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Butheina H. Kazim on BDS and Defining "Powerful Arab Women"

[Butheina Hamed Kazim. Image by Walter Pinkney.] [Butheina Hamed Kazim. Image by Walter Pinkney.]

[This post is part of an ongoing Profile of a Contemporary Conduit series on Jadaliyya that seeks to highlight distinct voices primarily in and from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.]

Jadaliyya (J): What do you think are the most gratifying aspects of Tweeting, and Twitter?

Butheina Hamed Kazim (BHK): Immediacy of news distribution, whether you're on the receiving or dispatching end. The timeliness, variety, and volume of information on Twitter is unmatched by any other platform in my opinion, for better or for worse. The ease of use is another perk that comes with the platform, along with Facebook and Instagram in the social media arena not too far behind; this makes for a space that is accommodating to more contributors and consumers than most media out there. 

There is certainly a harm statement associated with all that convenience which I have personally become increasingly interested in. 

My days as an early adopter of the platform in 2009 were spent as an optimistic user fascinated with the possibilities of the platform's perceived emancipatory function and utility as a sharing and idea exchange space. Fast forward to 2012, I find myself, like many others, disillusioned with the technological determinism discourse and erring ever more frequently on the side of caution as the dark side of Twitter use in the region has manifested.

J: What are some of the political/social/cultural limits you’ve encountered using the platform?

BHK: The harsh reality that you're not saving any lives by tweeting, no matter how diligently, is a sobering one.

Never before have I encountered the futility of the @ symbol more profoundly than on my recent trip to the Syrian-Turkish border in Hatay and Kilis this summer. Most people afflicted by the conflict don't have access or time to read or spread news via the platform, and while the #Syria hashtag is still topping trending topics lists, much of that comes from outside the "battlefields" so to speak. The death toll has surpassed the 40,000 mark and the Twittersphere is still flooded with support, commentary, opposition and an array of opinions on #Syria, but the bodies are still piling up. As one of the volunteers on the border told me, "when you're sneaking your kids out in the middle of the night, dodging bullets, losing limbs and burying bodies, there's little time to snap photos and tweet." This is not to say that people in those areas are not media savvy; far from it. But the nature of the media exchange is very different and far from existing solely on social media platforms like Twitter. Just in the areas that we visited, while there was a laptop in almost every hospital room you enter, information was being exchanged using CD-ROMS smuggled across the borders, via Bluetooth on the most rudimentary of mobile phones (no smart phones were to be seen) and USB sticks -- and it's working for their purposes.

Not to mention that there are still many barriers to adoption in the MENA region that are at play, including censorship, low broadband penetration rates, intimidation tactics, language barriers (despite efforts like Twitter Translation Center) and literacy rates. This means that its use will be limited to a strata of society with the necessary access, literacy, income bracket, and technology, not necessarily all-encompassing or representative of the realities on ground.

J: In your experience and use of Twitter, do you feel it helps mobilize or disorganize? Focus or crowd? Is it manageable or noisy? Can it help persuade and mobilize or does it turn everyone into a voyeur and spectator?

BHK: To use a truism, it is but a medium and certainly a double-edged sword like all other media. 

While I've personally encountered success in being able to reap the aggregating, mobilizing, and organizational benefits of it for some of my projects, including casting for my documentary Letters to Palestine @Ltrs2Palestine, and raising awareness and making announcements for @GreenMapUAE and @NYUSJP and gather material for Artistic Intifada blog, I am far from a zealous advocate of Twitter as a catch-all solution for organization or mobilization.

Hiding behind a hashtag can only get you so far; there is certainly an illusion of effectiveness that can easily take over an avid user's experience with the platform when it comes to using it for sociopolitical mobilization efforts. While a trending topic might make it into a headline or two, there has been little proof over the past few years of the platform's adoption growth that shows a direct correlation with sociopolitcal efforts, especially when it comes to effecting policy.

Although we've seen a rise in Twiplomacy efforts whereby decision-makers, government bodies, and other institutions are using Twitter to communicate and reach out, there is in effect very little communication that is happening and therefore very little impact on the realpolitik at play. When was the last time someone tweeted at @StatDept or @UN or @whitehouse or hoards of others and gotten a conversation going? More and more, Twitter is taking the function of a bulletin board or megaphone than a conversation space, and that can be disenchanting. And while there have been exceptions to this, for example in the UAE, like @ABZayed and @Dahi_Khalfan who have personally taken to the platform and directly engaged users, there's still a lot of learning to be done and a long way to go. 

Twitter has also perpetuated the rise to power of a certain breed of cyber-based "native informers" who, due to "access" within the confines of the Twittersphere to the right organizations, people and journalists, particularly English-speaking ones, have become a one-size-fits-all variety of commentators on all things Arab. That is problematic on many levels -- including the ensuing reductionism that results, shoddy journalism in some instances, and the misrepresentation of the street sentiment. 

The dark side of Twitter also houses rumor-spreading capability, fear-mongering potential and libel-breeding grounds of epic proportions. We also have seen in our time people who have tweeted to the death, tweeted their way into incarceration, deportation or even denaturalization. Examples of such cases are countless – Hamza Al Khashghari, Ahmed Abdelkhaleq, Ala’a AbdelFattah to name a few. Whether you agree with the actions taken by or against them, the reality is this: the limits are certainly ever-present. 

On the flip side, there are many advantages, including immediacy of information dispersion (bearing in mind fact-checking challenges), mobilization within certain groups and echelons, and the broader "voicebox" function that the platform serves, that make it a very important player to be reckoned with. If you have enough social media clout, social cache, and the right following, your voice in all its 140 characters can definitely raise awareness and make sound waves in the social media ether.  We just have to be aware of the challenges before we can wholeheartedly champion the tool as a harbinger of progress and freedom.

[Image of Butheina Hamed Kazim in the Syrian-Turkish border town Kilis, Southeast Turkey with the children of Syrian refugees. Image provided by author.]

J: In one of your blog posts, you gave a "subjective list of 100 powerful Arab women," and, in response to a separate list prepared by Arabian Business, you asked "How do we define power?...What makes a powerful Arab woman." What factors do you consider in defining power, and what makes a powerful Arab woman to you?

BHK: The list is just that: subjective. It was as much an exercise in challenging conventional definitions of power as it was a desire to have the criteria, decision-makers, and process by which such lists are generated made transparent. I also hoped that it would encourage people out there to make their own lists so that we have a broader scope of women being recognized that mainstream media do not necessarily have access to. I would love to see hundreds of lists with names we've never heard of before that the curator and list creator considers powerful from his/her own subjective viewpoint - she could be his/her teacher, employer, neighborhood seamstress, grandmother and so on.

Some of the problematics I'd hoped to address were not only the definition of "power," but also the definition of "Arab". I had noticed that in the referenced list, women from certain Arab countries were not included for some reason; those countries included Libya, Iraq and Djibouti. Arab women outside the Arab world were also excluded, and I wanted to address that oversight as well. The other aspect is the delineation between power and good power which I felt that most lists out there do not address. Foucault has much to say about that matter, but I just wanted to address it by including women from all different walks of life, industries, ideologies and geographic locations. Powerful Arab women can include those that engage in promoting thought and debate; they challenge conventions or not, they may be powerful solely in their decision-making capacities, in their "access" to decision makers, in their innovations, in their contributions to work, life, powerful in their bodily strength, in their engagement to intellectual discourse, or even pop culture. But then again, it's all subjective. 

J: In your Gulf News op-ed, "The Pavilion of Apathy," you describe the importance of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) on Israel in the context of a summit in Dubai. What, to you, makes BDS especially effective?

BHK: The summit was actually a satellite event that was live-streaming a New York-based event, the Creative Time Summit (which listed an Israeli-government backed organization as one of its partners) at a venue in Dubai with its own set of talks and discussions.

BDS as a civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law is effective in that it empowers individuals to take action no matter where they are or what field they're involved in. It puts the onus on every person and empowers them to do something and take a stance rather than wait for governments or international bodies to do the work; it builds from the bottom up. As a grassroots movement with a clear message, it streamlines calls from all over the world across individuals, organizations, and movements and unites them under one voice and one call: the call to end international law violation and the call for Palestinian rights. BDS as a strategy also has a proven track record of effectiveness as a means of non-violent action which we have seen most clearly in its role in ending South African apartheid.

J: You've suggested that Palestinian media transcends conventional norms, existing "through a series of windows." Do you think this aspect of Palestinian media has an impact on the Palestinian struggle for liberation? What is the political effect of the unique case of Palestinian media?

BHK: Such a unique position in existing always "through windows" comes with its own set of opportunities and challenges. The opportunity in this case lies in the fact that Palestinian media has a place and a voice in every media outlet in existence - whether through traditional media such as newspapers based outside of Palestine like Al Quds Al Arabi, or Al Safeer's Palestine-dedicated supplement, in pop-cultural vignettes such as music videos or operettas like The Arab Dream, in caricatures showcased on virtually every Arab publication, in dedicated programing on Pan-Arab television channels, or even through the decision-making power of the Palestinian media moguls and talents (editorial and on-screen) that run many Pan-Arab media platforms. Palestinian "media through windows" has the unique position of carving out a space as a global Palestine, rendering it irreplaceable from the hearts and minds of the onlookers rather than an exclusively national narrative told on state-run screens. The challenging political effect of such a position means that "Palestinian media,” when existing under the auspices or in the context of non-Palestinian institutions, can be exploited, limited, or tailored to serve the given host platforms' own agenda. We have seen this play out especially on pan-Arab state-run television networks

[Butheina Hamed Kazim tweets at @butheina and blogs at Butheina.]

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