Last week, cell phone footage emerged on Youtube that purports to be taken by a Saudi Arabian woman in a mall, of her clash with the Saudi religious police. The woman is righteously indignant, insisting that they have no right to harass her, that it’s “none of [their] business if [she] wears nail polish”. She also tells them to “smile for the camera”, as she’s filming the entire thing and is sharing the footage.
The pattern of this particular encounter isn’t necessarily novel, and by Western standards a claim on the right to wear nail polish in public seems fairly mundane, but there is something worth noting about the specific dynamics inherent in sharing this kind of footage. Most obviously there’s the fact that in countries with repressive laws based on gender, wearing nail polish in public may indeed be an extremely subversive act, but that leaves aside the question of the cell phone footage itself, and what uploading it to Youtube does.
For women living in repressive regimes, communications technology has long served as an outlet for discussion and expression based around gender transgression - Iranian blogs are an especially powerful example of this. But frequently in those cases women are forced by that very repressiveness to relegate the bulk of their self-expression to blogs and other forms of social media because physical public space is so tightly controlled by religious/state authorities. Technology helps to create a kind of fallback public space for communication and expression because physical public space has been made largely unavailable.
In the case of the video above, however, technology is being used in the opposite direction: to reinforce and expand claims on rights in physical public space. The woman in the video appears to feel secure in her existing rights to be in the public space of a mall and to make use of it – a right that the religious police are attacking and which she is entitled to defend.
This also isn’t a new point that I’m making; I’ve made elements of it before, regarding tents in Occupy and injured bodies in violent protest events. What this example serves to reinforce is the profound interconnectedness of public space in physical and virtual settings and the variety of different ways that the two can be used to shape and alter each other, as isolated tactics by single individuals or as elements of larger strategies on the part of organized social movements. Social media technologies don’t replace physical public space; just as the relationship isn’t a dichotomy, it also isn’t zero-sum in nature. “Augmented” isn’t only a description of a passive state of being but also of the various ways in which action can and does occur, lending those forms of action lesser or greater strength and efficacy, depending.
At this point, it’s also worth bearing in mind the existence of strengthening and expanding surveillance states, especially surveillance in public space as a means of control of that space; if claims by the public on public space are – increasingly as a matter of course – augmented by technology, counterclaims on that space by authorities are augmented by the same. The dynamic in this case isn’t only augmented but is also contentious and moving in multiple directions, a series of escalating claims and counterclaims, actions and counteractions. By altering existing tactics and facilitating new ones – such as using a cell phone camera and social media to shame and intimidate authorities – technology complicates an already complex picture.