Get Angry. Go Viral. Use Social Media for Change!

Groped on the street? Can’t get good medical care for your family? Want to topple a dictator? Tell your story online—and start your own revolution. These women did.

Alexis Jetter
Photograph: iStock

Al-Sharif was quickly arrested and jailed for nine days. But the detainment backfired: The video went viral, fueling a protest on June 17 in which dozens of women defied authorities and drove through the streets, the largest such protest in 20 years. Dutt cautions that in any country, sharing stories online may have drawbacks; for instance, a battered wife could be traced by her abuser. And repressive governments are learning fast how to censor or delete whatever content they consider objectionable. “We’re in a time of transformation,” Dutt says. “We have to understand both the peril and the power of this moment.”

BUT IF SHARING personal stories can sometimes put women in danger, it can also push them to take ingenious approaches to vexing issues. When Chiao, an international-development specialist trained at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, was working at the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights in Cairo, she noticed that her young volunteers often arrived at the office in tears. And she learned the reason: They’d been followed into the building, pushed up against the wall and groped. These stories drove Chiao to create HarassMap. “We had all experienced harassment, but it’s something else when you see a young, idealistic volunteer come inside crying because she’s been harassed at the entrance to the building,” says Chiao, a casually elegant young woman, who spoke via Skype from her Cairo apartment. “You can’t trust your doctor, you can’t go to school, you can’t go to the supermarket.” The stats bear her out: Eight in 10 Egyptian women say they’re harassed routinely, often daily—even if fully veiled, according to a report from the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights.

Chiao and her three cofounders had no money, no office space, not even a hotline. But they had heard about a new crowd-sourcing technology that could help women employ the only self-defense tool most Egyptians have at their fingertips: a cheap mobile phone. (In Egypt the so-called Facebook Revolution relied, for the most part, on the least expensive, least “smart” phones on the market.) With the help of NiJeL, a social justice–oriented digital--mapping firm in Arizona, Chiao and her partners launched their site in December.

Today, all across Egypt, from tiny oases in the western desert to the Red Sea in the east, women and girls (and occasionally men) are pulling out their phones and texting the details of abuse to HarassMap. Some wait until they get to a safe place, then send dispatches via computer to the organization’s website; still others use HarassMap’s Facebook page or Twitter feed. Within seconds, the woman receives a phone number she can call for free support services for legal aid, counseling and self-defense classes. Once she gives her location and explains what happened, the information is fed into a system that uses an interactive Google map of Egypt to identify harassment hot spots, color-coded by categories such as “touching,” “sexual invites” or “indecent exposure.”

The real-time heat maps are striking, but it’s the eye-popping stories that make revoltingly clear what it’s like to be a woman on Egypt’s streets. And they have convinced a small but growing number of Egyptians that sexual harassment is a national embarrassment. HarassMap now has more than 300 volunteers, half of them men, who regularly fan out into troubled neighborhoods and educate people on the street about the problem. In just a few months, support for the group has lit up the country’s blogosphere and its television and radio stations. Last June one of the nation’s most respected newspapers, Al-Masry Al-Youm, published a series of articles to “dissect the reasons” behind what it calls “this festering issue”—and gave HarassMap some high-end publicity. The site could have been organized without social media, Chiao says, but then would have needed years to develop its current size and influence. “With social media,” says Chiao, “people can hear about a problem, learn about it and speak up about it all at the same time.”

First Published August 24, 2011

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