Wednesday, April 28, 2010

#Brainquake and Boobquake: Reflections on two feminist social media campaigns

Brainquake-- a response.

I've had a chance to think through how the Boobquake and Brainquake campaigns went down in social media and in traditional media and wanted to take this opportunity share some of my thoughts with all of you.

I think it is clear that the Brainquake campaign on Facebook and #Brainquake on Twitter was a response to the Boobquake campaign which was started by Jen McCreight. In other words, in my thinking anyway, there have been plenty of pronouncements of "the Sedighi variety" on women and women's bodies to which we could have responded with any number of campaigns, but we haven't and we didn't.

Brainquake was a direct response to Boobquake and an effort to celebrate the lives and achievements of women in Iran and elsewhere. In my thinking, again, and I cannot speak on behalf of Golbarg, there is a lethal cultural context which harbors a blatant orientalism (a notion of backwardness vs. progress) in which Boobquake was born. Combine this with misunderstandings of the Iranian women's movement and Iranian feminism & its historical, social, political and cultural contexts and mix in boobs and what you have is --wow-- explosive.

Now take this batter to social media venues such as Twitter, Youtube and Facebook where anyone can say anything, anything goes, and what you have is a total dissolution of a campaign with potential.

This was the subject of a very lively discussion on Twitter between myself and a group of social movement/social media strategists last night. Lina Srivastava summarizes our discussion really well in her blog on Strategies for Social Change. We all benefited from seeing how both Boobquake and Brainquake played out and devolved to the lowest common denominator on April 26, 2010: Boobs and frivolity on one end, and violent explosive anger on the other. Kendall Thiessen really said it best: "Once you introduce boobs, you KNOW the kind of response you are going to get. Clearly the message was lost."

I want to point out the little known fact that Jen McCreight and I have been in close contact throughout both campaigns and that I have been in support of the #boobquake hashtag on Twitter and in support of Jen herself personally. I told her, though, flat out, that I was dong Brainquake. This, because it was very clear, early on, that what she had conceived and what happened were going to turn out to be two different things.

Hers was a scientific experiment and a 3rd wave feminist response to a cleric's suppositions. She's an atheist, a soon-to-be-PhD-student, and a skeptic and she wanted to test out Sedighi's claims regarding the correlation of quakes and women's immodesty. Her curiosity is precious and I cannot look askance at that as a university professor myself. In addition, anyone who was on social media in the last week, knows that while the #boobquake hashtag brought attention to the situation in Iran and the post election crisis (and I saw this as an excellent development from where I stood), it also brought with it the hordes of heterosexual men egging women on for a cleavage show on Monday. Add to that, the commodification of breasts, cleavage & women's skin in the global context of the media, and the campaign, sure enough, became a piece ripe for porn magazines. Playboy of course picked it up.

All this put a great deal of stress on the direction of the Boobquake movement and lay the burden on those who understood what Jen was up to... well to explain it, defend it, and sometimes fight against the very things it was promoting, for example the exposure of women's bodies, in the context of commodification and commercialization. And a healthy scientifically minded skepticism aimed and religious fervor and superstition, in the context of a racist and orientalist culture that either willfully misunderstands and misrepresents or unknowlingly conceives of everything Middle Eastern as backward.

Also, while Jen was taking orders for Boobquake t-shirts that would make money for earthquake rescue charities, capitalism and commodity culture dictated that a tongue-in-cheek social movement become a money making scheme for a sex - hyped-downturned economy, to the extent that just today, the University Store at Purdue where Jen studies, started selling "Boobquake t-shirts" without Jen's permission.

All this to say that while I understood Jen's mission and stood by her as a woman, a student, a skeptic and a scientist, I also could see that the combination of Orientalism (notions of backwardness vs progress) + misunderstandings of the Iranian women's movement / feminism & its cultural social and political contexts + boobs was doomed to a total failure.

Why not have a Brainquake then and quake some brains to freedom? And why not celebrate the lives and achievements of women? Why not celebrate individual lives instead of meat? These were my thoughts as I watched a science experiment devolve into frivolity, commercialism, and the commodification of women's bodies in social media and traditional media

My efforts and Golbarg's, as I see it, was to enable the stories of women to be heard. And if you look at the Brianquake Twitter feed and the Brainquake Tumblr site or even the photos put up on the Facebook Brainquake page you'll see this celebration in action in the midst of a battle ground that is determined to turn Golbarg, Jen and myself into rabid cats. We didn't succumb to this. Neither did we misunderstand or misrepresent the other's intentions knowingly. A critique of the direction of the campaigns themselves were taking, one as a response to the other, one major and one minor, was inevitable.

I hope this helps and inspires others to do better and achieve greater things on behalf of all of us. We all stand on the shoulders of giants and I am humbled by all the things I have seen and heard from each of the participants in the Brainquake campaign. I leave you with this quote from by Rafia Zakaria

"In socio-cultural paradigms where women’s bodies symbolise familial and national honour, as in Iran or Pakistan, their covering is seen as corresponding directly to the piety and righteousness of society. Consequently, there is a brutal and obstinate disregard for women’s autonomy and their status as human beings equal to men.

Conversely, in western societies, a similarly reductionist calculus construes the exhibition of the female body as a sign of liberation, with an equally stubborn blindness to how such sexualisation debases women. Both versions are replete with untruths perpetuated by men. And just as a woman in a burka is complicit in the lie that the female form is the source of discord, so is the woman who displays her body complicit in demeaning it to a mere sexual object"

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

#Brainquake: A Celebration of Women's lives April 26, 2010

Wow! Yesterday's Brainquake was a fantastic celebration of the lives and accomplishments of women everywhere. As I was introducing these amazing women to peeps on Twitter and posting their bios, I was filled with feelings of awe and total humility at the magnitude of our collective capacity to transform the world.

I'll post more about the press and discussions around Boobquake and Brainquake later on this week. But, meanwhile, check out Brainquake women's awe-inspiring pictures and biographes on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr and become a fan of the Brainquake page on Facebook!

I love my collaborator Golbarg Bashi for her warm friendship, her ingenuity, vision, courage and smarts. She is a force of nature and the brains behind Brainquake.

Here: Listen to her podcast with MideastYouth as she discusses Brainquake

Friday, April 23, 2010

#Brainquake: Why I won't be joining #Boobquake

When Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi made his stupid comment that immodestly dressed women cause earthquakes, he of course joined fellow fundamentalist religious preachers such as Pat Robertson who have made similar claims about marginalized groups, women, the poor, third world nations, etc being responsible for natural disasters. In the case of Pat Robertson he went so far as accusing Haitians of having made a “pact with the Devil.”

The Sedighi comment was no news to Iranian women, nor was it a funny joke. For over 3 decades the Islamic Republic has used and abused women's bodies and women's socio-economic and political rights in shaping and defining its repressive policies. Iranian women have fought back in various ways, one of which has been to dress “subvervily” but as it is evident in the Green Movement (the name the Iranian opposition is known by) , it is not their “beauty” or bodies that they have utilized in fighting against a brutal theocracy but their brains, their creativity, art, writings etc.

Golbarg Bashi and I are saddened that Jen McCreight (a blogger at Blag Hag), and the so-called feminist response has been “showing off some cleavage for ‘Boobquake’ this Monday”. This campaign has aroused the evidently insatiable enthusiasm of the web community, male supporters in particular who can’t wait to see “regular” girls and women, many their direct friends to “showing off their tits”.

Her own words suggest a lighthearted mockery, a statement on women's rights and a desire to scientifically test Sadeqi's claims.

Everyday women and young girls are forced to “show off cleavage” and more in order simply to be heard, to be seen, or to advance professionally. The web is already filled with images of naked women; the porn industry thrives online and many young girls are already vulnerable to predatory abuse. Violence against women and girls has consequences for the sexualisation of women and girls. The extent of their sexualization is evident in the hundereds of replies that pour into the “Boobquake” Facebook page where women write, apologetically: "I don’t have boobs, not fair" or "Hey, I only have a C cup… ” and “what about those of us who no longer have a cleavage? they sag too low.”

World-wide, the sexualisation of women and younger girls, as young as pre-schoolers is a genuine problem and as mothers, feminists, and young women ourselves we believe that it is time to move away from this “bare it all” mentality.

Let’s create a “Brainquake” and show off our resumes, CVs, honors, prizes, accomplishments (photo evidence), because the Hojatoleslam and the Islamic Republic of Iran are afraid of women’s abilities to push for change, to thrive despite gender apartheid (Did you know that over 64% of students studying at universities in Iran are women?) Let’s honor their accomplishments by showing off our abilities, our creativity, our ingenuity, and our smarts on our blogs, on Wikipedia, on Twitter, on Youtube, on Flickr and all over Facebook. And remember to use hashtag #brainquake on Twitter.

Join the Brainquake Facebook event page here:

Here's some inspiration:
Why I won't be joining the "Boobquake"

UPDATE: So here's the first Youtube video for #Boobquake. I guess we could say this is the first response to #boobquake & #brainquake's call to action in one swell package, well kinda?!? Rock the ayatollah!

Some research on Social Media and the Iranian Post Election Crisis, 2009

I've had the privilege of connecting with new friends to discuss my research on the uses of social media in the Iranian post election crisis, 2009.

This piece Green is the New Green on the activities of the Green Movement in calling for civil liberties and human rights in Iran will be published in the journal New Politics shortly.

Green is the New Green: Social Media and the Post Election Crisis in Iran, 2009

And then there is this podcast which apparently blocked Iranian access to (I'm joking of course!)

Finally, Rachel Cieri of the FutureWeb blog did an interview on our Future Web 2010 panel in Raleigh where I will join my friends and colleagues Cathy Davidson, Laurent Dubois, Mark Anthony Neal, and Tony O'Driscoll and speak on the uses of Social Media in the Iranian post-election crisis of 2009.

I hope you'll find this material useful in your own research. Let me hear from you!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Karbala Drag Kings and Queens: A history of female ta'ziyehs.

This article is a draft of research I have done on female performance traditions in Iran. It is soon to appear in the volume entitled Eternal Performance: Ta'ziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals edited by Peter Chelkowski.

Karbala Drag Kings and Queens

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Green is the new Green!

The Persian language blogosphere is a rich, varied and dynamic sphere of over 60,000 frequently updated blogs. In 2005, out of the 100 million blogs registered around the world, 700,000 were registered Persian blogs inside Iran and in the diaspora. With over 20 million Iranians connecting to the internet, and over 600,000 Iranians signed up on Facebook by the Presidential elections of the summer of 2009, the Iranian cyber community is by far the most dynamic community in the Middle East, and one that is unambiguously diverse. Of the over 60, 000 Persian language blogs, three quarters may be characterized as non-political in content, interested rather in questions of religion, poetry, and sexuality.

Shortly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as president in June 2005, there were clear indications of a campaign for the centralization of state power over traditional media. During the first two years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, more than 100 newspapers and other periodicals were banned. 70% of the press outlets were run by active supporters of Ahmadinejad. It is important to note that what remained of the opposition's news outlets was banned or put under strict surveillance in the aftermath of the June 12th Presidential elections in Iran in 2009. On the eve of the 2009 election, foreign reporters were either imprisoned or expelled from Iran. This, in part led to the rise of online “underground” papers, such as Kalam Sabz ( Green Word) and Khiaban (The Street), and more urgent uses of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and the Iranian social media site:

According to Nasrin Alavi, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the Vice President for the reformist candidate, Mehdi Karroubi in the Presidential elections of 2009, was the first Iranian on Twitter to call the Presidential elections of June 12th, 2009, a fraud. He was by no means the last. Elham Gheytanchi describes the days following the election:

Immediately after the results of the election were announced showing Ahmadinejad’s “landslide victory”, protesters poured into streets. For three consecutive days, masses of Iranians marched peacefully onto the streets in silence asking one question written on their placards “Where is my Vote?”

As the results of the election were announced, a twitter message from Bandar Abbas, a port city in the south of Iran, read (Raye ma ra dozdidand, bahash darand poz mida) “They have stolen our votes and they are flaunting our stolen votes!”

In an unprecedented move, the political establishment decided to cut all SMS messages, the Internet connections and mobile phones in the week after the election results were announced. The next day, demonstrators in at least 20 different locations in Tehran gathered waving placards that read (Doroghgoo khaen ast va khaen tarsoost va tarsoo sms ghate mikonad) “The Liar is a Traitor and the Traitor is fearful and the fearful cuts the SMS.”

As news and images of the protests on the ground circulated in social media all over the internet: on Flickr, on Twitter, on YouTube and on Facebook, they were channeled back to Iran via satellite, broadcast largely by way of the then popular BBC Persian.

A sense of euphoria and unprecedented freedom had dominated national politics during the presidential campaigns. Iranian state owned television broadcast a series of lively debates among the candidates. This was a first, under the Shi’ih theocracy. During one of the debates, the reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi put on green shawl to highlight his status as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. A month later, on the days following the election, an all-embracing, spontaneous movement donning green armbands, finger-bands and headbands took to the streets to call Ahmadinejad’s victory a fraud—the color green thus became the symbol of the movement. The opposition was lovingly called the “Sea of Green", the “Green Wave”, or the “Green Movement”.

The silence of the street protesters was broken as the violence of the regime became palpable. Neda Agha Soltan was brutally shot and murdered on Kargar Avenue, at the corner of Khosravi and Salehi streets in Tehran on June 20th, 2009. The YouTube video documenting her death in the midst of a small crowd circulated on Facebook and Twitter immediately. Her name, Neda (“voice” or “calling” in Persian), became the rallying cry for the Iranian opposition.

Outside of Iran, around the globe, images of the spectacular crowds in green and the murder of Neda Agha Soltan captured the hearts of people everywhere. High school students in the U.S. would talk about “Going Iranian” against authority figures. Indeed, as Golbarg Bashi noted in the heat of the summer, “Iranian is the new black”. Hundreds of songs dedicated to Neda in English and in Persian, started circulating on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Her name became a search topic or so-called “hashtag” on Twitter (#Neda). It was the highest ranking hashtag on June 20th, 2009 indicating thousands of posts on the day of her death.

A corollary hashtag, #iranelection, continues to rank on Twitter. It was the highest ranking hashtag for weeks following the elections, dropping only momentarily after the tragic death of Michael Jackson. It ranked high as a search topic on the 30th anniversary of the hostage crisis Nov 4th, 2009 and on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic on February 11th, 2010.

It may come as no surprise, then, that thousands of people on Twitter, put a green overlay on their avatars in solidarity with the Sea of Green in Iran. Many changed their location to Tehran and set their time zone to +03:30 GMT to protect people who were actually tweeting from the ground. This image of a Neda with a green overlay-- a Neda Soltan who was initially mistaken as the murdered Neda Agha-Soltan-- comprises of the many thousands of the green avatars of active Twitter subscribers in the aftermath of the summer elections in Iran. (Neda Soltan is currently seeking asylum in Germany in the wake of the publicity that the misuse of her image attracted.)

The thousands of supporters the Green Movement on Twitter and Facebook became nodal points of information for what was happening on the ground, in the absence of foreign news agencies and independent media in Iran. Many of these supporters continued to help spread the news about various online and in-person campaigns. Others came to the aid of Iranian protesters by identifying safe havens for the wounded on Google maps as word spread that the wounded were being picked up and imprisoned by military forces upon their arrival to hospitals around Tehran.

December 7, 2009, about 6 months after the Presidential election, Majid Tavakoli, a student at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University of technology was arrested after he gave a talk during the student protests. A photograph of him in a hijab (full Islamic veil) was published by official news agencies announcing that he had attempted to flee security forces donned in women’s clothing. Supporters of the Green Wave around the world, saw things differently. Cognizant that this photograph was an attempt to ridicule Majid Tavakoli, by associating his courage with “the weaker sex”, thousands of Iranian men all over the world, donned the hijab and posted their photos on the web, using them as their avatars on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

In captioning their photos, the men claimed their solidarity with Iranian women who have no choice but to veil under the Islamic regime; they voiced their opposition to the Human Rights violations of Islamic Republic and called for the release of the imprisoned Majid Tavakoli. This global campaign is known as the “The Men’s Scarves Movement” or the “I am Majid” #IAmMajid campaign.

The international campaign eventually went live. A YouTube recording signals its impact elsewhere: A group of Iranian men calling themselves “Majid” pose, donning the hijab in front of the Eiffel tower.

This act of resistance to the violation of Human Rights in Iran had stunning reverberations: French men and women donned the veil in solidarity with the Iranian Men’s Scarves Movement, and in this simple gesture that went viral on the internet, showed their opposition to l'affaire du voile in France.

This is not to say that the effort to bring about civil rights and the fight against the violation of Human Rights in Iran has subsided in anyway, but to suggest that the circulation of the images and sounds of the post-Election period, their going viral on the internet, has had significant consequences for oppositional movements and global collaborations elsewhere.