Social media has become an important tool in the fight for female empowerment in the Middle East
Hanna Bohman, a 48-year-old former Canadian model, has been fighting Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria since 2015 and shares her adventures on social media. She posts a video to her YouTube channel every couple of days and updates on her Facebook constantly. Bohman has garnered an international following with over 1,000 subscribers on YouTube, and almost 12,000 on Facebook. Her videos range from pre-battle chats and war stories to cooking videos and volleyball games on her base.
In one of her most recent videos, Bohman, in camouflage adorned with a Canadian flag and Kurdish Women’s Defense Unit badge, walks through the ruins of a school in Kobani, Syria. She provides a soft-spoken narration as she shows holes where the ceiling caved in and piles of desks and cement scattered around an empty classroom destroyed by ISIS.
“It’s not really a question of caring about what I have to say, it’s more about caring about what is happening in Rojava (the Kurdish-controlled area of Syria). I know how the Western audience works,” Bohman told The Media Line via email.
Bohman said that although she is not Kurdish, she chose to join the Kurdish women’s forces because of their dedication to women’s empowerment and advancement and goal of ISIS destruction.
“They (Westerners) need someone to connect with otherwise they will lose interest in ‘those other people’,” she said, referring to the Kurds. “I hope the interest will follow into the revolution and the struggle for women’s rights in the middle east.”
Bohman fights for the YPJ (Yekineyen Parastina Jin), the Kurdish Women’s Defense force in northern Syria fighting alongside the YPG (Yekineyen Parastina Gel, People’s Defense Forces) a Kurdish militia fighting ISIS in Syria. The Kurdish Women’s Defense force is composed of local women, Kurdish women from Iraq, Syria and Iran and a handful of international fighters. The all-female forces have started building training academies for both combat and educational purposes, teaching recruits how to read and write along with battlefield tactics.
Bohman has been featured on the Women’s Revolution in Rojava Facebook page, a group that fights with the YPJ and YPG. Rojava is an area in northern Syria, also known as Syrian Kurdistan and is governed by the ideas of gender equality, democratic socialism, and sustainability.
“When I first went to Syria, it wasn’t just to fight ISIS, it was to also document life within the YPJ and the Kurds,” Bohman said, “I believe strongly in the women’s movement and the larger revolution and I knew in order for it to succeed, it will need the support of outside nations. I thought my photos and stories could help to humanize the Syrian people to a western audience whose only knowledge of the people from the Middle East tends to be negative.”
Her unit has four Canadian women, two from Sweden, and one each from Italy, Poland and the UK. One report from Huck magazine released last year stated since 2012 over 15,000 women have joined the Kurdish Women’s Defense Unit. It is unclear how many international western fighters, male and female, are serving with Kurdish forces.
The Women’s Revolution in Rojava has a strong social media campaign, petitioning for a no-fly zone over Rojava and posting daily updates on their Facebook pages. Recent posts include videos of female soldiers meeting rescued girls after freeing a city from ISIS, and re-posts of news articles about Rojava in different languages.
“By using Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, ordinary people have been given a chance to spread information that has not been manipulated, to present the world with the truth of the Revolution and with the reality of ordinary people, and send a message and tell the entire world, ‘We are here, we exist and we are fighting!’” Evin, a representative from The Women’s Revolution in Rojava who did not give her last name, told The Media Line using Facebook Messenger.
While some women are using social media as a weapon on the Syrian battlefield, others are using it in the fight for female equality in some of the most patriarchal societies in the Middle East. A woman who is an author, historian, and archaeologist from Saudi Arabia who moved to England spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity for fear of her personal safety.
“Women (and men) in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, and other Middle Eastern countries whose laws do not protect free speech show incredible courage when they speak out against human rights abuses online and when they advocate for change,” she said. In some of these countries, she said, speaking out against perceived injustice or voicing opinions online can lead to incarceration or execution.
For almost a year, women in Saudi Arabia have been posting under the hashtag #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen. A recent case has caught world attention.
Last month, Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, tried to flee Saudi Arabia and seek asylum in Australia. During a layover in the Philippines, authorities did not let her board a connecting flight, because her male guardians were on a flight to bring her home by force. While she was being detained, Lasloom recorded a message on another traveler’s cell phone and posted it on Twitter.
“If my family come, they will kill me,” Lasloom said in the video. “If I go back to Saudi Arabia I’ll be dead.”
The 52-second video was shared over social media on different platforms, causing international outrage. The hashtags #SaveDinaAli, #HelpDinaAli and #IAmDinaAli spread on social media. Lasloom never made it to Australia and was taken back to Saudi Arabia where she is reportedly being held in a women’s safe home.
A 2011 study found that social media in the Middle East is helping bridge the virtual gender gap and change public perceptions of women in civic society. In contrast, in the West, social media is known for its commercialism and used by women as a form of self-expression.
“In a way, yes, it is a war for equality in which every possible verbal and legal weapon must be mobilized. But at the same time, it is also a project in which social media is a tool,” our source added, “There are different ways that feminism and equal rights are understood in Saudi Arabia and other majority Muslim states.”
Back in Kurdistan, Evin says that the women fighting are helping the cause of women’s empowerment throughout the Middle East.
“Free life and women’s liberation is possible, especially if women work to show that to the world via social media,” Evin told The Media Line, “because if women living in one of the most dangerous areas at the moment, surrounded by ISIS, can stand up for themselves and fight the oppression they are experiencing, then change is possible, not only in Rojava, but all around the world.”
Madison Dudley is a student journalist with The Media Line