So Sunday is a working day in Saudi – the weekend is Thursday and Friday. I had concerns about travelling from the Hilton Hotel to the Effat College (private woman’s University) as we were two women being driven by a male taxi driver. But it was ok – except there is bedlam on the roads here and one really big smash- up.
The press conference was held in the main auditorium. All women except for one male techie guy (with a female assistant). They looked after the P.A. and audio video set up.
First part of press conference/day – MBC, Proctor and Gamble Shine, and Effat school announce agreement to work together to promote Arab Women self development in the region.(photo: Laurel Papworth on Flickr)
So here’s how the photo thing works in Saudi. Quite a few of you have asked. At the press conference, everyone except Dr. Kimberly covered their hair. The female journalists, the students etc are uncovered – we are females together – but the agreement is, when cameras start flashing and rolling, you cover up. I didn’t have to – a foreigner – but decided it was best if I did. Not glamourous ….
…but respectful. I hope.
I gave a keynote on Web 2.0 and social media in Abaya but without the head covering. We had big discussions – and are still having them – on whether the photographer can use the photos of me at the podium in the auditorium, as my blonde hair is very much in evidence. I am now sort of sorry I took the scarf off, but I was told it would be more friendly.
I receive varying advice. One that the girls relate better to women who don’t cover up, it’s more personable, we’re women together, less old fashioned. Another, that its the tradition, that women wear the abaya as a badge of honour. But no matter what side of the fence there is one agreement: no photos of the students at all, and no photos of women uncovered (unless with express permission and even then to be avoided).
Which brings me to a social network segue – profile, identity, reputation and trust.
I can show you empty computer labs and engineering desks, but not allowed to photograph the students working. Effat is a brilliant women’s college with architecture and engineering and infosystems streams.
Each of these women are so much more au fait with identity on the ‘net than our young women in Australia and elsewhere. Think of it this way: one indiscretion, one photo of you uncovered, one discovery that you have spoken with a man alone, can totally disrupt your life. Disruption is the mildest term I could think of.
A woman’s likelihood of marriage, social standing and respect rests very much on perception, reputation and honour. You guard them as you would your bank PIN and keys to a safe. The same as online – your profile is your identity. Your identity leads to your reputation. Once you have gained reputation, you have trust. And without trust, you have no standing in the community. Indeed, without trust there is no community.
So the women have a MySpace page and Facebook, but I didn’t need to explain to them the benefits of using an ‘alternate’ or avatar name as opposed to using their real name. After all, Laurel Papworth at Potts Point is much more discoverable than SilkCharm in Sydney. It may not the government that makes a decision on appropriate behaviour on the ‘net but parents and family. Let’s throw up a veil of discretion.
The profiles are locked down and not available to search. Only friends are allowed access. Mostly female, mostly Arab women. These are amazing women – well educated, insightful, aware, thoughtful. With a great sense of humour and cheekiness, they are not broken shells hiding in black volumes of cloth, but articulate and clever. They shine.
I become fearful when I consider dataportability. How do we make sure that men – and it is mostly men in the Web 3.0, semantic, opensocial area – who are choosing to ‘make everything open‘ and ‘free the content’ protect women online worldwide? Women by nature are more vulnerable online, we need to make sure our voice is heard too.
I would have loved to have shown you the photo we took. The not-for-publication photo. The one we agreed would be just for us, for remembrance of a fantastic, game-changing event. Of the whole team- the women in this region are truly stunning – without abaya/headcoverings. Each looked like Aishwarya Rai crossed with Angelina Jolie. Or Ava Gardner crossed with Penelope Cruz. Bright peacocks in emerald green tops and satin and silk with tight skinny leg jeans and perfect makeup. Oh, and diamonds and bling: Saudi Arabia is not a poor country. But that photo is private. For now.