THERE’S SOMETHING TERRIBLY RAW about the stories women post on HarassMap.org, a website started by four friends last year to confront Egypt’s epidemic levels of sexual harassment. And that is precisely why the dispatches are so riveting. “Women write these reports when they’re really angry, and the storytelling is quite powerful,” says cofounder Rebecca Chiao, a U.S.-born women’s rights advocate who has lived in Cairo for seven years. “It’s very convincing.”
And startling. Raised in a culture of female deference, Egyptian women are breaking their centuries-old code of silence, blowing the lid off sexual harassment with gritty, uncensored accounts that hold nothing back. That’s triggering a sea change in Egypt, where an increasing number of men and women who follow HarassMap on Facebook and Twitter are taking to the streets to fight the scourge.
HarassMap is just one example of a phenomenon that’s galvanizing women around the globe. From North Africa to Middle America, storytelling—once shared intimately around a campfire or across a fence, now uploaded to millions through social media—is helping women combat street harassment, topple brutal dictators and lobby for decent health care. Social media is the medium; women’s personal stories are the message. Together they are igniting the world. “I truly believe that women online are the next wave of change,” says PunditMom blogger Joanne Bamberger, author of the recently published Mothers of Intention: How Women & Social Media Are Revolutionizing Politics in America. “So many women feel, ‘I’m overwhelmed with my life. How can I make a dent?’ But women have an ability to connect online through storytelling. They realize, ‘Oh, there are people out there like me. They’re part of a group called X, and this is what they’re doing. Maybe I can reach out to them.’ Social media has given people the tools to make that little dent.”
Savvy organizers have long known that women are inspired to fight for change when they hear stories that outrage them or when they tell their own tales of social injustice. In the 1970s, consciousness raising was all about sharing stories, particularly those that felt humiliating when kept to oneself but were empowering, even exhilarating, when verbalized. Today Web activists are creating online communities that encourage women to voice their -experiences—then pointing those women toward ways to take direct action, like running for office, meeting with a senator or writing a check. In other words, Web activism hasn’t replaced face-to-face organizing; it’s just the newest funnel into it. “Women tend to shut down once political rhetoric enters the conversation,” says Deanna Zandt, author of Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking. But storytelling can transcend politics. “It reflects our very primal need to be connected to one another: This is what it’s like to be in my shoes,” she says. “And it can inspire people to make large moves.”
Seismic moves. After all, it was a 26-year-old Egyptian woman, Asmaa Mahfouz, whose videotaped calls to action went viral on Facebook and are credited with helping to draw the first large pro-democracy crowds to Cairo’s Tahrir Square on January 25. “I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone,” she said, looking directly into the camera from an armchair in her home, her childlike face framed by a headscarf. “Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me on January 25.” On that day, hundreds of thousands of women—and men—poured into Tahrir Square; 17 days later, they dislodged a dictator.