Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Conclusion)


As Egypt struggles to define a new world order through these elections and beyond, it is important to embrace the historicity and narrative of the people’s struggle for rights over the last century, in particular for women. Women have recently taken to new forms of expression and mobilization – namely, social media tools – and have solidified their presence on the streets of Cairo and in the international media circuits.  Their narrative is now being told in a more personal, reflective and raw way than ever before. Asmaa Mahfouz’s 2011 video rallying cry is analogous to Hoda Shawaari’s brazen public act in 1923: figuratively and literally, these women unmasked themselves to the world in a moment of rebellion and fortitude.  These personal stories are what make a revolution: the deaths of Mohamed Bouzazi and Khaled Said, the abuses and struggles of countless women in the streets, the broken arm of blogger Mona Eltahawy, all depict a tragic –  and yet amazingly powerful – new movement for youth. New media systems capture and depose of terabytes of data every second, and yet in this overwhelming mountain of bits and bytes, we can see a clear story of what it is like to be a 21st century woman and man struggle to gain a better future. Their collective stories shape a movement, and will continue to as long as we have memories to contain them and servers to share them. What becomes of a movement, and women’s struggles to define a new path within, it is still unclear. I am hopeful that these stories, and the indefatigable spirit supporting them, can create a new paradigm for women in Egypt and all those who are watching.   


Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Part 3)


What role did women play in igniting, creating and sustaining change in the January 2011 revolution in Egypt?

As detailed in the description portion of this paper, women in modern Egypt come from a long lineage of feminist, equal rights and reform advocates, despite continual opposition from autocratic or Islamist parties in a culturally patriarchal society.  In 2011, it became apparent just how important women were in pushing the revolution. Despite harassment and arrest risks, women joined the ranks of men to create the largest uprising in over 30 years (Krajeski, 2011). They blogged and were entrenched in a tech-savvy, sometimes underground, culture (Rubin, 2011). They fought arrest, wrote slogans and chants, confronted police and stood strong among the masses for the 18-day period of protest in Tahrir (Carroll, 2011).  Over 20% of the protesters in Tahrir were women – mostly young – and Facebook pages abound with photographs of women participating in the struggle (Mortada, 2011).

The movement itself was portrayed by the media as being single-minded: get Mubarak out, and usher democracy in, where new paradigms can be created (for youth, the working class, and for women). The single-mindedness – in action or in perception – does not mean women weren’t invested in bringing their rights to the cause, however. It just means the protests in Tahrir weren’t geared towards one “specific group”, according to an interview with Amal Abdel of the New Woman Foundation (Carroll, 2011).  Women were recognized as participants in a larger cause, and their voices were swallowed into the undulating collective cry of the masses.

According to an interactive interview with renown feminist thinker, activist, and former prisoner of the Mubarak regime, Nawal el-Saadawi, “there is no democracy without women” (Al Jazeera English, 2011), and it was absolutely a “women’s revolution”, despite it not being named as such by the media (Rubin, 2011). She claimed the 2011 revolution “washed away” the discriminations that were imposed by the “patriarchal, capitalist, racist” regime of Mubarak (Al Jazeera English, 2011). It is without question that women were instrumental in igniting and sustaining the revolution that began on January 25, and that women and men alike marched in a common cause for freedom, dignity, and human rights. Whether these men and women can implement women’s rights in a post-revolution society is still a question of concern for many.

What role did social media play in facilitating this movement both on and off the ground, and specifically how were women using new media to engage in the conversation and planning of the revolution?

As was detailed in the previous description section of this paper, women utilized new media outlets to engage in discourse around the revolution and to call others to action. Asmaa Mahfouz, called by some the “Leader of a Revolution”, uploaded a video to her Facebook page that did not mince words; through her viral video she provoked women and men to join her on January 25 for a “Day of Anger” (Morgan, 2011).  She pleaded a “simple message” that everyone “demand [their] fundamental human rights”; moreover, she provoked “whoever [said] women shouldn’t go to protest” to join her and “have some honor” (Jardin, 2011). This 4-minute video was the catalyst for the January 25 uprising, and is one of many examples of how new media facilitated the movement, both on and off the ground.

The other large example is the Facebook page, “We are All Khaled Said”, a fan page dedicated to the young man brutalized by police before the January 25 protests began (Facebook, 2011). Initially credited to an anonymous online activist, it was revealed weeks afterward that it was the creation of a Google executive, Wael Ghonim, who was coincidentally arrested and tortured by the state police over the course of ten days during the revolution (Kirkpatrick, Spreading revolution: an interactive timeline, 2011). Wael was heralded as a “new hero” and has been profiled in the Western media as the champion for the Revolution 2.0 in the Middle East (Kirkpatrick, Spreading revolution: an interactive timeline, 2011). His story fits nicely with the internet-activist-turned-hero narrative, but what about the women involved? Asmaa’s video is primarily mentioned on blogs and articles written (or co-written) by women, yet Wael’s story is profiled and amplified both at home and abroad by the media. Perhaps because the revolution was largely leaderless, having this particular person represent the people could be what Western media was after all along.  Wael’s hero portrayal doesn’t necessarily negate women’s role in furthering the movement (nor does it downplay their internet activism), but it certainly doesn’t help in augmenting women’s equal representation in what has become the aftermath of a people’s movement. He is hailed as a hero, but there is no heroine, so it seems; it’s not proportional. Even media coverage of women activists has been small, according to Amal Abdel of the New Woman Foundation, and so attempting a gender-filtered framework for analyzing the revolution seems quarantined to those already working within it (Carroll, 2011). The coverage recently has been limited to the harm or injustices inflicted on women in the media; the most recent report details the violent assault of a female blogger in the “second round” of protests this month (Parvaz, 2011).

Nonetheless, the role of social media is impressive, and has facilitated a people’s movement in a hyper-accelerated timeframe with very savvy activists.  Men and women utilized social media to engage in dialogue, plan protests on the ground and expose human rights violations to the international community; without the prevalent use of cell phone video, texting and real-time updates through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, this movement may not have caught fire so quickly. In an age where information is power and spreads awareness – one can now easily see how “the other” lives – it is impossible to negate the role that media plays in shaping the new narrative of its people.  According to one study of new media in the revolution, almost 90% of Egyptians possessed a cell phone, and upwards of 33% of online activists in Egypt using Twitter were women (Islam, 2011, p. 6). No longer did the state or media elite control all information; it came from activists and civilians alike, and in waves. Raw video content showcased multi-faceted points of view, including: mobilization footage, citizen commentary, political punditry, and (very popular) “soundtracks” to the revolution (Islam, 2011, p. 22). This newly dubbed process, called “cyber-pragmatism”, helped spur nonviolent civil disobedience and ushered in a new way of galvanizing the people’s movements; furthermore, the unmasking of anonymous bloggers, starting with the video tactic of Asmaa Mahfouz, instigated the revolution even further: it helped build capacity and encouraged people to join in solidarity, since they knew they would not be alone in the fight (Graham-Felsen, 2011).

In another light, Mubarak’s attempt to stop all action by blocking the internet only pushed activists further to keep moving. The blackout (visualized below in Graphic 1A) is another way of showing how terrorizing a nation by censorship is no way of stopping people from mobilizing. In fact, it proved the opposite, as Graphic IB shows Western media joining the effort to help reconnect with Egypt during via satellite, SMS and other means of technology: proving that there are always loopholes to internet censorship (Olson, 2011).

(Graphic IA)


Visualizing Egypt’s Internet blackout. (2011). Mashable. Retrieved from

(Graphic 1B)


Social Media and Unrest in Egypt. (2011). HootSuite. Retrieved from

Where do women fit into the new paradigm of government in Egypt, and how are they focusing on bringing women’s rights into a democratic society?

Problematizing the first two points of discussion is what brings me to the third and (for now) final question, as the possibility of augmenting and reshaping women’s roles in a new society is largely contingent upon how women are viewed through the lens of Egyptian culture. The fact that there are women protesters and activists is not new; women have been fighting for equality and gender rights for almost a century.  Moreover; new media and new faces of youth activism continue the same discourse. According to Amal Abdel, women of the post-revolution are “being ignored” (Carroll, 2011).  The question is not, “are women participating in, and important parts of, a new media-facilitated revolution?”  This question has been answered in the previous pages and is a resounding, “yes”. The issue is now tied to how they can change the system, given that they have been largely acting within it as long as women have been mobilizing.

There are setbacks to the advancements women foresaw while protesting in the street: the interim government’s Constitution referendum in March 2011 omitted women from being cabinet members. Potential political campaigners like Nawal el-Saadawi (who, while attempting to run for President of Egypt against Mubarak in 2005 out of “principle”, was harassed by the state police and ordered to stop campaigning), are subjected to the patriarchal suppression by the state with no recourse (Al Jazeera English, 2011).  Despite gains in workplace and education rights over the past century, women only constitute 20% of the labor force in Egypt, and less so in the political sector (The Economist, 2011).  The 1981 ratification of CEDAW still holds little ground, as women continue to be harassed and subjected to domestic and culturally-sanctioned acts of violence like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) to this date (Amnesty International, 2011).  Thus, like many of the countries who have ratified CEDAW and proclaim that the rights of women are synonymous with human rights, the Egyptian stance is thinly veiled. Even the quota system in parliament has been deemed ineffective, as the newly created 64 seats went to members of the ruling party in 2011; it has since been removed to accommodate an amendment to an existing law that mandates each party to have at least one woman on its list of candidates, which has yet to prove fruitful (Amnesty International, 2011).

The recent furor and protests in late November 2011 in Tahrir invoke the frustration and rage from only ten months earlier; however, the current climate pairs the faltering military power with embryonic promises of a democratic order, as Egyptians await a fresh round of parliamentary elections.  Some women go so far to say that even if they do win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, it “won’t break Egypt’s formidable gender barriers” (Nelson, 2011). Yet, a woman, Buthayna Kamel, has emerged as the first woman in history to run for president and stands for what the activists are seeking: “freedom, diginity and social justice” (Zohney, 2011). The results of her campaign could turn around a country that has been subjected to the same patriarchal and hegemonic power structures since colonialism. The act of putting a woman in power does not necessarily equate to longstanding and systemic change, but it does represent the possibility.

The causes women need to fight now and in the transition period are multitude; they are not just political, but also aim for women’s rights to be incorporated and implemented into Egyptian culture on all levels: across class, race or religious lines. Without proper representation, however, the results of all of the organizing, mobilizing and protesting that has been a part of women’s movements over the past century will be deposited into the same narrative, as history repeats itself. Women will continue to fight in the same roundabout way without breaking the power structures that have kept them in place for centuries. According to one source, it’s more than just elections, it’s about a new paradigm (which I agree with): “nurturing high caliber female politicians” and “changing the stereotypical images of women”, both of which are not overnight successes achieved by one video blog (Zohney, 2011).  The long term, systemic changes require a new way of thinking.

A compounding problem in the reshaping of society for women’s rights in Egypt is the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a premier opposition party. The Muslim Brotherhood does not recognize key gender issues in society, such as FGM; its 2008 ban happened to be a result of Suzanne Mubarak’s platform during her husband’s rule (Sharma, 2011). Moreover, some women representatives of the Brotherhood go so far as to claim that the ban of FGM was a Western agenda put forth by NGOs in Egypt, and is no different than the concept of plastic surgery (Sharma, 2011). The combination of a potential Muslim Brotherhood rule and the desire to abandon all residual memory of Mubarak’s legacy (the good and the bad) could prove fatal for important women’s rights issues, in particular FGM. The impending results of the parliamentary elections will shine a light whether a path for women’s rights in Egypt will be created for the long term.

Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Part 2)

Women and Leadership

Brief history of women’s movements in modern Egypt

The crystallization of the January events and the flow of action during the Egypt revolution create a neatly bookended movement when viewed through the lens of 21st century media; it happened quickly, forcefully and with adept use of propaganda and activist tactics that solicited international attention and support throughout. But people’s movements are not new in Egypt, however, in particular those of which women were at the forefront. In the 1919 revolution against colonial British rule, Egyptian women and men – across class, party and religious lines -joined together in a common cause that was the dawn of Arab nationalism.  Women even held their own demonstrations for the first time in modern history during that time (Egypt State Information Service, 2011). Through acts of civil disobedience and protesting, rural and urban workers opposed to colonial hegemony achieved independence and sovereignty from Britain three years after the first protests began (El-Shakry, 2011). The 1919 revolution was not quick like that of 2011 (it took over three years, compared to three weeks) but was galvanized by a strong women-backed labor force, with little use of technology other than the telegraph (El-Shakry, 2011).

As a result of the 1919 revolution, Egyptians saw the creation of a new government, replete with parliament and constitution, and yet few gains for women in regards to rights outside of polygamy and education (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 124). The grounds were laid for fomenting women’s rights, however, as women pushed forth to create positions in government and leadership as a result of their role in the 1919 movement.  In a defining moment of the times, a leading feminist and founder of the first women’s organization, Hoda Shaawari, threw off her veil in public as an act of rebellion against patriarchal constitutional laws (Rubin, 2011). She went on to spearhead and lead women’s organizations until her death in 1947. Officially in 1942, the Egypt Women’s Party was founded and focused on bringing equal voting rights to women and a greater presence in politics (Egypt State Information Service, 2011).

Post World War II, CEDAW and 2011

Post World War II in Egypt brought larger gains for women in political and private spheres, including the rise of women professionals in law, medicine and education, and the increased awareness of women’s issues in the region (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 126).  However, after the 1952 military revolution that deposed King Farouq, the new regime called for the dissolution of women’s organizations; they converted the previous organizations to charitable associations which were subservient to the ruling party’s agenda (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 126).

The new constitution of 1956 granted women the right to vote, and what followed were similar laws that allowed equal positions for men and women in the public sector as well as greater guarantees to working women (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 138).  Continued military rule, the rise of nationalism, as well as a strong Islamic culture, kept women’s organizations from really flourishing in the following two decades; however, The United Nations Decade of Women that began in 1975 presumably injected a new energy into women’s movements (Geunena & Wassef, 2003, p. 29).

In 1981, Egypt officially ratified, with reservations, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the reservations covered family and children issues pertinent to Sharia and nationality laws existing in Egypt.  On paper, Egyptian women’s rights portray a secular society with advancements for women that are unlike those in other Middle Eastern countries; however, this is not the case in actuality.  Despite CEDAW, laws for women’s protection for cases around domestic violence, harassment and divorce have not been instituted at a state-wide level, primarily due to conflicts with culturally-accepted Islamic Sharia laws (Geunena & Wassef, 2003, p. 37).

After the dawn of a new century, women continued to exercise civil disobedience in response to abuses of power, and it appeared the government was helping shape new laws to enforce equity. In 2006 and 2008 respectively, women held labor strikes against structural adjustment programs and neoliberal policies sanctioned by the World Bank (Cornish, 2011). In 2008, the government officially criminalized Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a longstanding “tradition” within Egyptain culture that is practiced on upwards of 91% of all women between the ages of 15 and 49 (Clifton & Feldman-Jacobs, 2010).  And in 2010, the People’s Assembly (Parliament) created a new quota that mandates 64 new house seats to be filled by women, a jump in 1,500% in representation from previous years (Hill, 2010).

With the rise and fall of Mubarak, there is an even greater demand for women’s rights to be equated with human rights. With educated, tech-savvy young women and men as the groundswell of the Tahrir Square movement, there is an opportunity for a new paradigm to be created outside of the long-held, state-controlled system. And yet, despite multiple revolutions and incremental gains for women’s rights over the last century, the institutionalized and culturally-sanctioned Islamic perceptions of women’s roles in society still reign strong over women’s progress in Egypt (Geunena & Wassef, 2003, p. 41).

Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Part 1)

Timeline of the Revolution

Mohamed Bouazizi and the Tunisian domino effect

On December 19, 2010, it could be said it was a day like any other, except for one man in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. On that date, a young fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi performed an act of self-immolation after his fruit cart was seized by government officials for lack of a permit (Reuters, 2010).  Fueled by anger at a suppressive government and frustration with high unemployment, one man’s act of protest triggered hundreds of protesters in the streets.  After violence erupted and protesters were killed, the government vowed to “punish” protesters and crack down on the revolt (Borger, 2010).  The unrest spread quickly: less than one month after Bouazizi’s act, Tunisian president  Zine Ben-Ali fled the country, effectively ending the authoritarian government he controlled for over 20 years (Chrisafis & Black, 2011).  The large, unemployed, and educated youth population, with access to 21st century communications (email, texting, internet) helped push the movement forward at a high-speed rate – and the whole world could watch, share and spread the movement across transnational channels in real time (Islam, 2011).

The Tunisian revolution was a catalyst for regime upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), and holds a strong place in history as it is a symbol of civil disobedience and people power in the 21st century. Tunisian women were heavily involved in the revolutions and its aftermath (Cole & Cole, 2011). To deny the shared narrative of the MENA Arab Spring revolutions and the domino effect of the Tunisian revolt would be unfair, but the focus on Egypt is a prominent one, as it represents the largest Muslim country and, moreover, has the potential to be an exemplary model for women’s rights worldwide.

Unrest and a call to action in Cairo

Within four days after the ouster of Ben-Ali in Tunisia, Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei warned of a “Tunisia-style” uprising in Egypt (Shenker, 2011). Protesters in Cairo began mirroring Mohamed Bouazizi with acts of self-immolation.  Meanwhile, a young man, Khaled Said, was beaten to death by police in nearby Alexandria.  Immediately following his death, anonymous activists – later found to be the work of a Google executive – created a Facebook page entitled “We Are All Khaled Said” (Facebook, 2011), which galvanized collective action online.  Similarly, another online act – which brought together online and offline protests – came from a young woman named Asmaa Mahfouz, who recorded and uploaded a YouTube video on to Facebook calling on protesters to gather on January 25 in Tahrir Square (Jardin, 2011).

This video, which went viral – it has over 130,000 views on YouTube and has been shared across the channel, as well as translated to English from Arabic – calls for people to “take a stance” and not “be afraid” to protest the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and demands that human rights be upheld (Jardin, 2011). A departure from the anonymity of social media (a tactic that was used in the Iranian revolutions of 2009 by using alias Twitter profiles), Asmaa unveiled herself as the poster child for the Egyptian revolution.

She used new media tools – video, Facebook, YouTube – to incite others to protest en masse, show solidarity and enact change. Her transparency and rallying cry was accessible to those in Cairo and the world beyond: an unpredictable snowball effect. The term “viral” is often associated with the unexpected or surprise information or idea that passes quickly from one person to the next; within hours it can cross borders, languages, and media channels: it catches fire and can have a shocking or inspirational fallout as a result.

Asmaa’s video led to the January 25 day of action in Tahrir Square, whereby tens of thousands of protesters – at least one-quarter of them women- gathered to chant, yell, and cry for their crippling economic and status to come to an end (Otterman, 2011). The largest people’s movement in 30 years, the Tahrir Square protest is now written in history as a tectonic shift in how democracy in demand can happen at rapid speed.

Government response and the internet blackout

With the tens of thousands protesting and cell phones serving as video recorders, the new media push to spread information was undeniable. Live streaming from blogs, Arab channels such as Al Jazeera, and Western media outlets allowed viewers worldwide a glimpse at the demonstrations, as well as the opposition’s attempts at securing power by any means necessary. The Egyptian government, in retaliation, issued crackdowns by the state police and many were killed (Beaumont, Shenker, & Khalili, 2011).  In a series of efforts to suppress online organizing, Mubarak blocked all access to the internet on January 27, an “unprecedented” event in internet history (Smith, 2011). The internet was halted, but the protesters continued (Lavrusik, 2011).  This event caused even further scrutiny of Mubarak and his abusive power tactics, across the MENA region and the world, culminating to the final breaking point of the old regime (Banks, 2011)

Mubarak’s fall and its aftermath

On February 11, after a series of failed attempts to suppress or appease the protesters and establish control, Mubarak officially resigned (Banks, 2011). The preceding 18 days of action, full of death, anger and strife, came to an end; Egypt, along with the rest of the world, erupted. The fall of a dictator was only the “first phase” (Otterman, 2011), however; the hard work of the men and women had led to this monumental force, but the aftermath would materialize in perhaps even more unpredictable ways. Since the revolution was largely leaderless, the issues surrounding power and control post-Mubarak – be it by the military, the Muslim Brotherhood or an opposition-party leader – were not calculated into the revolution’s strategy. What remained was unclear, and uncertainty grew amongst Egyptians (not to mention the US, Israel, and the rest of the Arab world) on where the next step would take them (Shadid, 2011).

As I write this, a new wave of protests has erupted in Cairo, as the disgust and frustration with the military-controlled interim state has reached a tipping point; the military’s attempt in appeasing the protesters by appointing a Mubarak “protégé”, Kamel el-Ganzouri, has been met with equal fervor and anger to the protests in January. The youth are especially disillusioned  with the 78-year-old’s post, as they feel it is just another wheel in the cog of the same machine that has controlled the government since 1952 ( (Kirkpatrick, From U.S. and Tahrir Square, pressures converge on Egypt’s military, 2011). The democratic elections of parliament have just started on November 28 and will, for the first time in almost sixty years, present the option of creating a civilian-backed government that generations of Egyptians have never seen (Kirkpatrick, From U.S. and Tahrir Square, pressures converge on Egypt’s military, 2011).

Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution

I wrote a paper in December 2011 around the role of social media and women’s involvement in the Arab Spring as part of my graduate class at USF: “Gender and Globalization”. Following are portions of my paper in a series.


This paper will analyze Egyptian women and their role in the 2011 Arab Spring revolution. Through problematizing historical systems and current structures, I will attempt to examine the way new media is shaping women’s movements and facilitating women’s rights in a predominantly patriarchal, Muslim society.

I am fascinated by the role of new media in people’s movements, specifically, the new narrative that it helps us create as global citizens. As stories are told in real-time, truly understanding who is writing our own history is a challenge, as tweets, updates and posts fade into the folds of blogs and are lost behind the scroll of endless pages. The use of new media in people’s movements began in 2009 in Iran, and has continued at an even stronger rate since, in particular in Tunisia and Egypt. The role women had in the Arab Spring uprisings – both on the ground and online – was particularly powerful in Egypt, and is backed by a history that has supported women mobilizers in previous periods of unrest. Examining the unfolding of a 21st century people’s movement while attempting to understand a new media narrative is why I chose to do research in this area.

Within the context of this paper I will also be providing visuals – charts and graphs – to illustrate the way these collective points of action – tweets, posts, searches – tell a greater story.

Statement of Purpose

In this paper I would like to address the Arab Spring protests in Egypt through the lens of women’s movements and the rise of social media as a conduit for action and solidarity throughout the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). I will be answering the following questions: What role did women play in igniting, creating and sustaining change in the January 2011 revolution in Egypt; what role did social media play in facilitating this movement both on and off the ground, and specifically how were women using new media to engage in the conversation and planning of the revolution; where do women fit into the new paradigm of government in Egypt, and how are they focusing on bringing women’s rights into a newly democratic society?

With these questions in mind, I will be touching on the history and context of the Arab Spring revolutions, starting with the Tunisian revolt in early January and ending with the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in late January. I will examine the role history played in women’s movements and progression of women’s rights leading to the Arab Spring, and address the actions of women and their real-time organizing via social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. My conclusion, largely topical, will focus on the recent events in Tahrir surrounding the current transition government and women’s roles in post-revolution Egypt.

The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Conclusion

Conclusion and Future Studies of the White Savior Industrial Complex

The above cited literature and empirical examples of the White Savior Industrial Complex provide a global picture of the true nature of international aid and Western postcolonial humanitarianism in a new age of social media and Web 2.0. Research on whiteness, postcolonialism and Western imperialism is broad and reaches back to the mid-twentieth century, with the works of Fanon, Foucault, Bhabha and Grimes being cited most often in the literature that was compiled for this topic. Due to the narrower and more contemporary nature of new media’s influence on the White Savior complex, these works were not utilized in this literature review.  A classic treatment of postcolonialism and poor economics would likely contribute to a deeper, more philosophical approach to the theme, yet these topics are foundational in understanding the basis for postcolonial whiteness and its derived discourse.

From the research in this literature review, the articles by Hughey, Zhang, Davis, Rideout, Jessie, and Cole, touched on “digital whiteness” in ways that other researchers did not. They examined how “the Other” was portrayed or suppressed while the West’s image was augmented, and they explained how codified imagery and visuals aided in the solidification of the White Savior myth. By describing the issue of the “voiceless Other”, they alluded to the need for counter-narratives in framing global issues like poverty, while reifying the fact that global issues are indeed complex and not reducible to the common Master/Native binary frame. While Cole is in fact from Nigeria and can use his personal stories to counteract those in the media (as he did in his Atlantic piece), it is not clear whether the remaining authors are from the areas about which they write, nor if they have personal experiences with people from those areas. What is necessary to dismantle the myth of the White Savior Industrial Complex is the employment of counter-narratives to combat naturalized digital whiteness; additionally, these counter-narratives must be shared by those who have lived experiences of them. Research on the ills of foreign aid and the White Man’s Burden should not only be written by White men; moreover, they need to provide the avenues through which media can disseminate these narratives in the same methods that the current myth is being propagated. Gaps in the research include participatory research (aside from Cole) and lack of understanding around the “viral” factor of new media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. For every new NGO, there exists an account each for Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest: multiple media outlets with the potential for exponential message saturation.  These movements cannot be ignored nor neglected. As new media spreads throughout the world, so does the ability for those who were voiceless to have their voices heard. The Arab Spring is a good example of the movement being “owned” by those participating in it. The Western media attempted to augment their role and involvement, and while Western tools were used to amplify online voices, the movement was successfully crafted by and for the people in the Middle East. While certain themes from the movement have been lost over time, the movement itself is a representation of the types of counter-narratives that can be employed by giving those in need the tools and access in order to share their stories. The hopeful outlook on social media’s world penetration, and the subsequent narrowing of the “digital divide” is that one day, the Western narrative would cease to exist, revealing a more democratic, empowered, self-sustaining, multi-faceted  and representative world narrative in its place.

The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 6

Empirical Examples – Pleasure Principle, Agency and Empowerment

The following are example Tweets or Facebook (social media) posts that exemplify the West’s fixation on “making a difference” by empowering itself through oversimplified calls-to-action while simultaneously omitting participation from “the Other”. Organizations such as the United Nations Development Project,, Toilet and Global Citizen are cited as examples of the one-way dialogue that is perpetuated, at a very low cost and very large scale, to the masses in the West. By perpetuating the myth and glorifying the West, these pernicious examples of codified whiteness do not help the intended recipient. At best they are bits of knowledge about commonly cited world issues, and at worst they are coercive tactics that subvert power in order to continue to promote the West’s postcolonial agenda.

UN DevelopmentTwitter Post (2012)






Kiva.orgFacebook Post (2012)





Toilet DayTwitter Post (2012)










Global Citizen – Twitter Post (2012)


The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 5

Subverted Agency and Pleasure Principles

Adding to the complexity of the White Savior Industrial Complex is the issue of agency, specifically around the empowerment of recipients of aid versus the power of donors. In many ways, Western donors are the ones receiving the largest benefits.  In the context of KONY 2012, one can receive a “KONY” bracelet for just a single $10 donation, which can then be shared via Facebook and worn around in public to show one’s support of a so-called “good cause”. These types of symbols exist in many forms, but it may be that the biggest pleasure is derived simply by being the sought-after audience: the viewer.

For Cole, Western viewers benefit largely by proxy – one can be part of the global movement, aka “make a difference”, simply by being there and watching. Video advertisements in the UK, according to Rideout (2010), had a clear path available for viewers in this regard: “The call to action was to visit the website to find out the number of ways in which they could help make a difference – from donating £5 to sponsoring a child for £18 a month.’” (Rideout, 2011) Additionally, popular, catchy theme songs – “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” are two that Davis (2010) cites – provide a way for citizens to feel engaged and empowered. She writes:

“…famine relief songs were…integral in the rallying of public support. While journalists and academics rightly criticized [the songs] for their ethnocentric overtones and flawed one-world sentiment, [they] received little such criticism from the public. On the contrary, the songs became the self-congratulatory theme tunes to a growing movement that provided many disenfranchised groups with a sense of purpose, community, and agency as global citizens.” (Davis, 2010, p. 93)

Clearly, the agency and empowerment provided to the West is intended to trickle down to the real recipients, but not without gimmicky and consumerist tactics.   As Davis (2010) astutely points out, “While ultimately [Live Aid] offered few new options to those starving in Africa, [it] offered many economic and cultural opportunities for the cities in which the concerts were held, for celebrity organizers and participants, for corporate sponsors, and for concert-goers.” (Davis, 2010, p. 96)

Pertinent to the notion of agency are the concepts of representation and empowerment for humanitarianism’s intended recipients. Despite the strategy that claims donors must feel empowered in order to take action, Davis (2010) critiques the level of autonomy and direct participation of recipients in large-scale events:

“… with Live Aid, the hype and the technology overshadowed the cause. Few Africans were allowed to perform, thus proving that little had changed since 1985 when [Live Aid founder] Geldof, during a visit to Burkina Faso, undermined national customs, laughed at the ceremonies designed in his honor, and scathingly joked about the impossibility of putting on a Live Aid event in Africa because such an event would fail to attract Michael Jackson.” (Davis, 2010, p. 106)

Cole (2012) and Jessie (2012) refer to the lack of representation in KONY 2012 as well. The media deliberately reduce participation and representation of “the other” in order to elicit the necessary emotions and actions from its (real) audience – the West. By employing digital whiteness, the West can relate to the Savior character and, correspondingly, take action to “make a difference”. Cole (2012) admonishes this trend precisely because it is perpetuating the myth of the White Savior by subverting the actors:

“This is not the sort of story that is easy to summarize in an article, much less make a viral video about. After all, there is no simple demand to be made and — since corruption is endemic — no single villain to topple. There is certainly no “bridge character,” Kristof’s euphemism for white saviors in Third World narratives who make the story more palatable to American viewers.” (Cole, 2012)

The other subverted effect of the media’s portrayal of the White Savior is the pleasure principle involved. Just as buying a $10 KONY bracelet, or a Product Red© t-shirt from the GAP, allows one to feel empowered through one’s purchasing power, the act of consumption of digital videos, images and texts also allows the same feeling of pleasure. Davis (2010) explains:

“By consuming famine and famine relief texts, by donating time and money to the famine relief effort, consumers not only showed their propensity for compassion for the Other; but they also elicited pleasure, and carved out for themselves the new socio-cultural role of compassionate consumer, of self-reliant philanthropist, of worthy citizen.” (Davis, 2010, p. 103)

Davis continues on by excoriating the West and its subverted goals by summarizing the following: “Presenting Africa as helpless victim, and celebrity activists as white men willing to take up the burden to save a continent dying from the lack of entrepreneurial spirit, does little but aggrandize celebrity figures” (Davis, 2010, p. 111) The “White Man’s Burden”, aka White Savior Industrial Complex, feeds and nourishes itself through the use of perverted pleasure, agency and empowerment principles. By suppressing “the Other” and praising the West, the discourse remains one-sided and empty. Cole admonishes the West through his pithy tweet, “the world is nothing to but a problem to be solved through enthusiasm.” (Cole, 2012)

The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 4

Orientalist Global Media Campaigns

Cole’s center argument about the White Savior Industrial Complex – that the media, using white privilege, distorts, oversimplifies world problems while disempowering the “other” – is widely apparent in recent years due to the rise in social media campaigns and online activism. Before the internet, however, global humanitarian and aid campaigns were just as powerful, yet inherently more costly and “in your face” due to the nature of broadcast media and the ways consumers absorbed and shared knowledge.  Citing the world concerts Live Aid (1985) and Live 8 (2005), global campaigns spearheaded by white men to end poverty in Africa, Louise Davis (2010), details how the media was used to further a Western agenda aimed at serving “the other”.  She summarized how the 2005 Live 8 concert was “broadcast live, via seven telecommunications satellites, to an estimated one billion television viewers in over 150 countries worldwide. Over the course of one weekend, Live Aid raised over seventy million dollars to ―feed the world” (Davis, 2010, p. 95) The issues inherent in global media campaigns is that they must, by the nature of broadcast media, be oversimplified in order to reach and penetrate a large audience. Employing the binary narrative, the West condenses complex social problems like governmental corruption, lack of primary education, inadequate health care, hunger and starvation, violence against women, and so on, under the simple phrase “global poverty”. By rolling up all the interlocked and interwoven, complex issues that plague the “Third World” under the banner of “poverty”, the West can more easily comprehend the problem and begin quickly addressing it through action, and aid. Media allow for the oversimplification of problems in order for us to justify the outcome – a response.  As Rideout (2011) explains, “Visual representations of the Third World by western powers were essential in naturalizing colonial discourse” (Rideout, p. 33); this “essentialization” continues on in new form, with the rise of global charity and White Savior movements.

While white privilege is inherent in these types of global campaigns (just by the nature of their existence, in employing celebrity power, money and agency, they reinforce white privilege), not all of participants remain unaware of the intended affect and how to achieve it. Lisa Rideout (2010) interviewed the creator of an advertisement video for one UK charity’s global campaign against poverty.  Discussing the “shock value” tactics of the campaign – it juxtaposed a suburban white setting with that of violence and poverty in Africa –  the agency spokesperson said:

“The very aim of this film is to contextualize the situation in developing countries [for] those in the First World. That’s exactly the problem with these social, political and economic issues – they’re all far too broad and complicated for the layman to understand, let alone care about. By giving the viewer a close-up look at a single issue, it makes it easier for them to understand and subsequently act against. It is also a far less hopeless scenario than hitting them with the bigger picture and all the facts and figures at once.” (Rideout, 2011, p. 28)

Rideout acknowledges that the agents are overtly aware of the media’s ability to propagate the binary, Savior/Saved narrative to the masses. It is also clear that Rideout is sensitive to the orientalist nature of the campaigns – how the white narrative supports continued action in the “Third World”. She explains that in two different campaigns, the “negative portrayal is related to the ‘othering’ of the Third World that can be viewed in both advertisements” (Rideout, 2011, p. 35) By continuing to maintain the West as both the center and intended audience of global campaigns, these global movements are nothing short of Orientalist and full of white privilege. The videos, concerts and advertisements place the West as the subject and the “Third World” as the “other” – vile, violent, dysfunctional, frightening.  By identifying with the White Savior, the West can push its agenda and solicit donations and action.

Another global media campaign that recently came about in 2012 was the Global Citizen Festival and subsequent online media efforts. The Global Citizen Festival and website, launched in October to coincide with the UN Summit, aimed to “end global poverty” through a combination of high-wattage celebrity concerts, online petitions and social media. Run by the Global Poverty Project, a small Australian NGO founded by white men and women, the Global Citizen Festival reached a live audience of more than 60,000 in New York’s Central Park, and more than a million viewers from online and across the globe. Like the Live Aid and Live 8 predecessors, this concert was filled with Western musical groups and hit its target with broad strokes (after all, they all shared the same goal – “to end global poverty”). As its website suggests, the task is difficult and requires help from all angles;  the intended angle it proposed, however, is inherently Western and full of white privilege: “We know that people living in extreme poverty are working hard themselves, and that we need to learn and take action to change the rules that trap them in broken systems.” (Global Poverty Project, 2012) This statement alone speaks volumes for the Orientalist, Western-centric approach it boldly, with zero explanation, endorses.

Cole’s article focused on another global campaign, one that in many ways trumped the Global Citizen Festival in its popularity and virality – the campaign, created by the NGO Invisible Children, called “KONY 2012”. The “KONY 2012” video exposed the war crimes of Ugandan rebel leader, Joseph Kony, while oversimplifying the narrative in order to capture the minds of impressionable (white, middle-class) youth to take action. The video generated 75 million views within just a few days; the results were unprecedented and to this day it remains one of the most popular internet videos of all time. The most egregious part of KONY 2012 was that it grossly oversimplified the issue and yet captivated the white audience into taking action, with little more than a click of a computer mouse. White youth could identify with the young boy (the videomaker’s son) in the video, while subsequently vilifying Joseph Kony as the “bad man”. The video’s global reach is still being talked about today – and the NGO released a follow up video that attempted to contextualize the problem a little further to assuage its critics.  The oversimplification and distortion of the true issues at hand are the metrics Cole measures during his argument about the White Savior Industrial Complex: “There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order. These problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans.” (Cole, 2012) And yet, these types of narratives persist – they were televised in 1985, live-streamed in 2005, and Facebook “liked” in 2012 – without much focus on who is creating, disseminating and institutionalizing these types of events.

Social media, in particular, makes the task of shifting the discourse from one of majoritarian to counter-narrative extremely difficult. One critic of the KONY 2012 video, Jessie, wrote on the website Color Lines:

“The added dimension of social media also gets coded as constitutive of whiteness. As the voice over narration in the video observes, “we’re living in a new world, a Facebook world.” And, this new world is going to “stop” the atrocities of the “old, primitive” world. You see this throughout the video in the large crowd shots of the young people involved in the ‘Invisible Children’ campaign, who are almost universally white, are presented as the image of the ‘new, Facebook world’ intent on saving Africa.” (Jessie, 2012)

Since digital whiteness is everywhere, and resists being confronted, it perpetuates the codified, naturalness of “whites as the human race”, as Dyer (2010) put it. Whiteness, dominion and savior complexes only continue to grow in the mainstream discourse with the rise of social media – what’s to prevent a white, middle-class teenager from seeing a majoritarian video on Facebook from sharing it with her 1,000, equally impressionable, friends? As Zhang et al. (2010) wrote, “Whiteness practices and Christian ideology have contributed much to the savior versus the saved rhetoric of benevolence…they are reinvented in the cyberdiscourse of imperial imaginary” (Zhang et al., 2012, p. 217) Being recast as images, stories, and videos, white privilege and “otherness” become entangled in a digital mire of information. As the digital realm currently exists in its uncontrolled, unbounded, and unpolice-able form, we are left to react with horror when these types of imagery are shown and replicated time and time again, with little to no recourse.

The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 3

Invisible – now Digital – Whiteness

Cole (2012) implores the reader to realize that “those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” (Cole, 2012) What his subtext is alluding to is that invisible, white privilege allows for charities, NGOs and the West to make decisions about the rest of the world without their consent.  Whiteness, in particular, according to Dyer (1999), implies that “whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race.” (Dyer, 1999, p. 541) The invisibility that goes along with whiteness and, as a result, the advantages afforded to whites – known as white privilege –  is what makes confronting it so difficult. Without naming it, how can it be dismantled?  And more importantly, how can we believe that we can fix issues of justice around the world if we don’t confront white privilege first? Dyer summarizes the situation perfectly: “The media, politics, education are still in the hands of white people, still speak for whites while claiming – and sometimes sincerely aiming – to speak for humanity.” (Dyer, 1999, p. 541) The invisible whiteness that persists and manifests as white privilege is what allows charities, NGOs and international development agencies the ability to raise awareness and further their causes while simultaneously proposing solutions to “Third World” countries’ problems – they are the subjects because they are the ones with agency, money, and power.  According to Macintosh (19998), this privilege “can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate.” (Macintosh, 1998) Macintosh’s point rings true in every facet of development, and is precisely why it is a complicated and frustratingly abhorrent phenomenon.

Zhang, Gajjala, & Watkins (2012) take the discourse a step further by examining a concept they call “digital whiteness”, whereby images, digital texts and media propagate and reinforce white privilege by subjugating “the other” to a position of “voicelessness” and disempowerment. Digital whiteness, they assert, relies on “text in the forms of stories, mission statements and solicitation for donation that implicitly revive White supremacy inherent in a White standpoint” (Zhang, Gajjala, & Watkins, 2012, p. 210) Websites, media and stories purport Western values and binary “master/native” narratives in order to solicit donations and encourage action. Digital whiteness is white privilege in a new media age, but is apparent and widely appropriated in films; for example, Hughey describes how there exist a “spate of Hollywood films” which he calls “white savior films (WSF).” (Hughey, 2010, p. 478)  From Dangerous Minds to Freedom Writers, these films employ a white (often woman) savior character to fix the dysfunctional, criminal group of “natives”; using Cole’s theory, the narratives in these films are primarily focused on the viewer  to have “a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” (Cole, 2012) Hughey posits that movies serve as “one of the main instruments for establishing a context in which whiteness – whether victimized or valorized – is framed as ultimately superior and normative.” (Hughey, 2010, p. 478) Digital (film or web-based) whiteness is especially dangerous because it serves massive audiences on a very large scale, and is propaganda to pushing white privilege and indoctrinating it into the discourse.  It perpetuates the binary relationship between Savior/Saved, White/Black, Master/Native, and burnishes it under the guise of personal history or even humanitarianism.  Hughey (2010) goes as far to say that there “remains a substantial gap in empirical analyses of how active audiences comprehend these [white savior] films.” (Hughey, 2010, p. 476) This issue of agency, in particular, bubbles up in Cole’s work and in other empirical examples of media-driven participation, which will be discussed later in this paper.