Showing Their Faces Online Is Difficult for Some Arab Women: Educators Must Respond

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Female students in the Gulf states are struggling with the demands of online learning and the gendered impacts of Covid-19.

Few learners were prepared for the shift to emergency remote learning or higher education moving into the home and once private domestic sphere.

I come to this issue as a female academic researching educational technology and teaching at a women’s only university in Dubai. In particular, I am aware that many Gulf-Arab women feel uncomfortable breaching cultural taboos and showing their faces online. Across the Arab region, female students in particular have been concerned about webcam monitoring during exams. While some educators feel this raises concerns surrounding academic integrity and accountability, for certain female students the issues are more complex and culturally rooted.

The emergency shift to online courses at universities in the Gulf has been reported as relatively painless, due to high-speed internet access and high rates of mobile phone and laptop ownership. But cultural tensions in the region surround women’s learning and are impacting on the rollout of online education. A number of Gulf-Arab women students are reticent about studying for degrees online, while juggling domestic responsibilities, to get ready for a now increasingly uncertain future. This is because, when it comes to the emergency remote learning necessitated by the coronavirus crisis, the digital divide is not only about tech infrastructure and mobile devices but also a matter of systemic gender inequalities.

In the rush to deliver online courses, teachers should be more sensitive to gender issues and develop greater awareness of the issues affecting women learners. This article offers seven pointers for what online education providers can do to be more gender aware.

  • Consider the offline context of online learning.

The home is a highly gendered space and women tend to bear the brunt of domestic labor. A number of students are mothers. Many women, mothers included, are apt to live with siblings and extended families. The needs of children, teenagers and relatives rarely align with the quiet sanctuary necessary for online learning or live webcam classes. Requirements for students’ visual self-presentations during online classes add to the pervasive Covid-19-related anxiety. To support overburdened students, teachers should make learning content accessible beyond the fixed class time.

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Provide links to online resources and supplementary materials that can be accessed anytime.

Marital, personal and psychological problems have intensified during lockdown and mental health issues are on the rise.

Due to online attendance issues of Covid-19, some universities in the Gulf have exempted students from academic warnings or dismissals. Teachers should consider that not all students have the privacy or support necessary for synchronous online engagement. If students are late or miss an online class, they may be experiencing  domestic issues preventing their timely participation. Marital, personal and psychological problems have intensified during lockdown and mental health issues are on the rise. But it is important to ensure that students who are struggling do not miss out on learning content altogether due to gendered labor and pressures in the home.

  • Acknowledge the gendered aspects of visual online learning.

Just as the domestic sphere can be highly gendered, online learning practices are not necessarily gender neutral. Research shows that men tend to talk more in meetings and some women struggle to find their voice. Within certain communities, it is culturally unacceptable for women to appear online. Avoiding facial presentation on camera or photographic portraits in media outlets is a significant practice of some, but not all, Gulf-Arab women. Yet, despite certain cultural restraints, an increasing number of Gulf-Arab women engage with followers on social media.

Other Gulf-Arab women use creative solutions to keep their faces concealed, through avatars or innovative photos that focus on their hands or feet, or that are taken from the back of their heads. Kholoud Al Ali, for example, is a female Qatari Instagrammer who never shows her face to the 347k followers of her @koodiz account.  Once educators acknowledge not only the gendered challenges but also the alternative visual styles available, they can design online learning to better suit their learners.

  • Build on innovative collaboration strategies available across visual media.

Allowing students to work together on projects, presentations and assignments enables students to collaborate and interact throughout their online learning. The social aspects of learning are well documented in research and instructional design. They are more necessary than ever for students who have had limited social interaction during Covid-19. Yet, large online classes can be intimidating for learners reluctant to ‘perform’ in front of an audience or camera. Online stage fright and dissonance are common and students need choices about how to participate.

Encourage learners to use breakout rooms in web conferencing software.

Once educators acknowledge not only the gendered challenges but also the alternative visual styles available, they can design online learning to better suit their learners.

Teachers can organize group learning tasks, via platforms like Adobe Connect or Google Meet rooms, to facilitate more intimate exchanges. This will enable students to divide learning tasks and have more interactive discussions. Simultaneously, learners who enjoy visual display still have opportunities to take centre stage online while those who are reluctant can make behind-the-scenes contributions.

  • Visually enhance online learning through creative use of avatars, filters, animations and video apps.

Visual presentation features, like Zoom’s virtual backgrounds, can help learners to disguise chaotic home learning spaces and/or private living arrangements. Powtoon provides animation templates and online avatars that offer alternatives for those not wishing to show their faces online while maintaining a presence in the virtual classroom. Screencast video tools enable learners to rehearse and afford greater control through pre-recorded self-presentations.

  • Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to online learning.

To accommodate a range of cultural, gendered and visual practices, educators should factor flexibility into teaching and learning cycles. For example, teachers can vary how, when and where students show themselves online. Fostering more diverse visual learning arrangements is an important strategy and necessary for going beyond the gendered digital divide. A palette of online visual choices and alternative presentation methods can advance inclusive online learning. This is important, although not always obvious, since the extent to which learning is both visual and gendered is literally a blind spot masking the enduring ways gender inequalities are reproduced.

My own research into educational technology, visuality and the empowerment of Gulf-Arab women, spanning more than 18 years, makes me acutely aware of the gender inequalities surrounding online learning. Who can be seen, heard and represented and how we see, listen and interpret raises questions about tacit behaviors that are deeply embedded within cultural practices.

Appreciating how learning occurs at visual levels and in relation to the gendered digital divide is vital. Consequently, educators need critical media literacies to understand their learners and the cultural contexts in which learning is situated. We need to have empathy for Gulf-Arab women students, who are adjusting to the new cultural demands of emergency remote study, through exploring visual strategies and coping mechanisms for self-presentations online.

Zoe Hurley is assistant dean for student affairs in the College of Communication and Media Sciences at Zayed University, in Dubai.

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