If you’re like me, chances are by the age of 28 that you’ve had a few female friends announce on Facebook that they’re pregnant by posting early sonograms, a progression of baby bump photos and enthusiastic updates for nine months. And let’s not forget about the eery 3-D sonograms showing a nearly full-term baby weeks away from being born.
It’s been almost a year since three fuzzy-looking sonograms from three different female friends appeared unsolicited on my Facebook NewsFeed within a week, generating a strong response from me that was somewhere between sincere congratulations and “This is too much to share on Facebook” and “I really don’t want to see her unborn fetus and into her uterus.” I hadn’t seen or spoken to two of these Facebook friends since college and the third woman I run into on occasion. So, if they were my closest friends posting pregnancy related updates, I know I would have a different reaction and be more accommodating and understanding.
But being a Women’s and Gender Studies graduate student, I couldn’t let it go and I turned the topic into an academic research paper months later. I still haven’t come across a lot of scholars, journalists or bloggers writing about how women are uniquely using Facebook and other social media technology (Twitter, Flickr, YouTube) to document and share their pregnancies and the implications this has for perceiving women’s bodies and fetal personhood. So, I was surprised to find this story buried in The Washington Post Style section on June 10.
The news article’s focus is mainly how more women feel comfortable documenting their pregnancies through social media as a way to share with extended family and friends and swap advice with other moms and moms-to-be. According to a 2010 study by software maker AVG, more than 30 percent of American mothers have posted their sonograms online. By the time they are age 2, 92 percent of American babies will have an online presence.
The Washington Post’s news article is an interesting trend piece but no one in the story talked about how using social media in this way reinforces fetal personhood in a very visible and public manner. Nor did anyone discuss how social media sites like Facebook can be seen as a technology through which we view women’s pregnant bodies, in a way that is similar to ultrasound technology, although different since it is social and not medical.
In our highly medicalized, American system of childbirth, we view women’s pregnant bodies and fetuses through ultrasounds, sonograms and fetal heart monitors without giving it a second thought. In the history of women’s childbearing, ultrasound technology and sonograms are a very recent medical and social development. A trained medical professional in a position of authority and power views the pregnant woman through ultrasound technology, interprets the ultrasound image and confers meaning on it regarding the fetus’ size, health and sex. The couple then shares the image with family and friends in a social ritual that allows them to reinforce the fetus’ individuality and personhood. The woman simply becomes a vessel for carrying and delivering a healthy fetus to term.
Add Facebook and other social media outlets, and the ritual is magnified. Not only are we viewing our pregnant Facebook friends’ bodies through their sonograms but also through their profiles, which are carefully maintained with certain information and photos. Lines of privacy are blurred since there isn’t a way to control who sees and who doesn’t see the sonogram. Endless opportunities exist for friends and family to comment on how the fetus or woman looks, to compare it with their own experiences or our cultural expectations of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. Not to mention the opportunities our online networks have to assign gender to the unborn child.
I don’t judge any woman who decides to document their pregnancy in this way. Ultimately, we individually choose how much or how little to share about ourselves online. Pregnancy is just a temporary state reflected in the constant flow of information on online social media. The presence and staying power of social media like Facebook and Twitter and its potential to add meaning to and change women’s daily, lived experiences is something that feminists need to be critical of and watchful.
Saudi women will get behind the wheel and drive on Friday as part of an organized act of civil disobedience protesting the country’s informal ban against women driving. Women2Drive, a right-to-drive campaign in Saudi Arabia, is the force behind the movement.
Last month, Women2Drive gained momentum and international attention when Manal al-Sharif, a 32 year-old IT security expert, was arrested and jailed for nine days for posting a YouTube video that showed her driving in the eastern city of Khobar. Sharif, an organizer for Women2Drive, was released on May 30 after she pledged not to take part in the campaign.
In an interview with The Guardian, Wajeha al-Huwaider, a women’s rights campaigner and friend of Sharif, who filmed her as she drove, said she was certain Sharif was told to drop the issue as a condition of her release.
“Usually when they are released, they are warned not to get in touch with anybody, not to talk to the media and not to get involved in any activity,” she said. “I am sure they told her we shouldn’t continue with this issue. They told me that and the message was clear to me. I am sure for her it was even stronger.”
In the video, Sharif talks about the inconvenience, humiliation and real safety concerns of not being permitted to drive and having to rely on a male driver or taxi. Nesrine Malik, who writes for The Guardian, also explained the perils of being a woman in Saudi Arabia:
There is nothing empowering or protective about not being allowed to drive. While I was living in Saudi Arabia, in a family of five females with no man in the household, we were permanently at the mercy of our driver to run even the most basic of errands.
If he was late, indisposed or unable to tend to us for some reason, the only alternative was to hail a taxi – a very unpleasant prospect for a woman in a Saudi city. To stand on the side of the road in the city of Riyadh waiting for a taxi to arrive meant braving the harassing calls and jibes from passing motorists, and to be alone in a car with a cab driver in a country where that is rather rare posed its own risks in terms of the liberties the driver feels he may be entitled to take. Sharif herself claimed she was harassed by her driver. Needless to say, there is no public transport available for women.
Videos of Saudi women’s activism and civil disobedience are inspiring and refreshing since the majority of media images in the West of Middle Eastern women are essentializing, exoticized and reek of Orientalism. Grassroots, indigenous feminist campaigns like Women2Drive refute the idea that Saudi women are passive, veiled victims in need of a Western feminist intervention from their patriarchal society.
Instead, American feminists are also organizing online letter-writing campaigns, rallies at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington D.C. and e-mailing their own driving videos to firstname.lastname@example.org in support of Women2Drive.
What are you doing to support Saudi women’s activism?
As if a white, heterosexual male assuming the fictional identity of a lesbian in Syria was not appalling enough, the editor of the online lesbian news site “Lez Get Real” is also a married American man.
Today’s news that “Paula Brooks,” editor of “Lez Get Real” since 2008, is really 58 year-old Bill Graber, a retired construction worker from Ohio, comes on the heels of yesterday’s news that Tom MacMaster is the author of the blog, “A Gay Girl in Damascus,” which chronicled the life of Syrian-American blogger Amina Arraf. MacMaster, 40, created and assumed the fictional identity of Amina Arraf who wrote about the Syrian government’s crackdown during the Arab Spring uprisings through his character. The blog became an Internet sensation last week when readers discovered that Amina Arraf was kidnapped by government security agents. Journalists started digging and asking questions and learned that no one had met Amina and that her photo was a London woman’s.
MacMaster came clean and issued an apology to readers in which he explained why he created Amina Arraf:
“I’m also an argumentative sort and a bit of a nerd. I was involved with numerous online science-fiction/alternate-history discussion lists and, as a part of that process, I saw lots of incredibly ignorant and stupid positions repeated on the Middle East. I noticed that when I, a person with a distinctly Anglo name, made comments on the Middle East, the facts I might present were ignored and I found myself accused of hating America, Jews, etc. I wondered idly whether the same ideas presented by someone with a distinctly Arab and female identity would have the same reaction.”
Aside from lying and betraying their readers’ trust, MacMaster and Graber deliberately chose to assume a lesbian female identity because they thought others would perceive them with more credibility and authenticity than their white, Western, heteronormative maleness would allow them. (It was reported that Graber, who is also in favor of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, started “Lez Get Real” after seeing the mistreatment of friends who were a lesbian couple.)
This bit of information is the most interesting part of the story. Of course, the Internet freely allows lots of people to be someone they’re not. But deliberately choosing a lesbian/woman of color identity deserves more thought. It’s not surprising that the voices and experiences of marginalized, oppressed women are often viewed by others in dominant positions of power as being more authentic and real than their own privileged social identities. This thinking “others” women and makes invisible the social and political relationships that mutually construct our identities. In a sexist culture that assigns emotions to femininity and rationality to masculinity, is it any wonder why men such as MacMaster and Graber think that assuming a particular feminine identity would lend them more clout on issues that they are passionate about? MacMaster and Graber’s good intentions will never be enough. Instead, they were speaking for others in the most damaging way possible.