Communication Revolutionaries

Published in the Winter 2012 issue of SSA Magazine
This is a review of a paper published in Social Service Review.

A new study looks at what the Internet offers women living under military occupation

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian remembers the crowding, the shouting, the waiting and the sensation of being in “a very trapped space” when she was stuck at a military checkpoint outside Jerusalem. When she took out her laptop to work, local youths pressed close around the car. “I heard them say, ‘I wish I had that computer. I would tell the world what was happening,‘” she recalls.

The experience launched Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a professor of law and social work at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on an inquiry into the use of telecommunication under conditions of military occupation. Now, in a study entitled “E-Resistance among Palestinian Women: Coping in Conflict Ridden Areas,” she shows how young Palestinian women use computers and cell phones to deal with isolation and powerlessness in everyday life on the West Bank.

The use of modern communications technology for political empowerment has been much discussed in connection with the Arab Spring. Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s study suggests that the same technology can also serve important therapeutic purposes, helping young women cope with poverty, patriarchal society and the hardships of a military occupation that restricts movement, divides people from family and friends, and introduces an inescapable uncertainty and fear into their lives.

“It’s about human suffering,” says Shalhoub-Kevorkian. “How can you use technology to reduce human suffering in conditions of constant uncertainty?” Shalhoub-Kevorkian sought the views of 112 female college students aged 17 to 21 from Jerusalem and the West Bank, and of 17 Palestinian mental health workers, most of them women. Her study shows that young Palestinian women use technology much like young women anywhere: to keep in touch with family and friends, to carry on romantic relationships, and to look for jobs and educational opportunities. But the difficulties of life under military occupations give communications technology a heightened significance. Shalhoub-Kevorkian writes that Palestinian women use the Internet and cell phones to preserve and strengthen social ties in circumstances where movement is severely restricted.

The Internet also gives young women who might otherwise be marginalized an opportunity to seek information and to communicate with others. One young woman told Shalhoub-Kevorkian that the Internet had become her “breathing pipe.” “If soldiers prevent me from leaving Al’Ezariyyeh [her village],” the young woman said, “I do not feel restricted or under siege. I can chat with my friends, hear their news and hardships, get any material I missed while at home, and even send messages and documents from my home, without getting the soldier’s permission and without being harassed and dragged into their nasty checkpoints.”

In some ways, Shalhoub-Kevorkian suggests, technology makes possible new forms of activism. One woman described how she used her cell phone to record the expulsion of her family and demolition of her home, then used a computer to tell the story to human rights groups and appeal for help. “I felt that the Internet became my only way to fight back,” she said.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian also found an unsettling ambiguity about Internet use. The women said that while being online seemed a safe harbor, they worried that it could lead them into danger. Some told stories of how Israeli security forces used information posted on the Internet against them or their families, even leading to the imprisonment of family members. Some said they lost their residency rights in Jerusalem because of information posted on social networking sites.

“People are very scared,” Shalhoub-Kevorkian says. “On the one hand people are using technology a lot, but they are also aware that they are under constant surveillance.” In the end, Shalhoub Kevorkian asks if communication technology really empowers individuals, or only seems to do so.

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, “E-Resistance among Palestinian Women: Coping in Conflict-Ridden Areas,” Social Service Review 82:2, June 2011,179-204.