Did Facebook censor an Arab Women’s Rights Group?

Nov 13, 2012 at 4:43 AM ET

When a young Arab woman took off her veil and posted a photo of herself in a tank top on Facebook last month, it set in motion a story about the power of protest, the reach of social media, accusations of censorship and the mystery of algorithms.

Dana Bakdounes

Her name is Dana Bakdounes. She is a 21-year-old student from Syria. She stares defiantly into the camera wearing a green tank top and holding her passport photo in which she wears a hijab – a traditional Muslim covering. Her hand-written sign reads: “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years I wasn’t allowed to feel the wind in my hair and my body”.

Her photo is one of hundreds posted by women – and some men – as part of a campaign by a Facebook group called “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World”.

The group was launched just over a year ago, the brainchild of five women from Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories. They describe themselves as activists fighting against patriarchy and misogyny in the Arab world.

“We couldn’t tolerate anymore what was ‘excused’ by the dictatorship rules. The Arab revolutions were led in the name of freedom and dignity and yet women’s rights were kept in the drawer,” says 27-year-old Palestinian Farah Barqawi, one of the group’s founders, in an email to Vocativ from Cairo. She and her allies say it was “an urgent call to action”.

Last month, the women started a new campaign within the group, asking people to send in their photos with signs explaining why they supported “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World”.

The hundreds of photos that poured in addressed issues from rape, to laws dictating what women must wear. The biggest  response came from the Palestinian territories and Yemen. “It shows that people are desperate for a space to let their voice out, when they can’t do it in their own land,” says Barqawi.

Loujain from Saudi Arabia: “I’m with the uprising of women in the Arab world because I can think and fully practice my religion (like men). Also, I’m in debt to my daughter to offer her an honorable life.”

Dana’s photo was first posted on October 21.  Another of the group’s founders Diala Haidar, a 28-year-old physicist from Lebanon, says the image got an “unprecedented” amount of comments from “fanatics” which she and her colleagues monitored, removing the worst of them. Four days later, without warning, Facebook took down the image and suspended the account of one of the page administrators. For 24 hours, she was frozen out of the group’s account and her personal page. When news spread within the group that the photo had been removed, supporters reposted the image on other Facebook pages, on Twitter and on other social media sites.

The women say they repeatedly tried to reach Facebook for an explanation of the photo’s removal. They say they sent numerous messages but received no response. By October 28, having heard nothing from Facebook, they assumed it had been a mistake and reposted the photo. They were stunned when several hours later the photo was again removed and another administrator’s account frozen.

On October 31, without any notice, Dana’s photo reappeared on the “Uprising” group’s page. The women thought the dispute was over. One week later, on November 7, the administrators logged in to find a message informing them that they had violated Facebook Community Standards by posting a plea for members to support Dana on Twitter. Four of the five founders were locked out for periods ranging from 24 hours to 30 days.

They were furious, believing now that this was an attempt by Facebook to censor the group. Using their limited access to the Facebook group and other social platforms, the founders issued a statement saying the “repeated temporary blockades on the admin’s personal accounts with no clear motive or explanation show a direct attack on (the page)”. In solidarity, another Facebook group called “Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution” announced a virtual campaign, telling people to tweet and post about the Facebook action and to send messages of support to Facebook.