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Social media and gender - an illustration

As we have seen while public facing social media reinforces gender norms, the situation is very different with regard to the impact of private social media such as WhatsApp and private messaging services as you can see from this story of a young female Mardinite named Zehra, in whose life smartphones and social media have recently come to play a significant role.

Zehra is a 21-year-old girl who recently moved to Yenişehir from old Mardin with her father, mother and younger brother. Her family belongs to the community of mahalmi, Arab speakers who arrived into the city from the rural area of the province in the 1950s. Mahalmi are usually more conservative than the other Arabs from Mardin, and Zehra is less free and autonomous than other women of her age. She finished high-school two years ago, and since then has tried to pass the university entrance examination. But when she was accepted at the University of Antalya her father didn’t allow her to live so far away from home. Instead she spent the whole year working almost 12 hours a day as a shop assistant in a nice boutique next to her house and to her father’s tailoring shop.

Her life was lived inside the walls of the shop and the house, under the gaze of her father, and in the company of her mother and guests who occasionally made a visit and for whom she had to prepare food, tea and coffee. She was not allowed to hang out in cafes, nor was she allowed to meet friends in the park; even shopping at the super-market needed her parents’ approval.

Beyond the family network she was only sporadically meeting a friend, a girl she knew since the age of eight, and a secret boyfriend who was living in the same building. She had no other relationships offline that were unmediated by her family. But, she was an extremely active user of social media on her smart phone, a Samsung Galaxy S3. She was constantly using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp at work and at home. She had three different Facebook accounts, though she currently maintains only one account. She had around 300 Facebook friends, out of which 60 were people she met on Facebook, mostly women and men from Western Turkey, and a few from Europe.

Like many other young women from Mardin she was mainly using social media to meet strangers and become their friends, which she greatly enjoyed. These relationships were not just limited to social media. In fact, when two of her Facebook friends visited Mardin from Western Turkey on a holiday, she met them personally as well. Through Facebook she also met new people from Mardin, like Sinan, a photographer with whom she made a personal photo album portraying her as a well-dressed woman, with carefully chosen make-up. On WhatsApp she was mainly communicating with Fatih, her secret boyfriend, by sending him up to 500 messages a day. Fatih, was very jealous of her Facebook account and he often obliged her to close it, as a result of which her profile was being turned on and off every one or two weeks.

Zehra’s story is one of the many examples of the way smartphones and social media have increased individual connectivity and have challenged family controls over communication, by producing new conflicts and changes. Social media has not, however, eliminated the traditional matrimonial system such as arranged marriages. Zehra still depended upon parental approval and ultimately her marriage with Fatih was publicly portrayed as a traditional arranged marriage.

What did you learn from Zehra’s story? Do you think this radical impact on relationships between young people is specific to a Muslim society such as this, or is at least partially true everywhere? Please feel free to share your opinions as comments.

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Why We Post: the Anthropology of Social Media

UCL (University College London)

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