The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Digital Burqa

March 22, 2010

A few days ago, Charli pondered “whether or not the Internet and social media empowers civil society or instead simply offers states new tools of repression and governance.” And she provided a link to an excellent video about Iranian bloggers. I haven’t been able to get the question or the video out of my head. This is not my topic/area of research, but I will offer a few tentative thoughts to see if it will spark some discussion…

What color is your burqa?

If we were to visualize the Internet, would we not see a vast social space populated by individuals (men and women) wearing burqas, niqabs, chadors, and hijabs? Even in social networks, how many people interact without securing a measure of (an admittedly illusory) “privacy”? Almost all of those who comment on this blog, for example, wear digital burqas, except the listed contributors who are hijabed. (For we are all aware of the Nietzschean dictum that to talk much about oneself is also a way to conceal oneself.)

(What fascinates me is that so many wear digital burqas voluntarily, particularly in societies which are nominally non-authoritarian. From whence does this fear of the gaze of others originate in supposedly free societies? But, I digress…)

If you ask individuals in authoritarian or non-authoritarian contexts why they inhabit these personal panopticons, they would probably tell you that their burqa gives them mobility in the public sphere while avoiding the gaze/persistent memory of undesirable others and perhaps the state. Their burqa also enables a measure of subversion and license (as does the actual burqa and niqab even in conservative societies.)

Repression is understood in this context as the lifting of the digital veil by the state and/or the incarceration of authors.

The real question for me is not why an authoritarian state occasionally seeks to lift the veil on suspected dissidents (all states do this), but why a strong authoritarian state tolerates this potentially subversive social space at all. Technophiles will say that the state has no choice in this digital age, but this argument is not convincing when one is dealing with strong, capable states. After all, how many blogs emanate from Pyongyang? Not many (if any) I suspect. States can attempt (and more of less succeed) to prevent the technology wholesale, the more challenging situation is to permit the technology but to censor/filter particular servers. So why take on this more difficult challenge in governing?

The Spider and the Web

There is often an assumption in debates about social networks in authoritarian countries that civil society is antecedent to the state. However, outside of the Anglo-American tradition civil society is certainly not an autonomous historical development. (Even within the Anglo-American tradition it is doubtful that civil society today is logically antecedent since the state shapes every element of civil society through public policies). Late developing states have consistently sought to create bourgeois civil society in a hothouse in order to catch up to the early industrializers. To borrow an evocative metaphor from Bruce Cummings’ work on the developmental state: the spider builds the web; there are no webs without spiders.

The challenge for late-industrializing states has traditionally been to create a bourgeoisie which can achieve hegemony over the existing social classes without fomenting a violent reactionary revolution.

I do not know enough about Iran since its (reactionary? alter-modern?) revolution to say why its state permits this potential site of resistance. However, I do think it is worth asking the question. My hunch (and it is only that) is that the state hopes to create a particular modern bourgeoisie with “Iranian characteristics” (on the Chinese model) while exposing and expunging the secular, cosmopolitan, counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. In Hegelian fashion, the state projects its role as restoring a threatened organic unity.

It is unclear to me whether the young bloggers/tweeters of Iran have established hegemony within their society. Internet penetration in Iran has grown dramatically in recent years and it is well above the regional average. However, the bloggers’/tweeters’ frequent appeals in English to a global audience cast some doubts in my mind. But again, I do not know enough and hope others will correct me. Perhaps, when the authoritarian state has stamped out real threats to its survival, it occasionally lets the reformers de-legitimize themselves by appealing to the international community in the language of the global hegemon. As the Iranian state frequently expresses concerns about foreign subversion, this seems like a plausible scenario.

In one conversation I had with an Iranian blogger (who ironically used Chinese software to acquire his/her chador), s/he rejected the notion that their struggles against the state were assisted by the US State Department’s efforts to buttress Twitter. Of course, the core issue is whether American assistance/intervention is perceived as marginal by the majority of the Iranian population.

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Vikash is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. His main areas of academic interest are (post-) globalization, economic development, and economic freedom, with a regional focus on South Asia