For the past few weeks I've had the pleasure of getting to speak with a group of amazing young women from Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen, who have been at KU as part of a grant from the State Department to focus on developing leadership skills globally. My role has been to help learn researching skills through the Internet, developing presentations, and I also got the chance to help host a discussion between them and our policy debate team regarding US foreign policy in their countries and the Arab Spring as a whole.
The learning experience of just even a 5 minute conversation with these women is not to be understated- they are smart, capable, and engaged individuals with a goal to institigate change in their countries ranging from health care to women's rights to government public policy. While I've loved having the chance to teach them about researching (using online resources, finding open access sites, etc) they have taught me so much more in their discussion about the role new media plays within their countries.
One of the primary countries being discussed in this years policy debate topic is Bahrain, a country where 6 of the women are from. What makes Bahrain a difficult topic to debate about is that there's such limited information coming in and out of the country, about what is actually going on there, and what the problem is. The WLI were gracious enough to sit down and talk to us about their perspective, and more specifically, the role they feel new media has played in not only getting the word out, but also silencing them.
One example they gave was how over 50 students were expelled from their university for "liking" a Facebook Status update that was anti-government, which speaks to the brevity of the situation, and how technology (which we often view as helping) can cause some harm in movements towards reform. At the same time, they were also quick to point out that they aren't about to let something like that keep them from using technology as a way to learn more about a situation that is largely shielded from the media. Several women spoke of Twitter accounts they followed because they new protestors who would take videos and post them online to share what was going on with those who were hearing contrary account on TV and in the paper. Universally, whether pro or anti government, the women at WLI agreed that social media has been actively used by the youth in their countries to share information about the government that differs from the dominant media outlets.
Hearing these two flip sides of how new technology is altering the path of reform within a country has definitely piqued my interest in learning as much as I can from them as they remain at KU for a few more weeks. I hope to continue to share with you all the stories they share with me as we consider the role that technology can have in political reform in a country that so tightly controls the media.