Fatwas and Social Media

Norah Abhokhodair & Sarah Vieweg

We’ve recently been having long conversations, coming up with half-baked theoretical motivations, and thought of about 9 different conference and journal paper ideas…all around the socio-technical research each of us does in the Middle East. We specifically focus on the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (GCC), which are comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Of late, there has been a lot of discussion, worry, and intrigue in this part of the world regarding the ways in which technology — specifically, web-based communication technologies such as social media sites — are changing the foundations of Gulf culture, and probably causing a shift towards modernity and a loss of traditional norms, practices, and perspectives.

Recently, a conservative newspaper in Saudi Arabia published an interview with a Sheik (Muslim cleric) who supports a recent fatwa (a point of Islamic law) that claims that women should not be allowed to access the Internet without supervision or permission from a muhram (related male guardian). This is to say that every time a girl or woman wishes to use her phone or other connected device to access the Internet for any reason — be it to get directions, do research, connect with friends and family — she must do so while under a muhram’s eye — usually a father, husband, or brother.

The primary fear or concern regarding Saudi women accessing the Internet unsupervised is that online communication on social media in particular may lead to committing a sin knowingly or unknowingly. For example, proponents of this fatwa claim that social media have opened a new way for unrelated males and females to communicate that is free from the social constraints that are more easily enforced in public places such as schools and shops. The concern is that social media communication might evolve into phone or face-to-face communication between unmarried women and men, which is forbidden under Sharia law. So we see distress regarding the perceived ease with which unapproved activity can take place via social networking sites; namely, men and women can communicate, which is not something that can easily happen in other, easily accessible environments.

Regardless of how we may feel about this fatwa, and whether we agree with the premise, what is of note regarding the “complicating the online/offline binary” is that this kind of online communication (i.e. social media) developed with Western users in mind and adopted globally, is causing discomfort to many, such as the conservative Muslim clerics who aren’t happy the new values introduced to their society that are in tension with their religious and traditional values. Many of these clerics are unfamiliar with social media (and the Internet overall) and as a result, the lack of control over an unknown realm is cause for reaction. For us as researchers focusing on this part of the world, this confusion with the foreign object is interesting to observe for many reasons. Something we will continue to follow going forward are the tactics clerics will formulate and utilize to influence laws and policies that equate social media communication with face-to-face communication, without taking the properties and nuances of each into consideration.

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Norah Abokhodair

I'm an applied social scientist with a passion for researching and developing the next generation of social and collaborative technologies. Currently, I'm a Research Program Manager at the Microsoft Learning Innovation Lab where our cross-functional team of PMs, UX Researchers, and Software Engineers employ design thinking to discover the future of seamless learning experiences, leveraging the power of Artificial Intelligence.

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