As women’s rights activists, we often talk about the role that young women play in sustaining the future of movements. However, there is less recognition of the significance of their contributions in enriching the landscape of women’s movements today. The Kolena Laila initiative is prime example of the capacity of young women to expand and achieve women’s rights agendas.
Started by a group of young women bloggers in Egypt in 2006, the Kolena Laila initiative devotes one day a year to mobilize all Arab woman bloggers to speak out on different forms of oppressions they face under one banner; Kolena Laila i.e. We are all Laila. Laila, the protagonist of “The Open Door” written by an Egyptian novelist called Latifa El Zayyat, exemplifies the suffering and oppression of young women in Egyptian Eastern societies. Her experiences are reminiscent of those of women in other Arab societies as well. The slogan, Kolena Laila, serves as a powerful mobilizing platform implying a unity amongst Arab women’s experiences of oppression regardless of their diversities in age, background and nationality.
In addition to promoting values of unity and openness to diversity, Kolena Laila presents a critical approach to the manifestations of gender power dynamics in Arab societies. Although not self-proclaimed as feminist, they carry a progressive analysis on religious fundamentalist discourses, sexual harassment on the streets and public spaces, hijab, FGM, gender roles and various other women issues.
The organizers frame the yearly event within a broad theme in an attempt to push blogger participants to fill gaps in existing writing on women’s issues in the region. For example, in 2006, the event’s main theme was “Speaking up!” in order to push women to write their stories and tell their narratives. The 2007 event theme was “Enabling Discussion” to give an opportunity for writers to self-criticize, examine and reassess where women themselves have gone wrong.
As a blogging initiative, Kolena Laila is a breeding ground for young feminist writers. Its strategy of using ICTs to build virtual communities as an alternative method to organizing in ‘physical’ communities is one that has become very popular amongst young women in women’s movements today.
“ICTs play an excellent role in building communities that can be difficult to build in real life. Like making it easier for people to search for similar interest communities, joining them and becoming effective member too. It is a great tool if used effectively, and in an organized manner.”
Eman Abdelrahman, Egyptian blogger based in Cairo and co-founder of the Kolena Laila Initiative.
Furthermore, blogs are already a familiar platform for young writers, and many have already developed their readership, communities and followers. In its design, Kolena Laila provides a comfortable and unlimited space for young women to engage in women’s rights discourses and action. With the majority of their blog entries written by young women, Kolena Laila has succeeded in boosting the confidence of many Arab young women to challenge and expose their oppression in their own words.
“I like to believe that the initiative increased the confidence of some women to express their-selves, no matter how young you are or who you are, you still have a voice. And you can make a difference… even to your smaller circle.” Eman Abdelrahman
It is open to women of all generations to participate and efforts are consistently made to ensure that the initiative is reaching voices of all women. The theme of their campaign in 2008 focused on telling the stories of those who are not well versed in ICT and blogging or who do not have access to the Internet. Bloggers featured the stories of younger girls, interviews with their mothers, and some honored their grandmother’s struggles.
The initiative is supported by women’s rights NGOs in the region. Kolena Laila has established partnerships with New Women’s Foundation in Egypt and the Syrian Women Observatory in Syria. They are also looking to expand their collaborations with other Arab NGOs. Rather than limiting their reach and focus to young women alone, Kolena Laila attempts to fill a crucial gap in Arab societies today as a whole. It is bringing women’s rights issues to the forefront of the consciousness of Arab societies’ including women, of all generations, and men.
Kolena Laila is creating ripples in the Arab cyber-world. The mass gathering of women bloggers has drawn the attention of a spectrum of readers to their views on subjugation within Arab societies. Reactions have been mixed, with some denouncing their efforts as western and hypocritical. Others describe their efforts to translate Arabic posts into English and French as colonialist. The organizers refrain from apologetic discourses and reactions in respond to these accusations.
“…Kolena laila is really not to propagate a certain value or culture, but it is rather a call to criticize and review our own daily behavior.” Eman Abdelrahman
Another popular objection to their initiative questions their focus on women. They have been accused of isolating the needs of women from those of society at large and are perceived as attacking men. These claims were so persistent that the initiative dedicated a specific section on their website to clarifying their stance on men. From the far right, there are also those who completely refuse to acknowledge the presence of any discrimination against women at all.
However, the success of their initiative answers many of these accusations. Since 2006 Kolena Laila has attracted around 250 blog posts yearly and last year hosted their biggest event since their inception. The blog entries also attract comments from many supportive readers, with these comments and responses generating novel discussions and critical debates on the situation of women’s rights in Arab societies.
They have also caught the attention of the cyber-world outside of Arab audiences and established themselves globally as an important source of critical feminist thought. A young researcher at Oxford university completed a study on Kolena Laila titling it “The Egyptian blogosphere: home to a new feminism”. The success of this initiative is also attributable to their commitment to monitor and evaluate their impact. A group of volunteers are now running a survey to assess how the initiative has affected readers’ perceptions of gender injustice.
A completely volunteer run initiative, Kolena Laila is a force to be reckoned with promoting the positivity, agency and authority of women over their own lives. With contributors from 14 countries across the region including Palestine, Saudi-Arabia, Yemen, Libya and Mauritania, it has built a common platform for Arab women’s self-expression and reflection.
Using ICTs to infiltrate mainstream, political, social and intellectual spaces usually closed to many women, the initiative is imposing women’s voices and issues onto various agendas. It is raising new awareness and popularizing women’s rights issues within Arab societies, and recognizes that engaging and agitating young people’s consciousness of patriarchy at early ages is one of the keys to transforming societies.
“[Kolena Leila is] shedding light on women’s issues, and keeping the idea vivid in minds all the time. Also by encouraging women to be a little bit positive, in regards to having a voice and really going after their rights – whatever missing rights they see for themselves as individuals, as a start” Eman Abdelrahman