham doesn’t get to make many trips home. He says he uses the phone and Skype to keep in close contact with his family.

Facebook itself admits to the possibility of demise.

“If we fail to retain existing users or add new users, or if our users decrease their level of engagement with Facebook, our revenue, financial results, and business may be significantly harmed,” Facebook said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission prior to its initial public offering May 18.

According to the research firm comScore Inc., which has been tracking Facebook since 2007, the site’s U.S. unique visitor growth rate hit a low point in May — up just 0.5 percent over May 2011. Facebook had around 700,000 fewer U.S. unique visitors that month, compared with the month before — 158.7 million in April versus 158.0 in May. In June, U.S. unique visitors rose to 159.8 million, according to comScore, but that was 1.1. million fewer visitors than in June 2011.

Since its peak of 166 million in October, the number of monthly U.S. unique visitors to Facebook has dropped 3.7 percent.

Facebook recently reported a net loss of $157 million in the second quarter of 2012, compared to net income of $240 million in the same quarter of 2011. Revenue rose 32 percent to $1.2 billion from $895 million. Although many teens and young adults seem to say they’re getting over the Facebook fad, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, Michael Greene, said Facebook continues to dominate in the overall social media market.

“As a company there certainly is no doubt member growth has slowed, but that can be expected at the current size. … It’s less about combating slow user growth and more about making sure current users use it and that it remains important to daily life.” he said in a June 19 telephone interview.

Facebook has attempted to hold on to easily distracted users by creating Timeline, the new Facebook profile that allows users to decide what to highlight and to choose who sees which posts.

Mr. Greene believes it’s hard to speculate on the future of social media because it is such an uncharted field. But, he said Facebook’s user base is larger than Myspace’s ever was and that Mr. Zuckerberg is going to work very hard so that history doesn’t repeat itself. Myspace, which was once the rage in the social media market, was annihilated when Facebook stepped up to the plate.

“Facebook’s always made it very hard to leave. Giving it up means losing a lot,” he said.

Mr. Greene himself uses Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. As an expert on social media, he said Facebook’s focus should turn to new advertising. Advertising accounts for 95 percent of Facebook’s revenue. Mr. Greene would like to see the company move more aggressively into mobile advertising.

Facebook has mobile monthly active users worldwide that rose 67 percent between June 2011 and June 2012, but historically it has not shown ads to mobile users.