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July 29th, 2015

Digital purdah, or how Facebook maintains traditional practices of gender segregation

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes


July 29th, 2015

Digital purdah, or how Facebook maintains traditional practices of gender segregation

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes


Headshot photo_Emrys ShoemakerDoes Facebook act to liberate or further segregate women? In this post, Emrys Schoemaker, Director and co-founder of iMedia and PhD candidate in the Department International Development at the LSE, explores how in Pakistan, women prefer to use WhatsApp rather than Facebook, to avoid young men seeing their profiles.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said that access to Facebook will “help give everyone a voice and help transform society for the future.” Yet in my research in Pakistan, I found that many use it to maintain social norms that keep women from the public sphere.

Gender disparity 

Social media is being rapidly adopted in Pakistan, as fast 3G mobile internet services are rolled out, and more people can afford smartphones. My recent telephone survey² found that 85% of men say they use Facebook most often, compared to only 47% of women, while 45% of women say they use WhatsApp most often, compared to only 13% of men.

One explanation for this gender disparity illustrates how technologies are adopted and domesticated into social contexts. Saima³, 22 years old, married to a man working in Saudi Arabia and wearing a full face-covering niqab, explained WhatsApp was “ghar ki bad” (‘in the house’) – it allows private communication among people who are already allowed ‘in the house’, unlike the more public Facebook.

Perpetuating social norms

For Saima, and many other, particularly young, unmarried women in Pakistan, limiting contact with unknown men is an important religious and cultural practice, codified in the practice of purdah, and achieved by covering the body and maintaining strict limits around the movement of male guests in the house. So even while some research highlights the empowering potential of mobile phone ownership for women, my research illustrates how digital technologies are also used to perpetuate social norms, described by many as maintaining gender inequality.

Protecting honour or izzat

For Saima, WhatsApp enables the privacy of the home to be maintained in a manner that reflects the social norms of purdah, described by social scientists as a way of protecting female izzat (honour). This matters when marriages represent an economic and social contract between two families as much as a declaration of love between two individuals.

According to sociologist Hamza Alavi,

… control over the circulation of women establishes social bases of power that is exercised over members of the kin groups by men who are “in charge” of the family and the kin.

Conflict with Facebook’s ideology

Protecting the izzat of young unmarried women thus serves to protect the status of the family, and to maintain its ability to protect and accumulate wealth and power. Yet for many, the desire to maintain these social norms and to uphold the family’s izzat conflicts with Facebook’s design and ideology, leading users to break the site’s terms of service and to ‘domesticate’ Facebook to fit their own socio-cultural context.

Identity on Facebook is designed as singular and coherent, manifest through the user’s NewsFeed and Timeline bringing together posts and activities into a single space. This echoes the liberal ideological belief in the singular ‘authentic’ self. Indeed, Zuckerberg has also stated that:

You have one identity. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.

This has the effect of collapsing a user’s life into a single room, one in which friends from all different aspects of one life are brought together – a phenomenon described as ‘context collapse‘, which can be either intentional or unintentional.

This then creates a tension, leading users in Pakistan to break with Facebook’s terms of service in various ways, such as using multiple Facebook accounts.

Many of the young men told me they have a Facebook profile for their male friends (nearly all their friends are male) and another for their family. Although slightly hesitant, when pressed many said that this was to avoid their male friends being able to see family pictures, particularly of the women in their family. Kamran explained that if male friends saw his sister’s pictures, his own izzat, as well as that of his parents and wider family, would be compromised.

Protecting women

The desire by parents and male relatives in particular to protect female users is not only an excuse to marginalise women from the internet; there are also genuine reasons to be concerned about the impact of Facebook on women’s safety. A recent report by internet rights NGO Bytes4All documented documented 170 cases of cybercrime against women in Pakistan’s Punjab province alone. Men have been arrested for creating fake female accounts and for blackmailing women. One young woman told me how her laptop had been stolen and her pictures Photoshopped onto pictures of naked women that were then used to blackmail her.

Empowering or further segregating women?

Many described how Facebook use by unmarried women was against their culture, and indeed, how internet use in general was not allowed for women.

There has been much research in which women report feeling empowered when they have access to mobile phones and the internet, but my own research in Pakistan suggests that these findings are not universal.

Against the liberating promise of Facebook are examples that suggest the technology can be used to maintain social norms that reflect local cultural values. The practice of digital purdah may indeed serve to protect women, but at the cost of maintaining their seclusion within a domestic space that excludes their voices from the public sphere.



¹ An earlier version of this article was published on Tanqeed, a magazine of politics and culture. This version has been posted with their permission.

² The telephone survey was conducted as part of my PhD research in early 2015. It consisted of a sample of 30,000 mobile data users from Gujranwala, Gujrat and Mandibahudin in Punjab Province, Pakistan.

³ Names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals.

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