Digital illiteracy a hurdle for Arab women

In the Middle East and North Africa, the gap between male and female internet users on mobile phones is 21% in favour of males, compared to a gap of 4% in Europe and Central Asia.
Saturday 06/07/2019
Participants, including Saudi women, attend a hackathon in Jeddah. (AFP)
Better late than never. Participants, including Saudi women, attend a hackathon in Jeddah. (AFP)

LONDON - While there is widespread optimism that the internet and other technologies will contribute to a better, more sustainable future, millions of women are deprived of these means to progress.

Wadhah al-Taha, an Iraqi financial analyst in the United Arab Emirates and a member of the European Institute for Corporate Governance, said: “One of the most important things to pursue seriously is to ensure that everyone has access to the internet. This, in my opinion, is the most effective first step in developing a ‘knowledge’ environment that can be improved and in building a knowledge society.”

Taha said statistics indicated that the internet is used by 4.39 billion people, up 9% since January 2018. Also, 3.25 billion people can access social media through mobile technology.

Taha stressed the importance of empowering women with digital knowledge that could contribute to their education so they could better educate and raise their children. He said private sector companies, such as banks and telecommunications companies, should help train women in digital knowledge and uses because the institutions would benefit from that empowerment.

Many Arab countries have not made the most of the information and communications technology sector despite opportunities in the development of the technologies.

Most people in Arab countries live in rural, economically challenged areas where access to electricity and communication infrastructure is a major challenge. Without the basic infrastructure, local communities, and especially women, cannot take advantage of new technologies in any aspect of their lives, depriving them of opportunities for development and progress.

A 2018 study by the Federation of GSM Operators and Manufacturers, grouping more than 800 mobile phone operators, indicated that the number of women owning a mobile phone is less than that of men by 184 million. Furthermore, 1.2 billion women do not use the internet. In the Middle East and North Africa, the gap between male and female internet users on mobile phones is 21% in favour of males, compared to a gap of 4% in Europe and Central Asia.

Iyad Barakat, a Palestinian-American technology analyst, said that, despite global initiatives to promote the role of women in scientific research, innovation, development and exchange of experiences, most of the science and technology fields are out of reach for women.

“Historically, technology and science have been the domains of men and this trend was very clear whether in university halls or in jobs,” Barakat said. “Even today, we’re still far from gender equity in the technology consumer environments in most societies. Men and women don’t have equal access to communication and artificial intelligence technologies.”

He added that “the proportion of women working in the field is still very low, no more than 20% perhaps, even though digital tools and technologies have become a key component in all areas of work and life.”

The World Wide Web Foundation noted in its latest report that females make up 26% of the workforce in science, technology and innovation fields in developed countries. The gender gap is much larger in developing countries.

Lebanese writer Micheline Habib said investing in the internet is an investment in people. She stressed the importance of providing open access to the internet and digital tools.

Habib said digital illiteracy isolates women from the world, deprives them of job opportunities and of becoming involved in social and practical life. It also prevents them from contributing to economic growth, as well as of being open to the world and their human rights.

The digital revolution is one of the most prominent manifestations of technological development but its effects are not likely to be felt by about 25.9% of women who are generally illiterate, a report by the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation stated.

Omani researcher Mervat Bint Abdulaziz al-Arimi said digital illiteracy cannot be addressed in isolation of the issues of reading and writing illiteracy, of the sharp decline in literacy programmes in Arab countries and of weak educational policies and low quality of educational content, in addition to the lack of internet service for all segments of society, especially for the poor and middle classes because of high prices, compared to developed countries.

“In the current context in most Arab countries, the internet is more of a luxury than a necessity, because we, in the Arab world, have yet to harness all of its capabilities in our daily lives,” Arimi said. “This is why internet use is limited to certain social categories and limited to specific purposes that rarely go beyond social networking, dissemination of news, advertising and entertainment.

“We don’t see, for example, much interest in adding Arabic content on the web or in developing software in Arabic to suit Arabic culture.”

She added: “We have had in Oman several experiences in combating digital illiteracy among women in particular. Some institutions have come up with training programmes for mothers on how to take advantage of the internet in their lives and use smartphones to follow up on their children’s lessons or get useful information or use e-marketing and electronic portals to raise the level of digital awareness in the sultanate.

“We still have a long way to go before modern technology becomes part of our practical life.”