Free Love, Free Speech, and Free Women: Mobile Phone Videos in the Middle East

Posted by CorinneRamey on Mar 06, 2008

A video circulated on Egyptian mobile phones begins with a picture of a couple holding hands. Images follow of condoms, birth control pills, and even the mouths of a man and woman kissing. "Love: so what?" reads the text. "Love before marriage isn't a shame. Egypt, start loving."

The video is one of a set of three mobile phone videos made by Egyptian artist Ahmad Sherif, designed to be spread virally from mobile phone to mobile phone. The campaign, which started in 2007, aims to generate discussion of subjects that are considered taboo in Egyptian society. The other two videos deal with issues of free speech and women's rights.

Sherif said that he started the campaign to address many of what he sees as the problems in Egypt today. "Almost 27 years of dictatorship and very poor education have distorted the beliefs and behaviors of my fellow citizens. Our country is politically and economically suffocating," he wrote in an email to MobileActive. He believes that young people are "suffocated" by religious and social pressure, leading to aggressive behavior. "These videos are meant to show that it is indeed possible to address openly, with no taboo or fear, sensitive issues such as sex, religion and politics," he wrote.

Sherif said that although the video about pre-marital sex had been fairly controversial, he believed that instigating a national conversation about sex was important. He wrote,

Regarding pre-marital sex one should mention that, in Egypt, men get married when they can afford to and, in principle, girls are allowed to have sex when they marry. The economical situation is so disastrous that men cannot get married and reach the age of thirty without being able to have "legit" sexual relations. Sex is actually an economical problem as well. The frustration that has been building-up for decades has become socially dangerous for girls, and unfair to both genders. In 2007 there has been a terrible episode in the very center of Cairo, with hundreds of young men chasing women on the streets and ripping-off their clothes. Ever since, I thought it was time for "sex lib'."

The other two videos also present fairly controversial content. In the video entitled "Free Speech: So What?", animated lips of different colors present contradictory statements in Arabic. Translated into English, the voiceover says,

President Mubarak is a great man.
President Mubarak is a first class ruthless dictator.

An Islamic government is our only hope.

A religious government may seriously damage your freedom.

A woman is to cover her body, listen to her husband and stop acting like a whore.

A woman is a man's equal, she may do whatever she likes.

Freedom of opinion requires no second opinion.

Egypt, speak up.

Sherif said that the use of the word "whore" in this video was particularly contentious. "People were surprised that foul language may be used in a video meaning to 'do good'," he said. He feels that what some people would refer to as "decency" -- or not using a word like "whore" a video -- relates to Egyptians' tendency to hide behind a veil of political correctness. He compared it to painting the hotel where a foreign dignitary was staying in order to hide what the country looks like the rest of the time. He said,

The truth is that we, Egyptians, have been brought up to keep and hide our embarrassing secrets. No one can imagine admitting such things publicly, especially in contexts such as the Internet, open to "foreign eyes and ears". In private, it's another story... There is an Egyptian masochism about hiding the truth, for the sake of saving face.

Sherif said that there was no way to measure the effect of the campaign because of its "viral" nature. However, YouTube statistics as of March 4 show that Free Love has been viewed 33,124 times, Free Speech has been viewed 4,834 times and Free Women has been viewed 18,874 times. According to an Arab Advisers Report from 2005, 56% of cellular operators provided MMS service, which is necessary to view the videos. A survey from May 2007 found that 47% of survey respondents ranked MMS as "important."

Despite the difficulties of measuring success and the mixed reactions to the videos, Sherif plans to continue this work in the future. "To my knowledge, no Arabic-speaking videos or newspaper articles have ever addressed and overtly encouraged pre-marital sex (for example) for the sake of social peace," he wrote. "I imagined this campaign as a first brick in the wall."

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