Let’s Mess with Stereotypes: Is Social Media Finally There?

Perhaps no region of the world is more subject to stereotypes than the Middle East. Being a woman from that region, I have encountered these stereotypes on many occasions. While I was a teen, my family lived in Europe for a few years where I was often asked question reflecting these stereotypes. Do all Turkish women wear the headscarf? Um, obviously not. Do you ride camels? I have never seen one in my life outside of a zoo.

At one dinner party, I witnessed my mother get interrogated on whether she was just dressing in a modern way because she was now in Europe. She kept trying to explain that she had changed nothing in her wardrobe. “But, can you actually wear a one-piece bathing suit to swim in a beach,” one of her obnoxious interrogators persisted, unable to believe she might be telling the truth. “Well, now that I am a bit older, I do wear the top as well,” she deadpanned. Ah, the joys of messing with stereotypes.

It’s not that people outside the region should not be interested in these questions. These are important topics. And perhaps no issue is more complicated than that of the headscarf and what it means for women in Middle Eastern societies. It’s truly complicated. The issue of women’s rights and their presence in the public sphere ranges from appalling to you’d be surprised. I cannot go into the topic in depth it one blog pos, but suffice it to say is that it is neither always a direct sign of passivity and enforced subjugation, nor is it always a freely-asserted choice with no other implications.

But the next time I get a simplicity-seeking answer to this question, the first thing I will do will be to direct the person to this video of this young woman with a hot-pink headscarf and skinny jeans facing down a line of riot police while leading a crowd of young men in a chant of “Security forces are the lowest scum” :

I think this directly links to the other issue of the culture of masculinity in the Middle East. This, too, is complicated, ever-changing and very dynamic. And I think nothing demonstrates this better than the emergence of a new kind of hero in Egypt– one that breaks down sobbing on television when contemplating the unimaginable loss of parents whose children were killed by the regime. In the now famous interview, at one point, Wael Ghonim asserts that “we are men and not children” and that “we are ready to die but not willing to raise a hand against anyone” asserting both a new kind of masculinity and generational manifesto.

While it is true that most people will still get majority of their news from television broadcasts, the current media ecology means that images like these–images that are disruptive of easy stereotypes and simple answers– will also find their way to those screens. Of course, all this does not mean that we will now enter into an era of global peace and understanding. Every major communication technology in the industrial age has been greeted with shouts about how *this* one will finally bring people together around the world by allowing us to glimpse each other’s humanity and by challenging our stereotypes and misconceptions. Telegraph, radio, telephone, television… You name it, it has been greeted with cries of “it will humanize the distant other! It will make it harder to have racist and xenophobic beliefs!”

Of course, we know that this did not happen for any of the above-mentioned technologies. For one thing, being able to glimpse each other’s lives does not magically cure us of prejudices; it may even make them worse by providing ammunition for forces of hatred. As we saw in the Rwanda Genocide, radio broadcasts played an ugly role in inciting and coordinating the violence.

And cyberspace is full of vitriolic racism which had been largely pushed behind closed doors. However, a difference worth thinking about is that all of the technologies named above were never implemented in a true “peer-to-peer powered broadcast” at a global scale–the one with most promise, the radio, was quickly taken away from the enthusiasts and the amateurs by corporate interests and the military. Television basically inherited that framework from radio while sharpening its monopolistic nature. And the telephone was never a broadcast medium.

Will social media break this pattern of co-optation by the powerful and the hateful?  I am more hopeful for this medium because the Internet combines peer-to-peer structure along with rich-media broadcast capabilities. No previous technology had this particular combination. Telephone was peer-to-peer but you could not truly talk to strangers and it was limited to voice. Television barely had a chance to be anything beyond a vehicle for delivering eyeballs to advertisers in most countries, and has never truly been controlled by a non-state or non-corporate entity. In any case, next time I get a question asking me for my soundbite answer on the issue of the headscarf or masculinity in the Middle East, I will start with “It’s complicated,” continue with directing people to images such as these and then ask if the person is actually interested in discussing this question in a manner that goes beyond the boring, predictable and too-simple-even-to-wrong images that dominate Hollywood and a lot of television.

One thought on “Let’s Mess with Stereotypes: Is Social Media Finally There?

  1. vitalie sprinceana

    I was in Turkey in 2009, mostly in Istanbul and its surroundings… I tried to not have much pre-conceptions about it, even is, being Moldovan, I was taught in school that Istanbul and Turkey is a kind of traditional enemy to us. I stayed there a full month and was surprised how “European” the city looks like: there were women with veils but they constituted a slight minority and did not seem to be oppressed but rather to wear the veil as a form of manifesting their personal identity…for example, I’ve seen some women with veil in malls buying jewellery from Swarowski, at Kilyos Beach, on the Taksim boulevard…In fact I discovered a normal country, with a great diversity, great tolerance, great hospitality (I still remember the free tea we had many times near the Spice Bazaar)…
    returning to your topic, I think the main problem of television and media is selectivity – what to present, how to build generic pictures…an there is also a kind of provincialism of the American media: most of the time it describes the outside world as a thereat, as abnormal, strange and hilarious. I can’t , for example, understand the fixation of the American media with Romanian witches! They are not neither the biggest problem of Romania, nor the most urgent…but Yahoo is pushing and pushing this news from the country of Dracula…


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