Herstory: How Do Women Navigate the Costs of the Digital World?

Further research on how women navigate the costs and benefits of digitality and visuality in contemporary feminist mobilization and expression is crucial in understanding minority feminism in the digital age.

By Sarra Riahi

“We wrote Herstory, so that this actuality of feminism does not escape us, nor end up into the dustbin of history. Because minority women are too often made invisible and expose themselves to the risk of being forgotten.” Maryam Kolly.

Under the direction of the sociologist Maryam Kolly,  Herstory: Feminim, minority and visuality, brings together narratives from nine minority feminists of 21st century Europe. Film directors, artists, journalists, social workers, curators, sociologists and teachers come together and archive the actuality of minority feminism in the digital age.

As Herstory is now available to the public in French and Belgium libraries, Media Diversity Institute met with project coordinator Maryam Kolly and two contributors, film director Maja-Ajmia Yde Zellama and journalist Salwa Boujour, to find out why minority feminists have been “invisible” and how they are trying to change that.   

History is a canon, and European Muslim women do not often get canonized. When not made invisible, their fights, existence and perspectives have often remained unexplored.

As Salwa Boujour notes there is an urgency that comes from being made invisible in the public space: “There is an urgency, an urgency to communicate, to share. Because we have been so invisible that now we have to be visible, to show our work ourselves.”

In a digital age,  social media allows the visibilization and empowerment of otherwise silenced individuals and experiences. Most contributors of Herstory use social media as a means to share, exist or resist.

Maja Ajmia Yde Zellama is a Danish-Tunisian and Belgian  film director, DJ, social worker and project manager. As a filmmaker, visuality is central to her, and through social media she is able to make visible the hybridity of her being and work. Her digital activity is immediate and  spontaneous. Writing Herstory allowed her to actually reflect on the power of her posts.

“We don’t often take the time to reflect on our own work. Writing Herstory, I could reflect on my presence online. I could process it and digest it. It was like updating myself. Archiving one’s work and one’s life is so precious. For us and for the next generations to have traces.”

In the book, she comments on one of her social media posts. We can see her putting on gloss while attending a communal event in Saint-Gilles, calling into question the brutality of the UNEUS police brigade.

She tells MDI:  “It was spontaneous and natural to me to post that picture. Reflecting on it, I realize that this picture was about mirroring the disdain politicians showed towards us, citizens.”

By putting gloss on at such an event and posting it on social media, the film director signified insolence and incarnates power and resistance in face of systemic discrimination and disdain. This is one striking example of the power of visuality. Looking at this picture, one finds a path to resistance, away from the passive acceptance of prejudice.

To Salwa Boujour, journalist, author and founder of Media and Diversity in Action, her social media usage goes hand in hand with heightened awareness of what her body, as a North African Muslim woman, represents in the public space.

“This hatred is dedicated to my body, this negative passion. It drives some crazy that I cover myself, but to others that I don’t cover myself enough. The dominants say I’m oppressed because I am Muslim, but when I speak up for myself, I must face violence. Generally, I want to tell people that it’s useless to want to please the dominant gaze, because these are contradictory injunctions.”

In a context where racism and misogyny have taught minority women to hate themselves, Salwa Boujour urges readers to love themselves: “You have to take the weight off of having to be perfect. This urgency to make myself visible via social media also makes me show myself in an instantaneous mode. I take selfies, I look like nothing, sometimes I do super tight framing. It does not matter. The message, what I am saying, is more important than what I look like.”

Feminists such as Salwa Boujour therefore disrupt the highly curated landscape of social media and disrupt misogynist and racist representations of Muslim women.

At stake in Herstory is a will to transmit teachings to future generations, a tribute to those who fought before,  and a duty to archive contemporary fights.

On her social media, Salwa Boujour shared a picture of her at the 2020 demonstration in protest against the ban of hijab in Belgian higher education. In 21st century Europe, women were on the verge of being deprived of their right to education. Minority feminists gathered under the slogan #HijabisFightBack. In the picture, Salwa Boujour looks bound and determined, she is anchored in what marked an historic mobilization in feminist history.

Salwa Boujour tells us: “We – Muslim women – often feel alone in this fight. But more and more people realize that there are recurring patterns to oppress us publicly. That day, we owned the public space, all together. Women were chanting “don’t touch my studies”. It was such a powerful and moving moment.”

This picture on her social media is a digital testimony and archive to contemporary feminist mobilizations. While such mobilizations could go unnoticed or put under the rug in mainstream media, feminists used social media to make it visible.

Yet, as underlined by Maryam Kolly, the concentration of this activity in the digital world created a greater urgency to stabilize a memory. In fact, if social media can be a springboard for minority feminism, it inherently presents, because of its tense flow, immateriality and ephemerality, a default of existence. Herstory  compensates for such a default, by archiving the digital and the visual components of minority  feminist work.

What is striking about Herstory, is the foregrounding of agency. Through auto ethnographies, the nine contributors share their experiences and the role played by visuality in reclaiming the narrative. By commenting and articulating their social media posts in time and space, they restore, in this book, the history of contemporary feminist mobilizations and situate themselves in such actuality.

By foregrounding the power of visuality, Herstory accounts for the costs and benefits of visuals as means of expression and mobilization. To Maryam Kolly, the digital world is in no way disconnected from the offline work: “The visuals online are articulated with the offline. The book shows that we are not just dealing with a society of the spectacle. What is interesting truly, is that in the background of such iconization, we witness the reconfiguration of feminism.”

In the epilogue, entitled “wokist point of view of 70s native women”, Maryam Kolly and her colleagues account for the changes underpinning feminist history.

“We have learned a lot from the contributors. In our generation, feminism was to an extent informed by an anti feminine stance. We avoided staging our bodies, being indexed pretty, showing off a glamourous or insolent attitude. In fact, this anti feminine drive was a means for us to occupy the territory like the males did. Unlike what we did, they – contemporary minority feminists –  don’t hold their intelligence hostage. They can easily combine show and thought, lightness and gravity, where our generation I think responded more to injunctions of abnegation of the body as femininity.”

Herstory is a must read to whoever seeks to understand minority feminism in the digital age. Whilst presenting an archive of feminist actuality, the book urges for further research on how women navigate the costs and benefits of digitality and visuality in contemporary feminist mobilization and expression.

Contributions by Salwa Boujour (multimedia journalist, founder of Media and Diversity in Action), Maja-Ajmia Yde Zellama (director, casting director, DJ, event-manager and social worker), Manal Yousfi (founder of the Sœur Muz platform which concerns Muslim women), Souhaïla Amri (coordinator of socio-cultural projects at Ras El Hanout and training manager at TYN), Fatima-Zohra Ait El Maâti (artist, art programmer and curator), Samira Hmouda (curator and cultural manager), Malika Hamidi (substitute teacher of the Islam in Contemporary Europe course of the Master in Political Science at the Free University of Brussels), Benedikte Zitouni (sociologist at the Saint-Louis University of Brussels), Nadia Fadil (Professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven).

Photo Credits: sondem / Shutterstock