Closer, Further—Makeshift
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For Arab couples in long-distance relationships, communication technology removes cultural barriers to intimacy

— Closer, Further

When Tamara Ghanim Alsheikh began her research, she saw Muslim and Internet cultures collide. Her study, under the advising of Dr. Jennifer Rode, investigated technology-mediated intimacy of long-distance Arab couples. The results questioned seemingly intractable norms within her culture and lent insight into the constraint of distance.


Makeshift: How did technology allow the couples to stay intimate?
JR: There were interesting rituals, for example, regarding the number times you let a phone ring before you hung up. Some subjects in the study described calling and hanging up after a second ring, which meant “I love you”. The development of these rituals allowed them to maintain intimacy without the burden of expensive long-distance calls.

Couples in long-distance relationships also used Skype as an ambient way of maintaining intimacy, by leaving a channel on all day and night so that they could “be” with their partner without actively attending to them. This was one of the first studies to show Skype used in this way.

How did culture affect their use of technology?
Culturally, it was difficult for a male partner to speak to his girlfriend while she was with her family, so some couples would devise ways of communicating whether it was a good time to speak. “I give her a missed call so I know whether it’s safe to call her. If she rings me back, it’s safe.”

There’s another layer to this: there was a convention that since men are meant to be providers, they have to pay for the phone call—meaning the female counterpart would give a missed call and expect a call back.

Did privacy issues come up?
We saw an increasing tendency for women to share Facebook passwords with their partners, which breaks the terms of service. Because maharim—or key male family members—are expected to protect their families, they might want the ability to access a woman’s Facebook account to ensure she wasn’t getting into trouble. There’s also a pervasive tendency for men to vet whom a woman “friends” and whom she doesn’t.

But the technologies must have disrupted culture too.
Technology is enabling women to appear pious, observant, and modest in public, while simultaneously challenging conventions in private. Some women would open a second Facebook account that they keep secret or unveil themselves on Skype. Normally, if you have a new boyfriend, you would have to be chaperoned at all times, and he would never see you unveiled. But then take a technology like Skype, and suddenly you have the opportunity to see your new boyfriend in private, unchaperoned.

What does this mean for design?
We often think of technology as a very scientific thing that is valueless. But we realized there were distinct Western values communicated in this technology that had to be adapted and responded to by our Middle Eastern participants. In the West, we have chosen to design Facebook so that it’s one user per account, assuming a gender egalitarian society where a female account holder has complete control over whom she connects with and how. This is a good example of how Western culture was designed into our technology in ways we hadn’t anticipated.

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