When Serah Gazali was a youth, she covered head to toe whenever she left the family compound — and always with a male escort. Gazali grew up in Saudi Arabia, “where showing any flesh would be considered seductive,” she said.

My covering “encompassed much more than a burqa,” she said, adding she even wore dark gloves to conceal her hands.

Leaving any part of herself exposed could lead to sexual harassment, and “it would be my fault.” In school, “they would instruct us with analogies like women were meat, and men were animals with no control over their desires. Or they said women were candy or a sweet dish, and if we did not cover, we would attract flies and get coated in gross hair and dust, and then nobody would want us.”

Gazali later fled Saudi Arabia as a young woman, cutting all ties with her wealthy yet conservative family. Today, she lives in Burnaby, B.C., while she completes a master’s degree at UBC’s Institute of Gender, Sexuality and Social Justice. Her thesis, “Adorning the Digital Burqa or the Business Suit,” explores tactics Iraqi refugee women use to resist sexism and harassment online.

But just as these women depended on smartphones — showing how embedded it is in everyone’s lives — they were also keenly aware of how it could be double-edged.

While the bulk of studies on Middle Easterner net use tend to focus on the Twitterati — Gazali documents voices that often go unheard. And her findings challenge stereotypes. For example, that veiled woman pushing a stroller down the street? She may be more tech savvy than you. 

 “You would assume people with limited income shouldn’t own a smartphone because it’s a luxury,” said Gazali. But “these women use their phones for everything,” she said, adding many were highly fluent with programs like VIber, Skype, Facebook and Whatsapp. They use their phone to stay in touch with family in Iraq, transfer money, and share information, like “where you can get a computer or laptop for free. When the next schedule for the child tax benefit is. Where you can find a food bank or buy affordable food.”

But just as these women depended on smartphones — showing how embedded it is in everyone’s lives — they were also keenly aware of how it could be double-edged. One participant, Lama, worries about her family back in Iraq, and recounts how they had to be careful what they said on Facebook because ISIS would use the platform to gather intelligence about targets for kidnapping.

“After the US invasion, smartphones got to Iraq,” she said. And then, “the internet and technology became a curse. They even use [smartphones] to set off explosives.”

Sea of silence

“The more visible a woman was online, the bigger the target, compared to women who were less visible because they used a pseudonym, did not share personal photos or only shared photos where they wore a hijab.”

Surprisingly, Gazali found participants used tactics online that resembled those they used in Iraq to avoid sexual harassment and exclusion. Gazali refers to these strategies collectively as the “digital burqa”. One participant spoke how her family pressured her to stop posting her personal feelings on women’s rights and honor killings on her Facebook wall — telling her those thoughts would be better kept in a diary. Another described how a male relative broke into her Facebook account and blocked every male friend he did not approve of. Rather than being exceptions, incidents like these prove the rule. Other participants told how complete strangers would instruct them to delete photos or accuse them of abandoning their faith. 

Gazali wrote: “The more visible a woman was online, the bigger the target, compared to women who were less visible because they used a pseudonym, did not share personal photos or only shared photos where they wore a hijab.”

Most participants said it would be awkward to block Facebook recommended individuals (like family). Yet they also felt uncomfortable knowing these people could see their comments. It was fear of being watched and having to self-censor that drove many participants to do everything they could to secure privacy. Lama, for example, created an entirely new profile, changed her privacy settings and even her email. She then used a pseudonym she hoped would make her utterly untraceable. 

“The name does not signify anything, not a woman or a man or an animal,” she said. Many other women adopted pseudonyms, too, like “Sea of Silence”, “Longing for Baghdad”, “Proud of My Roots” and Subhan Allah -- meaning praise God. 

“It is not just the name — it’s the whole idea of being visible and identifiable,” said Gazali. “It’s the family following you and who you don’t want to see you. It’s that friend of a friend of a friend who still gets recommended to you.”

Gazali found over time, married women retreated to women-only discussion groups. In contrast, single women who continued to use their names and photos switched to networks like LinkedIn, where communication was strictly impersonal. (Gazali refers to this second set of strategies as the “business suit”)

The digital burqa

On August 17, Pauline Hanson, senator and leader of Australia’s far right One Nation Party, walked into the Australian Senate wearing a burqa. Once inside she tore off her veil in front of stunned onlookers -- a stunt intended to promote a plebiscite on a burqa ban. 

About one week later in an East Melbourne suburb, another woman wearing a burqa held up a Subway at knifepoint. Hanson claimed the sandwich shop robbery proved her case.

“While many people agreed with me that the burqa is oppressive and has no place in western society, they laughed off my security concerns,” she told Australia’s Daily Mail the next day. “It’s safe to say, they’re not laughing now.” 

when Lama and those like her don the digital burqa, they are not, like Hanson during her stunt, seeking publicity. They’re trying to create a safe space in which it’s possible to be themselves.

Gazali, however, thinks the ban debate is just a distraction and if a ban were passed, it would give marginalized women little help. Most women who arrive wearing a burqa, abandon wearing one shortly after resettlement. Gazali speaks from personal experience, having worked as a refugee counsellor for four years, helping resettle almost 3,200 refugees. While the vast majority of those refugees were Muslim, she said, only five came wearing burqas, none of which wear the burqa today.

“They wore them for religious reasons and to avoid standing out,” said Gazali. “But it’s the opposite here. The majority don’t wear burqas — and so wearing one, they stick out. That defies the main objective, which is to blend in and be anonymous.”

Indeed, when Lama and those like her don the digital burqa, they are not, like Hanson during her stunt, seeking publicity. They’re trying to create a safe space in which it’s possible to be themselves.

Facebook officially justifies its authenticity rules in terms of safety. What it doesn’t mention in the FAQ is that it’s an enterprise seeking to monetize your every click.

But by using pseudonyms, these women also challenge Facebook’s policies, designed to encourage radical self-publicity. Over the last few years, Facebook has tried to make these policies even stricter.

"Authentic selves"

In 2014, Facebook created a controversial “Fake Name” reporting option, allowing users to red flag accounts, which could then be suspended without prior notice. The policy was contested by civil rights groups and advocates who said it harmed journalists, human rights activists, victims of domestic abuse, transgender and first nations by perpetrating the very sort of bullying behavior the policy ostensibly aimed to prevent.

Today, Facebook has relaxed its reporting standards and name enforcement — if only modestly. It still insists people be their “authentic selves”. According to its help page, this can only be achieved if you use “the name that your friends call you in everyday life”. The company also requests that everyone use a name that appears on a piece of official ID so “you always know who you’re connecting with.”

Facebook officially justifies its authenticity rules in terms of safety. What it doesn’t mention in the FAQ is that it’s an enterprise seeking to monetize your every click. Data mining is big business, dependent on the accuracy and completeness of user profiles. Duplicative accounts and false identities degrade the value of that data.

“These corporations like Google and Facebook take all the work we do and knowledge we generate networking, blogging and searching online and commodify it,” said Gazali.

“Whether developers are ready to admit it or not, they design these technologies with a particular person or persons in their head,” she added. “But that picture does not always fit the range of people who actually use the platform and their needs and history.”