Everyone presupposes that the Internet will now pave the way for the Arab woman to do business safely -- from the privacy of her home. Online, she can work within the parameters that her patriarchal culture has set for her. While nobody denies that exposure to the Internet will compel traditionalists to redraw the parameters in due time, the fact remains that the time is not yet here.
A look at Arabia Online shows that the female entrepreneur in Saudi Arabia is struggling to get a firm footing on traditional, familiar business ground. E-commerce, then, remains a milestone away. Saudi Arabia is, no doubt, an extreme case. Businesswomen in other Middle East countries like the UAE and Lebanon enjoy greater prerogatives (visit Arabic News for details on the economic conference for Arab businesswomen held in Cairo). These businesswomen, however, are few in number; those online, fewer.
What the Internet currently helps the Arab woman do is take a more basic step -- establish through her Web site that she 'exists,' 'thinks' and 'contributes' to society -- facts that have been dismissed as insignificant for centuries.
A significant number of Web sites are hosted by Arab women, who have created an identity for themselves through the organizations they have successfully established in their countries and online. Bat Shalom, an Israeli feminist organization, and The Palestinian Jerusalem Center for Women have joined hands, where their men have failed, to bring about 'real peace -- not merely a treaty of mutual deterrence, but a culture of peace and cooperation between our peoples.' One wonders if it wouldn?t be easier to employ the ancient 'Lysistrata' strategy to put an end to the Israel-Palestine crisis.
There are other equally vociferous groups on the Net that seek equal privileges for women in the region. Nisan Young Women Leaders, for instance, is dedicated to the advancement of young women in Israel. Likewise, the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA), founded in Egypt by a group of 120 women, is based on the principle that 'the struggle for the liberation of Arab people ? cannot be separated from the liberation of Arab women.'
While the above women?s groups have given form to their ideas through their organizations, others like Queen Noor of Jordan, have used social position to empower women. Individual women have worked on what they know best. Marie Karam Khayat from Beirut, for instance, posts Arabic recipes on her site. A teenager in the UAE has started the Young Girls Portfolio and invites contributions to her magazine. Others have ventured to speak on Islam and what it expects of women at The Muslim Woman.
Several Web sites have encouraged the participation of Arab women. Arab Ambassador covers 'Arab women in the Spotlight.' Women?s World at Planet Arabia and Alidar offer Arab women their own private space through discussion forums and chat facilities. Women in art have found their niche among other artists at The World's Women Online. Where a dating service for Arab men and women would have been unthinkable in the past, Online Arabia now offers such a service in Arabic.
Arab women are discovering, participating, interacting, posting information, seeking answers, dating, chatting, sharing ideas and finding kindred spirits in cyberspace. Their perspectives are gradually widening beyond the metaphoric veil and their homes to include ideas that originate in distant lands. The Internet will gradually compel governments to rethink existing social mores and redraw restrictive social lines that in the past have been unfavorable to women. It will mean acknowledging that the Arab woman exists and making room for her to share the world on an equal footing with men.