In Saudi Arabia women took to the streets in a struggle to earn the basic right to drive. They bravely posted their videos on YouTube, shared their stories with international media, and five of them have since paid the price, with their arrests.

Women in Saudi Arabia represent one extreme of what it means to be a woman in the Middle East. Throughout the region, a woman’s experiences are as varied as the Middle Eastern dialects. There is no one rule that can be applied to all women in the Middle East, not within the region, and not within one country.

A common factor that can be found, however, is the struggle to be seen as an equal to their male counterparts. This certainly isn’t a problem that is unique to the Middle East, but it is a recurring issue, which has crept into the Middle East’s online world, in a more subtle form.

The Job Hunt

Online job hunting in the Middle East is dominated by Bayt, but there have been other sites that have attempted to lure job hunters to their services. One interesting twist amongst Bayt’s competitors is to cater to women only. Twffaha, the Sudan based job portal, launched in 2008, was one of the first in the region to label itself as a job site for women only. Twffaha has since been followed by the Kuwait based Fora9, an Arabic only site whose name literally means opportunities. And most recently, Saudi based site Glowork offers both job opportunities, and eventually career guidance. Describing why Glowork was founded, the site’s statement reads

“The Glowork initiative was started after an immense need in the market for female and local Saudi talent to showcase their talent and give females an equal opportunity in the workplace.”

The idea behind these sites was to empower women, but there are two arguments that work strongly against that very concept. Firstly, in the job market, women want to be treated as equals, which also means no preferential treatment. I personally don’t want to get a job because I’m a woman but because I’m the most qualified candidate for the job.

And secondly, creating a space where the jobs offered are for women only raises the question – are there certain jobs that are suited for women only? These sites tread a very fine line between offering women equal opportunities, and offering opportunities that have been specifically tailored for women. They instantly raise the age-old question – are there certain jobs that a woman can’t do? And consequently, are there certain jobs men shouldn’t do, deemed appropriate only for a woman?

All the good intentions in the world don’t wipe away the negative connotations that could be associated with a woman-only job portal.

Online magazines

Veering away from the career mart, there are a few examples of online magazine sites that target the Arab woman, all of which are exclusively in Arabic. Each site covers a similar list of women-oriented topics, from marriage and pregnancy to beauty, culture and celeb news. Interaction on the sites is mainly limited to commenting and sharing articles on various social network. The Jordanian answer to YouTube, D1G’s sister site, Hasnaa is a good example of this.

These sites tend to focus more on cultural and social issues rather than career advice. So what happens when you bring the two together?

Plugging in to a community

Bayt has an interesting product which goes beyond just a job portal and an online magazine with their community site, Femeo. Femeo has the same aim as Twffaha and Glowork – to empower the working woman. The bilingual Arabic and English site features tips, articles and advice, quizzes and career assessments.

Rather than limit women to certain job opportunities, they leave the job hunting to Bayt’s job portal, and have instead branded Femeo as a networking site. The site features analytic articles, mixed in with a social networking setting.

A community site where women can interact, exchange ideas and personal experiences, doesn’t have the same potentially negative connotations that a job portal would.

Other community sites geared towards the Middle Eastern woman haven’t fared so well. A quick google search of these types of sites leads mainly to a series of dead-ends. The sites no longer exist. The reasons for their demise isn’t clear, but what is obvious is that they aren’t connecting with their target audience – Arab women.

Femeo appears to be a step in the right direction but having just launched, only time will tell how it is received, but with Bayt behind it, it definitely fares a better chance than its predecessors.

What’s missing?

While Femeo represents a great start, there still exists a significant gap in the online world that targets a female-only audience in the Middle East. The Sugar Network is the perfect example of a hybrid magazine, community and social networking site catering to every kind of woman. There’s GeekSugar for the more tech inclined woman, there’s YumSugar for the foodie in you, and so-forth.

Sugar Network’s genius lies in the fact that it is all-inclusive. Whether you’re interested in the latest pop news, health craze, or business savvy idea to apply to your career – you’ll probably find what you’re looking for somewhere within the 13 sites on the network.

Nothing close to the Sugar Network exists for the Middle Eastern woman. And this begs the question – do we need it? Much like you could argue that a woman-only site is detrimental to the fight for equality, you could easily say that a culturally exclusive site may not be in the best interest of its audience. But I don’t buy that.

Should it be applied in the Middle East?

No matter how much the Internet has turned the world into a global village, the fact remains that we have cultural nuances that set us apart.

Yes, let’s revel in the fact that we’re all essentially the same, regardless of the languages we speak, the gods we believe in, or even regardless of whether or not our women can get behind the steering wheel and drive themselves to work.

But let’s also revel in the fact that we do speak different languages, and that we do sometimes need the comfort of familiarity.

That could easily be in the form of a bilingual site where Middle Eastern women can come together and discuss anything from various eyebrow plucking methods to a major career decision.

In Egypt, as an example, a woman can easily form her own queue, for all intents and purposes cutting to the front of the line, if she is surrounded by men. Women are afforded entire cars on the subway in which men can’t ride. There is a fine line between convenience and putting your women up on a pedestal that adheres to all the cliches of where a woman belongs.

A career site catering to women only can easily be lumped with these little well-intentioned nuggets of convenience – they aim to make our lives easier but at the same time, they are essentially nothing more than segregation.

The question remains, where do Middle Eastern women want to be? Do they want to be right there in a crowded subway car, metaphorically speaking or otherwise, alongside their male counterparts, or do they want to be hurtling down the tunnel at the front of the train, surrounded only by women?

I’d personally choose the former. What about you?