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Women and Wikipedia
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The Problem of Wikipedia’s Gender Bias
The other pages on this Wikispace have identified and explored Wikipedia’s language barrier. But language is not Wikipedia’s only problem. Even in English, for all of the incredible progress it has made in its remarkably short, ten-year existence, the demographic of contributors is shockingly narrow, homogenous, and un-representative. Roughly 80 percent of Wikipedia contributors are males hovering around their mid-20s. A staggering less than 13 percent are women. The Wikimedia foundation’s goal is to increase female contributors to 25 percent by 2015, but as Cohen writes, it “is running up against the traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving realm that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women” (Cohen, 2011).
The question of how to increase content creation among women in the Middle East and North Africa is doubly complex as issues of gender become conflated with politics, which, in the wake of the Arab Spring are particularly contentious and unstable. Further, Arab women are diversified by culture, linguistic dialects, religion, class, and education that vary greatly not only from country to country, but even within a single country. This page will focus solely on Egypt. Drawing on the opinions of women, it will suggest potential avenues for Wikipedia to garner participation of Egyptian women, from the domestic to the politically active.
Some Facts about Women's Access to Technology in Egypt
In her empirical study of ITCs amogsnt women in Egypt, Mona Badran found that female usage of computers and mobile ownership is less than men :(25% to female whereas 75% to male for mobile) and "in urban areas 55.48% of Internet cafes users are male while 44.52% are female”(4). In Egypt,
"internet access is still relatively expensive and that IT cafes and generally public point of access are the mean to increase broadband penetration in these countries" (Badran). Badran points to the following factors as responsible for the technological exclusion of women: "limited access to systems and hardware (personal and infrastructure), IT illiteracy, limited access to telecommunications policy process, [and a] lack of engagement and awareness of existence of the technology." (Badran, 6). Simultaneously optimistic and realistic, Badran suggests that "overcoming the material access and making Egyptian women realize the need for the technology constitutes an important part of the solution to the digital exclusion problem"(Bardran, 6).
The current "youth bulge" is another optimistic statistic for Wikipedia: the fact that "
one in five people in the Middle East and North Africa is between the ages of 15 and 24" means that there is a large target population of young, tech-savvy, Arabic speakers (Assaad and Roudi-Fahimi quoted in Daly, 2007, 60)
. Watch the growth of female internet users in the Middle East on
Women and the Arab Spring
Women have taken a noticeably active and public role in the Arab Spring. Not only are women rallying in the streets alongside men, they are reporting, blogging, running as parliamentary candidates (Gamila Ismail), and even as presidential candidates (Bothaina Kamel). The infamous April 6 “Facebook strike” was catalyzed by the online action of 30-year-old Esraa Abdel Fattah Ahmed Rashid (Shapiro, 2009).
Egyptian Female Blogging Culture
It is impossible to examine online female culture in the Middle East without discussing the “phenomenon” of the Egyptian “cyber feminist” blogosphere. It is interesting to compare the inequitable world of Wikipedia content contributors to the fairly equitable world of blogging. Not only is Egyptian online culture a bourgeoning topic of academic study and journalistic inquiry, the blogosphere is one of the only places to gather un-censored information about Egyptian culture from a female perspective. Despite the widespread attention and undeniable impact of the “phenomenon,” however, the actual numbers of the blogosphere are relatively small. Egypt has almost 79 million people, and only .003% of them blog (Otterman, 15). According to the Internet World Stats Website, women make up about 30 percent of Internet users in Egypt, as Otterman points out, “a statistic that generally exceeds their presence in the formal work force” (2). Given the female literacy rate is only 44 percent (as compared to the 67 percent male literacy rate), the fact that women comprise about 50% of Egyptian bloggers (Otterman, 1-2) is astounding. Another factor to consider about female blogging culture that is not entirely positive, is that its pervasiveness among women partially stems from the high female un-employment rate and average marriage age of 24 (Otterman, 2). As Otterman aptly notes, “young women may have more time on their hands to write” (2). The female blogosphere, then, represents somewhat of a double-edged sword; while blogging provides women with an outlet for their voices to be heard, it is simultaneously symptomatic of their prohibition from doing so in the “real” world.
Appealing to the Blogging Community
Given the neutrality of Wikipedia content, would contributing articles appeal to opinionated bloggers?
With access to correct, clear, accessible information in Arabic, ideally, people will be better equipped to express well informed opinions whatever their activist cause. Further, the neutral content of Wikipedia is unlikely to be censored or punished by the government, which may be an appealing factor to those committed to the dissemination of information. To target and inspire bloggers, specialized events should be created that would bring together a group of women interested in a central issue. Combining content creation with a networking opportunity could create incentive and make for a productive, collaborative experience.
Hadeer Younis is a blogger and a student at the German University of Cairo. I asked for her opinion on the appeal of creating content for Wikipedia: “I am not sure I have valuable and accurate content to share that isn't already there,” she answered. When presented with the idea of an interactive workshop/event, however, her response was much more enthusiastic: “I think a workshop would be a brilliant idea, because it would encourage people to actually consider contributing. I would definitely attend that and try to participate as much as I could”.
The issue of neutrality did not seem to bother Ms. Younis: “Wikipedia's neutrality does not prevent me from wanting to contribute. A blog has a purpose and Wikipedia has another.” Of course this is only one blogger’s opinion.
I interviewed Mr. Doug Reside, digital curator for the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts which hosted a Wikipedia “editathon” specifically for musical enthusiasts to get a sense of what made the even so successful. He espoused the importance of having a unified theme to garner enthusiasm and attendance: “It was nice because participants could engage with and help other, creating a community of practice and collaborative research space” (Reside). When asked about whether or not such an event might appeal to bloggers, he replied: “consensus perspective needs to be backed up by resources, this is extremely important for the rhetorical process. The reality is people who are going to find out about something are going first to Wikipedia rather than an opinionated blog entry” (Reside).
The increased presence of women in Egyptian Public life can largely be attributed to education. As Naomi Wolf points out: “Two generations ago, only a small minority of the daughters of the elite received a university education. Today, women account for more than half of the students at Egyptian universities” (Naomi Wolf). Dr. Fatma Meawed, Assistant Professor at the German University of Cairo confirms the strong presence of girls in her courses: “We don’t have this problem of girls not taking technology courses. There are more women in my classes than men and they are more brilliant than the men.” While this is good news for Wikipedia, the problem with targeting universities is that most courses are conducted in English, and the ability to write in Arabic has often completely disappeared.
Dr. Meawad espoused both the need and the difficulty for translating into Arabic. She started a teacher empowerment initiative called
, which promotes the availability of technological content in Arabic to state university and high school teachers who don’t speak English. She describes the extreme linguistic difficulties she ran into: “Once its in Arabic it’s hard to find the words, hard to fit it into my normal workflow,” she said.
An obvious advantage to targeting universities, is, of course, the unrestricted access to the internet, and, generally, computers, which is certaintly not the case for the general Egyptian population.
High schools might prove more useful for Wikipedia's Arabic initiative. For the most part, courses are conducted in Arabic, and students often demonstrate stronger writing abilities their native language than those in universities. Further, by targeting high schools, the long term effects of Wikipedia's initiative will be greater. Dr. Meawed agrees: “Awareness should start in highschool” she said. “If you want the culture to be used to it, it should be incorporated into high school projects.” Mona Adly, the principle of the Nasr American High School in Cairo advised that such an initiative would have a higher success rate in the American school system (as opposed to the language schools or the public Egyptian schools). The curriculum in the American schools is not pre-determined by the Government’s Ministry of Education, she explained, but rather on a more individual basis, under the supervision of one of the accreditation committees, and in accordance to the standards in the U.S. Adly was enthusiastic about the possibility of the integration of Wikipedia editing into the curriculum: all you need to implement such a program are the “kinds of teachers who are willing to spend the time for such a project. As we are talking I think I would have two or three teachers who would be interested.”
Women’s role as wives and mothers within the Egyptian familial structure might prove useful for Wikipedia. As Dr. Meawed explains,Egyptian mothers spend a lot of time online. Since their priority is the education of their children, and their kids are online, women must be adept at navigating the Internet so that they can help and learn with them: “If her child is learning German, she has to learn it too. A woman is always learning.” (Meawed) A program/event/workshop could be designed for mothers and their children in which they could learn, together, to edit/create a Wikipedia page pertaining to a topic the child is learning at school. The incentive is built directly into the familial structure, and would simultaneously facilitate an interactive setting in which mothers could actively engage in their children’s education, while strengthening community ties and sharing ideas with like-minded women.
Wikipedian Enthusiasm Amongst Women in Technology
The interest in improving Arabic Wikipedia and fostering cooperative opportunities for women and technology is there to harvest. As Dr. Meawed points out with regards to the university milieu,
“everyone is comfortable relying on Wikipedia as a source… But the editing is the barrier” (Meawed). Nada Rifki, a 21 year old participant of
an organization dedicated to training girls from under-served communities in media and journalism shares a similar opinion. When asked if editing Wikipedia would be of interest to her, she responded that she has often come across
articles, which she found incomplete or imprecise, but never thought to edit them until the question was presented to her. Now, she said: “why not!” (Rifki).
Olivia Shen works for Cisco Engineers and was one of the participants in the
conference, this past year. Sponsored by the U.S. State department, the program originated when Obama made a request to build stronger ties between the U.S. and Islamic countries and pairs women in Silicon Valley with women in the Middle East in a professional mentorship program. Shen stressed the importance of conferences and workshops geared specifically toward women: “Even for American women in working in technology there’s an element of loneliness. Because most of the people you are dealing with are men. When these women went home they had the larger network community to draw from. Its important to have people of the same gender they can look to as mentors as that they can draw on for support” (Shen). When asked if she could foresee an interest among participants to incorporate Wikipedia content creation into the program, with each woman drawing on her area of technical expertise, she said, positively, “Yes. Absolutely”.
What is most important is the creation of a symbiotic relationship between women and Wikipedia. Wikipedia has the advantage of adaptability; it can be many different things for many different people: a platform for activism for bloggers, an educational tool for students, and a means of empowerment and democracy through knowledge for all users and contributors.
This research, which is solely focused on Egypt, suggests that Wikipedia's endeavors are timely and that it should have success in garnering the participation of at least some female Arabic contributors from five identifiable groups: mothers, university students, high school students, bloggers, and working women. Women's involvement in the Arab Spring and their presence in the blogosphere suggest they want a voice in creating that knowledge and power now. From incentives that nurture networks, to helping mothers educating themselves and their children, to curriculum development for high schools and universities, to mentoring partnerships for working women, the Wikimedia Foundation should find willing participants within these segments of the female population in Egypt.
Adly, Mona. Skype Interview. 3 December 2011.
Cohen, Noam. "Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia's Contributor List"
The New York Times Online.
Badran, Mona M. “Is ITC Empowering Women in Egypt? An Empirical Study.” Cairo University. Accessed Online. 1 December 2011. <
Daly, Sunny. “Young Women as Activists in Contemporary Egypt: Anxiety, Leadership, and the Next Generation.”
Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies,
6:2 (Spring, 2010), 59-85.
Dougherty, Jill. "U.S. helps tech-savvy Mideastern women experience Silicon Valley"
Meawed, Fatma. Skype Interview. 20 November 2011.
Mahfouz, Aya. Skype Interview. 4 November 2011.
Rifki, Nada. “GlobalGirl Media.” Email to Emma Myers. 21 November 2011.
Reside, Doug. Personal Interview. 13 November 2011.
Shen, Olivia. Phone Interview. 7 December 2011.
Otterman, Sharon. "Publicizing the Private: Egyptian Women Bloggers Speak Out"
Arab Media and Society.
Wolf, Naomi. “The Middle East’s Feminist Revolution.” 28 February 2011.
Accessed Online. 6 December 2011. <
Younis, Hadeer. “Arab Women and Media Project.” Email to Emma Myers. 12 November 2011.
This research was done by Emma Myers, a first-year student in Columbia University's Master of Arts, Film studies Program. Email her at
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Wikimedia in the Arab World
Tapping into Existing Volunteer Networks
Incorporating Wikipedia Editing Into University Curricula
Blogging Culture in the Region and Engaging Bloggers
The Use of Video
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