Akja Kepderi. Contributor from Turkmenistan.
In the last decade, the proliferation of the Internet prompted computer programmers and software developers alike to create Social Networking Sites (SNS) to allow people to connect with their friends and family (e.g. Facebook), bridge with potential employees (LinkedIn) and share ideas (Twitter). The immense popularity and high participation rates of SNS has attracted many scholars interested in researching the impact of the Internet on women’s and men’s lives (Colley &Maltby, 2008), gender differences in SNS usage (Sherman et al., 2000) and motives for using SNS (Shen&Khalifa, 2010). Although themajority of SNS are global in nature, encompassing users from different origins and religious background, research about users from the developing world, particularly from Muslim countries, is very limited. For instance, Smeeta Mishra and SuhritaBasu (2014) conducted a study elucidating the impact of religion, family honor and cultural norms on young Indian Muslim women’s visual representation on SNS. A recent study on the impact of the Social Networking Sites (SNS) on Muslim students in Arab world revealed that Muslim girls, who are subject to patriarchal dominance and limitations in the physical world, perceive SNS such as Facebook as an alternative space for identity construction and relationship development (Shen&Khalifa, 2010). Similarly, other scholars have hailed the Internet for its capacity to provide paths for women’s empowerment (Wheeler, 2007; Davis, 2007; Onyejekwe, 2011).
To date, research about the Internet’s impact on the lives of Turkmen Muslim women is scant. This being the case, this paper uses small sample-size surveys, in-depth interviews and photography analysis as a small step toward bridging this gap. This study, thus, strives to reveal which factors influence online identity creation and visual representation of Turkmen girls in the cyberspace and if the Internet empowers Turkmen girls.
In this paper, the empowerment is defined as an action that enables “oppressed persons [in this case Turkmen girls] gain some control over their lives by taking a part within others in development of activities and structures that allow people increased involvement in matters which affect them directly” (Bystydzienski, as cited in Wheeler, 2007, p. 90).
Method and Theoretical Framework
To conduct a rigorous analysis, a mixed methodology, which includes qualitative, quantitative and visual research methods, was used. First, an open-ended interviews with 15 Turkmen girls in the age group of 16-26 was conducted. Second, a large-scale online survey was carried out. Third, the photographs of Turkmen girls posted in Vkontake groups were analyzed.
Results of the in-depth interviews
The respondents’ narratives elucidate that Vkontakte.ru and Odnoklassniki.ru were the primary social networking platform for thirteen respondents, except the two who had an account on Facebook. The girls that have been interview indicated that “cultural and traditional norms”, “fashion trends”, “sense of belonging to the online youth community” and geographical location affect their decision on the types of photography they post in the social networking cites. However, different factors had different influence on girls depending on their age, educational attainments and digital divide between them and their parents. For instance, 22-year-old girl, who is pursuing her undergraduate level in one of the former republic of the Soviet Union, when asked which factors affected her decision which photographs to post in the SNS said, “The choice of which photographs to post on the SNS depends on what kind of impression I want to give off. Usually, I present myself in the cyberspace the way I am in the physical world. In other words, when I am away from Turkmenistan I adhere to the European style of clothing. I do not hesitate in deciding whether to post my pictures in Western attire. However, I ensure that in my pictures I do not reveal my body parts, not because my parents can see them. Actually, they cannot use the Internet. I feel that I do not want to be equated to the desirous women who sexualize their bodies.” Another respondent, 16-year-old girl, who is pursuing her mandatory education in Turkmenistan, explained: “When I post pictures in Vkontakte I make sure that I look cool, nice, and cute. I usually try to post pictures where I wear fashionable clothes such as jeans and skirts. I want to post similar pictures they would post in Turkmenistan limited [a group in Vkontakte.ru]. But it is really hard for me because both at home and school I am primarily forced to wear Turkmen dresses. However, when I go out with my friends, I sometimes wear jeans and skirts, and then, I seize the opportunity to make pictures.”
Tawus, 26, was pursuing her Master’s in Human Rights in of the Western countries elaborated: “I usually choose neutral photos to post, which are taken in places I visit and where I usually stand with friends. Not too private ones. The factors that influence my decision are the Internet itself, that it is going public. I do not want to reveal much in the Internet. I have to admit however, that some social networking sites do affect my fashion tastes. I wear both Turkmen and European style clothes and do not see problem posting a picture depicting me in jeans, for instance.” Another ten respondents, in the age group of 16-25, said that they prefer to post photographs where they looked “modest.” They believed that being modest and visually representing themselves as such would not damage the reputation of their families.
Aygul, 17, was obtaining her mandatory education in Turkmenistan, told: “I get inspired by the photos that are posted in Turkmenistan Limited and other similar groups in Vkontakte. Those pictures illustrate girls either in traditional, yet in a trendy styles or in Western clothes. I try to resemble the style in those pictures because I want my pictures to be noticed by the administrators of those groups. If they find someone’s pictures beautiful, they share them in the groups.” The last respondent, 23-year-old Gulshat, obtained her Bachelor’s degree in one of the Turkmen Universities, elaborated: “I think I am an exception from Turkmen community and Turkmen expectations because I do not mind posting sexy photos on my page. Let people enjoy my photographs. Perhaps, I will find a worthy husband. In addition, my parents live in rural area and they do not even know what the Internet is, so I am not even worried that I might disappoint them.”
The above responses provide quite contradictory insights. At one end of the spectrum, the majority of the respondents appear to adhere to the cultural and traditional expectation of the female representation both in virtual reality and physical world. It appears that in both realms the girls’ self-representation embodies demureness. On the other side, few respondents seem to challenge stereotypical images produced by the dominant culture by altering their visual self-representation in both spaces. According to the responses, such “empowerment” stems from the girls’ physical distance from Turkmenistan and technological divide between girls and their parents. Several girls stated that the content in the Internet and SNS affect their fashion tastes, thus, triggering aberrant performativity and visual self-representation in the cyberspace.
Results of the online survey
The first question posed in the survey was: “Do Social Networking sites (e.g. Vkontakte, Onoklassniki, Instagram, Pinterest) affect your fashion tastes and visual self-representation in the cyberspace?” 173 girls in the age group of 16-26 responded to this question. 23% of the girls indicated that the social media affected their fashion tastes and visual representation in the social media. 76.9% of the respondents, on the other hand revealed that other factors such as cultural and traditional norms as well as personal preferences affect girls’ fashion tastes and visual representation in the cyberspace.
“Do you think that adherence to Western fashion opposes to Turkmen traditional expectations of girl’s garment?”—was the second question I asked. 242 girls in the age group of 16-26 answered this question. While 52.5% of the girls indicated that they think Western style contradicts to the Traditional expectations of girl’s garment, [the] remaining 47.5% indicated that they do not agree with this claim.
The third question was: “Why do you follow the Western style of attire and why do you prefer to post pictures in those garments?” 63% of the respondents said that they prefer Western style of attires to the Turkmen traditional style and they post pictures in those clothes because its elucidates their individuality as opposed to identical traditional dresses; 25.9% of the respondents said that they follow Western style because of the fashion trends and they post photographs in those garments to look trendy; remaining 11.1% indicated that they choice Western style because of the comfort and post pictures randomly. The above data suggests that 63.13% of all respondents acknowledge that: (1) the SNS do not affect their fashion tastes and visual self-representation; (2) dressing in Western manner opposes to Turkmen traditional expectations.
Results of the image analysis of photographs that circulate in SNS
In the research Illingworth (2001) and Mitra (2001) have demonstrated that the Internet can be an effective medium that provides a social space for marginalized groups to raise their voices. To divulge if the Internet helped Turkmen girls to achieve agency over their bodies and self-representation, the analysis of girls’ photographs posted in the SNS have been conducted.
From August 1, 2014 to November 31, 2014, 68 pictures of Turkmen girls were published in Turkmenistan Limited #1 group. Out of 68 pictures, 22 depicted girls in non-traditional attire and 14 photographs showed sexualized images of girls. In 32% of the pictures analyzed women were in non-traditional garments and in 12% of the images girls objectified their appearances. Consider, for instance, photography (See Appendix IV, image 1) of a Turkmen woman wearing a mini skirt, strapless top and stiletto shoes while standing in a position that emphasizes her body shapes—buttocks and breasts. Thus, sexualized photographs of girls in the SNS become a powerful visual violation that intensify forbidden version of self-representation.
Another group in Vkontakte—DP Production—on October 3, 2014, organized “Miss AltynLuw” contest for girls and later published photographs from the event on their web page. The photographs portrayed girls wearing figure-hugging dresses, shorts, fishnet tights and stiletto heels. The majority of the pictures depict the contestants dancing carnally to impress the audience and judges, who, according to the photographs, were predominantly men (See Appendix IV, images 2,3,4). The photographs posted in the Vkontakte’s Turkmenistan Limited #1 and Top People of Turkmenistan pages have shown that there are cases when visual representations of girls are in stark contrast to traditional ideals.
The proliferation of the Internet in Turkmenistan provided a vast access to previously isolated content that reigned in the SNSs such as Facebook, Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, etc. Through those SNSs, among other web sites, Turkmen girls encountered the images of Western non-Muslim women whose dressing pattern, self-representation, performativity and body ideals are in a stark contrast to that of non-Western Muslim women. Online survey revealed that 23% of girls indicated that the content on the SNS affect their fashion tastes and the way they would like to visually represent themselves. The image analysis of Turkmen girls’ visual self-representation online revealed that repeated exposure to these themes and images circulating in the internet led them to “assimilate these themes into their view of the world” (Gerbner et al., as cited in as cited in Goodin, Murnen&Smolak, et. al., 2011, p. 2). Repeated exposure to the images that promote the sexualization of women, which primarily “occursthrough clothing that emphasizes a sexual body part”, girls begin to imitate images of Western women that is readily available in the SNS such as Instagram, Pinterest and Tumbler (Goodin, Murnen&Smolak, et. al., 2011, p. 2).The image analysis revealed that in 12% of the pictures posted on Turkmenistan Limited #1 page depicted Turkmen girls sexually objectifying their bodies by wearing sexualized clothing. Turkmen girls’ photographs in mini shorts and skirts, cropped tops, figure hugging dresses, stiletto shoes, with excessive make up and purposeful body revealing postures are circulating all over the Vkontakte web-site’s Turkmen community pages.
Considering that a 16-year-old girl who was interviewed said that she “wants to post similar pictures they would post in Turkmenistan limited,” the repeated exposure to sexualized photographs indeedcoaxes girls to adopt a particular view on fashion, beauty and self-representation. Certainly, not all girls experience and respond to sexual objectification in a similar way. A combination of age, educational attainment (or the lack thereof), class, and other personal attributes produce distinctive set of experiences and responses to the Internet content. The presence of sexualized photographs of Turkmen girls in the Social Networking cites undermine the conception that the Internet empowers women for sexual objectification “implies that [woman] is sexually available to men, which puts her in a lower status” (in Graff, Murnen&Smolak, 2012, p. 764). In this light, the exposure to the sexualized content that circulates in the Internet serves as another form of female oppression, not an empowerment by any means (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997, p. 174).
Interviews, surveys and photography analysis revealed that in a few cases the synchronicity between subjective—feel of traditional expectation on gender roles—and objective structures were disrupted both in cyberspace and physical world. The proliferation of the Internet appeared to affect the embodied cultural dispositions of girls that resulted in deviant self-representation. In Turkmenistan at present the social transformation (i.e. de-traditionalization) is at place, but empowerment of girls is not feasible because they could not critically reflect on norms, rules and habits governing gender roles and gender performativity.Taking into account the results from interviews, surveys and image analysis it might be concluded that Turkmen girls pro tempore will continue to sexually objectify themselves.
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