CHI 17 SIG Meeting on HCI Across the Arab World.

I’m happy to invite you to join our SIG Meeting at CHI’17 on HCI Across the Arab World.

When:   Wednesday 10 May, 16:30 – 17:50
Where:  CHI’17, Colorado Convention Center, Denver, CO | Room: 301


00:00 – 00:10  Welcome and Introduction
00:10 – 00:20  Experiences and Goals Presentation
00:20 – 00:35  First round of discussion – Contextual Challenges of HCI Research in the Arab World
00:35 – 00:45  Present back to group
00:45 – 00:60  Second round of discussion – HCI Research Opportunities in the Arab World
00:60 – 00:70  Present back to group
00:70 – 00:80  What’s Next?


Tales from DIS’16 and Australia

I just got back from a very eventful DIS’16 where I was serving as a student volunteer and was also speaking at the conference. I got to meet other amazing student volunteers and attendees who came to Brisbane from all around the world and met at DIS. The best part were our volunteer t-shirts which read GENIUS on the back; we all did feel like geniuses, especially when people needed help and they yelled: “Excuse me, genius!”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Some photos from the conference with my fellow geniuses (Student Volunteers)

To me, DIS had a different flavor than the conferences I usually attended (CSCW & CHI): it was more compact, which allowed for many good conversations to occur with researchers and other students. (Also, it was easy to remember people’s names because you get to see them more than once a day.) In addition, the conference was very focused on tangible design, more so than theory or social science, which made for a really fun and very interactive experiance.

Me Trying out Oculus

Being hosted by the awesome crew of QUT’s Urban Informatics Research Lab, it also had many interesting displays of user-centered smart cities and urban planning projects. Marcus Foth, the conference chair this year, did a brilliant job in organizing the conference. The way the conference was planned offered us many opprotonities to leave the conference venue and experience and interact with the city of Brisbane.

During the pre conference events, I participated in 2 workshops: 1) Internet of Things: Designing with Human Values and 2) The Making of Cross-Device Experiences: A Hands-on Workshop. Both workshops were good and hands-on. In the first one, we got to play with Particle’s Photon development kit to program sensors that we wanted to implement in the conference space to enable socializing during breaks.

I also gave a talk, which was one of the most attended talks at the conference (yay!). I presented early results of the research I’ve been conducting with Sarah Vieweg  on social media and the Arab Gulf in our paper “Privacy and Social Media in the Context of the Arab Gulf.” The work is also explained in my previous blog post.

Picture from the talk and the audience

Thank you for all the new friends and the entire DIS team. In addition, I’d like to thank QCRI for funding my travels to attend the conference and my collaborate Sarah Vieweg for her continued Support.


Update: I am at DIS 2016 – Brisbane

Finally, my dream came true and I made it to Australia!

I am currently in Brisbane, Australia to participate in the DIS 2016 conference. I am excited to partake in the conference in 2 different ways: 1-  I will volunteering with other awesome students from around the world to organize the conference. 2- I will be presenting my paper on “Privacy and Social media in the context of the Arab Gulf,” which is summarized in my last blog post. The paper presentation will be held on Tuesday (June 7th) during the session 5.1 About Design that begins at 13.30 – 14.50. Please feel free to attend if you are around the area.  

Wish me luck!

At the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art – QAGOMA


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.  

CHI 2016 Update: Workshop Participation

I am thrilled to announce that I will be participating in the CHI16 workshop Bridging the Gap between Privacy by Design and Privacy in Practice .  In the workshop we will be discussing ways to bridge the gap between design and practice. I aim to bring an angle that is rarely discussed in such forums that is cross cultural privacy design.I will talking about my design framework that advocates for culturally sensitive design that is inspired from my research experience working at the Value Sensitive Design lab and the work I’m doing with Arab youth on privacy issues with social media use. For more details please read my accepted position paper titled Culturally Sensitive Design for Privacy: A case study of the Arabian Gulf and if you are in San Jose during CHI16 please come and speak with me.

Twitter, Islam & The Aftermath of Paris Terrorist Attacks

The tragic terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015 in Paris sparked a massive global discussion via social media between those attacking and those defending Islam and Muslims. The March 22, 2016 terrorist attack in Brussels is now sparking a similar and heated online debate. This caused our research team from Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) – Walid Magdy, Kareem Darwish and myself (Norah Abokhodair) – to ask: what is the breakdown of this sentiment?

We analyzed 8.36 million tweets beginning seven hours after the Paris attacks and continuing for another 50 hours. Searching for words and hashtags relevant to the event, we then identified about 900,000 tweets relating to Islam and Muslims. Our results showed that a majority (61%) of these tweets defended Muslims and Islam using the hashtags #MuslimsAreNotTerrorist (34,925 tweets at the time of writing) and #MuslimsStandWithParis (1,228 tweets). On the other hand, a considerable number of tweets – originating from Western countries such as the Netherlands, France and the U.S. – used language that blamed all Muslims and Islam for these attacks. These tweets ranged from asking their government to take action against Muslims to using the hashtag #KillAllMuslims (206 tweets). Check out the graph below for a per-country breakdown:

Attitude towards Muslims by country. Numbered beside each bar represents the rank of the country on defending Muslims.

For example, one of the most followed accounts that appeared in our most retweeted attacking tweets was the U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s.

In the tweet, Trump slams the Democratic Party and president Obama for not referring to the Daesh/ISIS attacks as Islamic Terrorism. When reviewing Trump’s timeline, one can see that this is part of a series of similar generalizations about Muslim culture. But can following and reading @realDonaldTrump mean you are also more likely to blame all Islam and Muslims for the tragic actions of a few?

To investigate this, our follow-up study (recently accepted to the ACM WebScience conference in collaboration with researchers from Melbourne University in Australia, will link in later post) focused on U.S. Twitter data to examine the effects of social network interactions on future attitudes. By studying pre-event interactions – including who you follow, who follows you, and the content and people you tweet and retweet – we can predict your attitude and your political stance. We confirmed that by assessing users’ stated stance based on their post-event tweets. Most impressively, we found that pre-event interactions predict someone’s attitudes towards Muslims with high accuracy, even if they never discussed the topic before. Social media messages and networks therefore have profound influence on political attitudes and shape national and international policy. Future research will allow for more accurate predictions of community response to crises and the drivers of policy change. 


Spatial & Social Connectedness in the Arabian Gulf: How to connect when connection is forbidden

Being back in the region after living abroad for too long has been eye opening for me in many ways. I consider myself a person with feet in two worlds: The West and The Middle East. It is a very unique place to be and I feel very privileged. I’m reminded of this privilege in the most random moments, for example, I will be dining  in a restaurant in Doha and I could clearly understand and empathise to both types of the restaurant clientele: the locals and the expats.  This superpower needs more than just being bilingual. It is not only a language power … language shapes maybe 40%. In my opinion, it is the understanding of the lived experience of both places, feelings of home and what ‘home’ means to both parties,  along with language and some other secret ingredients. Fascinating ! Right…

A photo from Susie of Arabia’s blog showing a restaurant dining area in Jeddah. In the photo you can see the segregation between expats, Saudi women and Saudi men more clear by color. The expats (wearing Western clothing) in one corner, the men (wearing white thobs) all together taking somewhat the bottom side corner, and then the women (wearing all black) clustered at the top corner. 

Anyways,  this experience inspired me and my mentor, Sarah Vieweg at QCRI to write together a position paper to the CSCW16 Workshop on Spatial and Social Connectedness in Virtual and Mediated Environments. The theme of our submission is focused on explaining the unique work environment in 2 Gulf countries (Qatar and Saudi Arabia) and how the day-to-day interactions are shifting slowly to mediated environment and in many cases aided by technical solutions. We provide the example of Instagram shops and how they are empowering to women who lack the support or approval of the family to either work outside the home or start their own business.

Here is a link to the submission. As usual your thoughts and comments are always welcomed.



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.