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|In recent years Saudi Arabia’s online community has grown exponentially, fueled by smart phones, DSLR cameras, social media, and Saudi-produced online content. When explaining this phenomenon, most analysts have focused on young Saudi men, portraying the kingdom’s new online word as a largely male space.|
In reality, both men and women contribute to the online community. Not only have women gone online to promote political and social causes, but they have used online platforms to create art, find spouses, and make money. Women dominate Instagram, an online photo-sharing social network. Abdulaziz al-Shalan, an executive at a top Saudi media and YouTube broadcasting company, Telfaz11, said in 2014: “Women are killing us on Instagram.”
Drawing on field research and interviews carried out from 2013 until 2015 in Saudi Arabia, this paper argues that Saudi women’s dominance of Instagram reflects a nexus of technological change and social norms that segregate men and women—norms widely seen as disadvantaging women.
The most important of these norms is privacy and kin-based ties. Many Saudi women feel they must maintain the same level of privacy online as they would offline, and they seek to control who can see their online content. At the same time, they link their online networks to their close family and friends, especially those who attend their majalis: the regular meetings in homes and other intimate settings that are a pillar of Saudi society. Often majalis are divided by gender and are limited to members of extended clans, families, and tribes. Some women add a further layer of privacy online: Telfaz11 estimates that 30% of its online male subscribers are women.
For female entrepreneurs, these institutions and desire for privacy provide a powerful advantage.
As women, they can access networks (and spaces) closed to al-Shahlan and his male colleagues, networks that include thousands of female consumers. Ahlam al-Najdi, who boasts three million Instagram followers, is one of the many female entrepreneurs to succeed by marketing directly to Saudi women through female networks and spaces.
Notably, Telfaz11’s chief Saudi rivals—Lumink and Uturn—have women employees. They have starred in online videos and written episodes, including those for Uturn’s most popular YouTube show, “3al6ayer” (on the side).
Ultimately, the behavior of Saudi women online provides insight into questions of gender and space in the kingdom. It also illustrates how a patriarchal system can, ironically, benefit some women at the expense of men.