Digital technology and social media have been widely praised for being the tools that facilitated the organizing and spreading of the Arab uprisings of 2011. But as in the rest of the world, they have proven to be a double-edged sword.
It is videos taken by camera phones that often incite controversies and hashtag campaigns on Twitter and Facebook and mainstream media in the Arab World.
Some of these videos, often taken stealthily, serve as a tool, when they go viral on social media, to enforce social conformity and traditional values and to chastise and shame non-conformists.
Some social media users, TV channels and news websites in the Arab World use camera phone footage to incite hatred against sexually and socially non-conformist groups, like homosexuals or women who don’t dress in the culturally designated way or step out of society’s acceptable norms.
Non-conformist sections of society become easy targets for those who readily abuse digital technology to violate others’ privacy rights.
Last June, Jordanian social media users were reportedly shocked by a viral video. It showed a young man dressed in shorts and tights in a supermarket in a shopping mall in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
He was presumed a homosexual because he was dressed in shorts and tights—a far cry from the dress code of the majority of Jordanian men that precludes shorts, let alone tights.
Such was the campaign of incitement against the man, on both social media and a number of websites, marked by public anger and calls for the man to be arrested that the ministry of the interior had to step in and calm things down.
Under Jordanian law, people cannot be arrested for being homosexuals unless they break the law or commit an act of public indecency, the ministry reportedly said.
Unlike much of the Middle East, Jordan does not criminalise homosexuality.
By and large, however, Jordanian society is largely socially conservative.
A few months later, also in Amman, another presumed homosexual was shown in a video posted on Facebook being harassed and beaten by a group of men for his physical appearance—long hair, sideburns and tight trousers.
In Jordan as in the rest of the Arab World, such an appearance is equated with either effeminate men, usually presumed homosexuals, or westernized men perceived to be debauched. This appearance is sometimes responded to with expletives or physical violence as in the video above.
Views on the video reflected a divided opinion. Some said the man deserved the beating while others condemned the use of violence against an innocent man and lamented the incident as a violation of personal freedom.
In both incidents, physical appearance is used as an indicator of sexual and social non-conformity.
Videos of women dancing in private or in public often go viral. Many of these women probably had no idea that sneak footage was being taken of them. These videos usually excite controversy, pitting defenders of morality against people shocked by the invasion of privacy through the misuse of camera phones.
The video below had thousands of shares on Facebook. The person who posted it wrote a caption: “An Egyptian woman dancing in a street causes much controversy. What are you doing, you shamed us!”
In much of the Arab World, dancing in public by women, with all its associations of unfettered female sexuality, are normally frowned upon. This sentiment was expressed in some of the comments on the video. Women made a few of the most damning comments concerning the act of dancing by the young woman.
“It is very wrong and her appearance shows that she is not respectable. Some may say she is only dancing among girls; even so, the way she dances is telling—she is not respectable at all. Besides, she should have considered the fact that she is in the street…May God give guidance to her and to other Muslim girls,” Aya Yousry wrote.
However, some comments conveyed a feeling of shock and dismay at the invasion of the privacy of the young woman. She appears to be innocuously dancing among a party of other women, some comments said, with the stress on the fact that the spectators were women, not men. This appeared to be a note of balance in the somewhat skewed commentary the event excited, though the implication is still that dancing is wrong-- something at odds with the traditional culture of Egypt where dancing has always been part of popular life.