Privacy & Social Media in the Arab Gulf

privacy cartoon
A photo posted by Abdullah Jaber (@jabertoon) on Oct 9, 2014 at 11:31am PDT. The word in the middle is “Khososyah” which is the closest word to privacy in Arabic.

For years now, I have studied a topic that is both deeply personal to me as well as largely understudied in the academic world – online privacy in the context of the Middle East. This blog posts summarizes one of my recently published research papers that delves into privacy and social media in the context of the Arab Gulf. I conducted this research in collaboration with Sarah Vieweg; our findings are reported in our paper titled “Privacy & Social Media in the Context of the Arab Gulf.” The results of this study will be presented at the ACM conference for Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) held in Brisbane, Australia on June 4th of this year. I hope you will be able to attend our presentation, as we will be discussing a topic that is relevant in today’s world more than ever. If you are unable to attend, this post summarizes some of the main ideas.

During my time at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) program, my research group and I invested a great deal of energy in researching the meaning of “privacy” in the Arab Gulf. Our main goal was to understand how Arab youth use social media platforms and the workarounds they employ to protect certain cultural and religious values while interacting with these technologies. While conducting our research in this context, we found that the concept of “privacy” in the Arab Gulf differs from the way it has been shaped by the available definitions and theories of privacy with origins in Western literature and philosophy. Though there are similarities, there are important distinctions.

Due to a lack of Western understanding of what the concept of “privacy” means in the context of the Arab Gulf, we decided to research it. We accompanied and supported our deep knowledge of the Arab culture and religious background with data, conducting 45 interviews with men and women from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. We delved into their understanding of privacy in relationship to social media – analyzing how their cultural and religious context impacts their usage of this relatively new, global, modern, “exposed” form of communication. We also studied the historical meaning of “khososyah,” which is the closest word in Arabic to “privacy.” Our early research results revealed the following aspects.

Privacy is inextricably linked with modesty & respect.

While prevalent conceptions of privacy in the Western world focus on the individual, and their relationship to “a group” (namely, notions of seclusion and control), we found that Arab Gulf notions of privacy are interlinked with the importance of modesty. Rana Sobh and Russell Belk explain that “the notion of privacy in the Arab-Islamic paradigm is largely related to the requirement of modest self-presentation for Muslims in public, particularly women… the underlying meaning of privacy in the Arab-Islamic culture is respect and not seclusion.” In our data we found that presenting oneself as modest, in both dress and behavior online, is of great importance to being a respectable member of Gulf society. Privacy plays an important role in how modesty and respect are maintained in online environments.

Privacy is the protection of the sanctity of one’s body and house.

“Hurma” (حرمة) is an Arabic word that means sanctity, and it symbolizes the concept closest to the notion of privacy in the English vocabulary. In the Quran, privacy is first mentioned in the context of instructing people to seek permission before entering another’s home. The purpose is to protect the sanctity—or hurma—of the house and the body. One is required to knock on a door three times before accessing another’s space. This rule is in place to avoid walking in on another while in a state of undress, or while with one’s spouse/family. Entering without permission risks exposing one’s “awrah” (عورة). In Islam, “awrah” literally refers to the intimate parts of one’s body. 

In this figure, we depict awrah at the center, as it is of the most value; it is the object to be shielded. We show hurma encompassing awrah; it is the space that surrounds the awrah, protecting it. Haq al-khososyah (which is the common term used in Saudi Arabia to refer to privacy as a right) encircles the both hurma and awrah; it empowers people to legitimately protect their awrah.

Islamic Interpretation of 3 aspects of “privacy”
The three aspect of privacy in Islam

We found that participants think about these three aspects of privacy when they are making a decision about sharing photos online. A Saudi male participant said:

“Four years ago when Facebook changed the privacy settings, one of my friends liked a picture of my family, the picture had my sister in it, and I got really upset and embarrassed that he could see that picture of my sister in it, so I deactivated my account for about six months, I think.”

The participant has a responsibility to protect his hurma, in this case, his sister’s reputation. A non relative male was able to view a photo of his sister, which was in effect an exposure of his sister’s awrah (in this case, her face). This is considered shameful situation, and one which brought embarrassment to the participant and his family.

Privacy is more than managing interpersonal boundaries. 

Altman’s Privacy Regulation theory argues against the meaning of privacy as total withdrawal, and instead advocates for understanding it as a process of optimization. In other words, privacy is attained as individuals arrive at the acceptable personal balance between withdrawal and disclosure to a group. So you can think of it as a lever where individuals and groups are negotiating boundaries. However, our data shows this theory falls short when explaining privacy in the context of the Arab Gulf for two reasons:

  1. The collectivistic nature of the society allows us to assume that the concept of privacy is not solely about achieving interpersonal boundaries.
  2. In this context, we need to consider the role of religion and tradition and how they influence the need and expectation of privacy.

Privacy is a societal expectation.

Our participants were very clear about how they experienced privacy in different ways relative to different contexts (i.e. West vs. Middle East; offline vs. online). One participant explained that privacy “is not about me and my beliefs; it is about the audience and what they believe in and their objective.” Another explained that privacy isn’t something they need to pursue and that it is a lot more of a right over here [in Saudi] than anywhere else. People actually respect your privacy here, where in the West you will be asked too many details. Generally speaking, the idea of privacy in the West is hard to achieve…sometimes it is something you have to stand up for.

These were some of the main points we found in our early investigation of this topic. To me personally, these new realizations of what privacy means in this context and how it is deeply rooted in Islamic practices and cultural tradition, explained the behaviors I see with how my sisters and my friends back home use social media. It is fascinating to see how people around the world make this technology “their own”, a technology that was developed in the West with a different set of users in mind and then appropriated to fit the global context. This type of research is important because the more we know about how different cultural groups use technology the more we are able to influence policy and suggest culturally sensitive design principles that will make technology more usable by the wider audience.  

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