Published in the Daily Star: Kony 2012 and the New Age of Social Media in Political Action

My interest in social media is a recent phenomenon, mostly triggered by the Arab Spring. The recent attention on Kony 2012, both the good and bad has been particularly eye catching because it has attracted the youth, and also attracted attention to issues that have already been a problem for a long time– why now? The power of Facebook- what was one laughable- is actually serious. YouTube? Twitter? These sites do not even ask for spell check on Word anymore. Anyway, I wrote this piece for this month’s Forum magazine in response to the many questions that buzz my head as I think about the way I use and don’t use social networking sites and the media. The article can be found by clicking here, or read below, or by buying this month’s copy of the magazine, available in Bangladesh.

Kony 2012 and the New Age of Social Media in Political Action

OLINDA HASSAN looks at the significance of social media in bringing political change.

Can social media be used to make an effective political change? This question highlights recent reactions by activists, academics, politicians, to journalists in the wake of Kony 2012, the video aimed at bringing public attention to Joseph Kony, the militant leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. The 30 minute video as of March 19 has had 82 million viewers. That is almost triple the population of Uganda.

Joseph Kony led the LRA under the ideology of creating a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments in Uganda. For over a quarter of a century, Kony built a sizable army of child soldiers and ordered the abduction of thousands of girls to become sex slaves. Though in 2005 Kony was indicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court, he has yet to be captured.

Kony 2012 was created by a US-based advocacy group, Invisible Children Inc which has long worked in Uganda to bring access to education and quality livelihood to a post-conflict community that suffers from poverty and the memories of war. The video brings to light these issues, with the hope that it will lead to the capture of the militant leader before the end of the year.

Invisible Children Inc has been long known for having one of the strongest social media bases in the nonprofit world. The video’s viral purpose is clear as it repeats the images of people using social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and of course, YouTube. The video opens with the words “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. ” Kony 2012 does not necessarily make Kony the celebrity but certainly the bad guy, and more interestingly, it personifies the viewer — that it is you watching who can bring change. Furthermore, it uses a simplistic story line — some argue too simple — and thus, misses some key facts and features of the atrocities committed. However, its simplicity was the reason why the video was able to target so many viewers — and from so many intellectual and other backgrounds. In an age of technological communication when so many millions of users utilise social media around the world, this is certainly telling.

The simple story line, as mentioned, has been the root cause of a backlash of the viral video. Critics argue that the simplification of the complex issue has instead caused “slacktivism” rather than actual activism. Slacktivism, derived from slack and activism, points to the effort of no effort — a pejorative term that describes supporting a cause through simple measures, like sharing a link of Facebook, and feeling good about it and not going further. As many have argued over blog posts, advancing awareness and social media alone will not do much to stop the atrocities in Africa, let alone capture Kony. Journalist Anthony Kosner writes, “the radical simplification of the situation in Uganda that makes Kony 2012 such an effective piece of social media is the same thing that undermines it as a piece of political activism.” (Forbes).

Social media and international politics


We have entered a new era where social media can and have shown to matter, even in as complex an area as foreign policy. Facebook and Twitter have fueled the Arab Spring uprising, giving both men and women equal footing and voice on some of the most pressing issues of governance. Videos have been coming out of Syria on a regular basis, giving them a chance to be noticed by the outside world. As author Philip N. Howard noted, “It was social media that spread both the discontent and inspiring stories of success… into the Middle East.” “Occupy Wall Street” in New York has its roots in social media outlets, the same tool used for similar protests around the United States. Young people around the world have especially been hit with the use of social media and also in actually becoming active. It has become an inspiring and a dangerous tool, mainly because so many people have the access, and thus the voice, regardless of gender, age, socioeconomic status to some extent, or language.

Since the rise of the internet in the early 1990s, the world’s networked population has increased from a million or two, to low billions. At the same time, social media became “a fact of life for civil society worldwide” (Clay Shirky, Foreign Affairs). It has involved the average citizens, activists, nongovernmental organisations, students, companies, software providers, and of course, governments. As this new era’s communication processes gets more complex and intertwined, the population of users have increased. People have greater opportunities to interact, access information, and take action. The high level of production and sharing of multimedia content makes it even more difficult to suppress information. It is redefining freedom, especially in countries where such rights are limited. This was especially true for Egypt, for example, where outlets such as Facebook and Twitter carried the message of freedom and democracy to help raise political uprising. Democracy found its footing in social networks.

The new wave of political activism through social media has certainly attracted the attention of politicians, who on average are much older and in general, of a different demographic than the average activist (who tend to be younger and more in tune with technology as evidenced by recent uprisings and activities). When protests erupted in Tehran, Iran, the US State Department asked Twitter executives to suspend their scheduled maintenance of the service so it could still be used as a tool for political organisation during the demonstrations. While the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 may have been the first modern rebellion to be recorded on Twitter, it did not bring down a government. The links between social media and revolutions are still being examined by researchers.

Egypt has almost 10.5 million Facebook users, ranking at 20, ahead of countries such as Japan (25) and Russia (29), and way ahead of other North African countries Algeria (44) and Tunisia (47). Bangladesh is ranked at 55, with a little over 2 million users on Facebook, with users from ages 18-24 making up more than 50% of the users (Source: Socialbaker). Bangladesh is also not new to enforced censorship and social media blocking enforced by the government. It is important to also note that many users of sites like Facebook may originate at one place, but the user may live in a different country, as well as the use of multiple accounts and other glitches.

Social media alone is of course not the main driving force of uprisings — on-the-field activism is. Rather, social media has been taken up to make people aware and inform them of activities taking place that they can participate in. Certainly, awareness is part of the scheme in bringing in changes.

Regulation and censorship (?) 
At first, using the words “censorship” and ” media” will inevitably bring in an abundance of negative reactions, especially in the 21st century and in an era of technology and global communication. In terms of social media, however, the debate goes further than initial reactions.

Censorship of social media sites are often compared to the censorship of books, films, or the press — most people do not support such censorship and social media in some ways fits into the category. But because of the complex nature of social media (where everyone can be an author and everyone can have access), it is hard to directly apply the same principles.

Furthermore, social media sites have been used to both organise mass protests that have fueled success (e.g. Egypt and the Arab Spring) to violence (e.g. instant messaging services facilitated the London riots). False information is notorious for appearing in, and being shared around via social media sites. Twitter users’ panic tweets about gunmen attacking schools in Mexico allegedly led to 26 car accidents. There are also notions of social media sites being used to develop and strengthen underground cults and gangs in urban centres, such as in Los Angeles to London.

With no proper means of addressing and defining social media (after all, is it really “media”?), governments are left to do as pleased given the right purposes. China, for one, has been known historically to censor internet content. But as a recent Carnegie Mellon University study has shown, Chinese web users have also cleverly found many ways to access forbidden sites and micro blogs to serve their political or social purposes. Iran similarly has just posed another ban on social media outlets, making it more difficult for citizens to communicate, repressing Iranians instead of empowering them through what used to be an easy communication tool.

Kony 2012 and the new age of internet 
Returning to the discussion of Invisible Children Inc, Kony 2012 has become one of the most highly viewed videos of recent times on YouTube. The video has attracted notable celebrities such as Ryan Seacrest, Justin Beiber, Rhianna, Alec Baldwin and Taylor Swift who used their Twitter accounts to spread awareness of the video. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has reported that the first two days after the video was released online, 77% of Twitter conversation was supportive compared with only 7% that was skeptical. However, since its release, there has also been a massive rise in actually analysing both the video and the content from bloggers and journalists so that since March 7, when the response picked up dramatically, the percentage of tweets reflecting skepticism increased to 17%.

And the criticisms are increasing. Some of the main denigration of Kony 2012 in recent days has been on its depiction of Uganda, and how the events covered in the video was the story of the past, and not the current state of the war-wrecked nation. The image of Africa as depicted in the video was also troubling. “This is another video where I see an outsider trying to be a hero rescuing African children. We have seen these stories a lot in Ethiopia, celebrities coming in Somalia,” said Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan blogger who explained that the video only showcased Africa as hopeless and constantly needing outside help. A lot of phrases like “white man’s burden” have also appeared among blog sites. Social media has both the ability to be used to increase awareness of a topic, and to also increase awareness of the details and critics of the topic itself in a very timely manner, as noted in the case of Kony 2012.

Social media is a very recent, and a very relevant player in today’s politics, as evidenced by increased government attention and also, government regulation and censorships. However, social media is also not the “only thing” and can often be misguided. The rules of checking facts, the sources, and basic common sense still applies to tweets and Facebook updates — just as it does for the press. Perhaps such caution is warranted even more for social media outlets because of its ability to be used by the masses and not just experts. Rather than information sharing, social media has perhaps been more actively purposeful for organising, whether that was in the Arab Spring, or as now with Kony 2012 in leading massive attention to a little known leader in the outside world of Uganda.

Nigerian human rights campaigner Omoyele Sowore states it best like it is: “The Internet has helped revolution; but the Internet is not revolution.”

Olinda Hassan is a graduate of Wellesley College, and continues to discusses various musings in her blog at olindahassan.wordpress.com

Published: Women in the Workplace: Gender-specific challenges in the corporate world (Daily Star)

The article can be found in this month’s Forum magazine supplement of the Daily Star or online by clicking here.

Women in the Workplace:Gender-specific challenges in the corporate world

OLINDA HASSAN explores the role of female participation and leadership in the workplace.

The last decade has witnessed an impressive rise of women in the workforce in Bangladesh. The encouraging rate of growth has been reflected in a variety of sectors. Being able to identify some women in high positions in the normally male-driven corporate industry is certainly encouraging. With change comes a social pressure for cultural shifts in perceptions. For example, today, the working women’s future ‘dreams’ are not just obtaining independence, but advancing in their respective careers. Such notions of career advancement closely resemble the historical aspirations of men. However, women’s paths towards such dreams are vastly different from men and the reaction that such women face from their peers and families continue to be problematic. Combined with the general consequences of a patriarchal society, women in Bangladesh’s corporate world are driven by additional determinants — How should I get ahead as a woman? How do I manage my life at home alongside my career? How do I deal with family expectations?

Traditional gender-roles and seeking female leadership in the workplace

A reason why women in South Asia, such as in Bangladesh, opt out of professional careers is to raise their children. Because of continued stigma attached to women and raising children at home, a woman’s continuation of work after birth remains a cultural obstacle. Women in South Asia also continue to have an uneven share of responsibilities when it comes to taking care of their elderly parents and/or parents-in-law. Combined with having to take care of children, many South Asian women find it exceptionally difficult to resume their careers at the level they left since they are unable to remain connected or develop professionally in a linear fashion.

Moreover, women’s participation in Bangladesh’s movements continue to be limited in scope. To this day, whether married or not, young or old, women face a harder time being able to work odd hours, overtime, or over weekends — the types of commitment that are needed in a competitive, corporate world. Women in general face more pressure than their male counterparts to explain and gain approval from their home as to why she would need to work longer hours, or why she would have to take a certain work trip out of town, for example.

The movements of female workers at the workplace are more scrutinised with a magnifying glass than their male counterparts. “As women, we already face advances from our male colleagues. I have even been advised to flirt with them in order to be heard. The definition of what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is definitely much more difficult to navigate for us than it is for our male colleagues. There is just too much cultural pressure,” said one female communications manager for a multinational corporation in Dhaka who asked for anonymity.

At the work place, it is more difficult for women to break into a male-dominated industry, since a woman in leadership or seeking a leadership position must showcase that she is as capable as any other man at work. She must work hard, if not harder, to gain staff respect and understanding.

Thus, women often have to choose between their career and their family life as both components require much attention and physical presence.

However, some of the difficulties listed above may be used as excuses and are self-created. In a recent article in Business Standard, Vinita Bali, the managing director of Britannia Industries was asked about how she felt working in a male-dominated industry and she expressed that sometimes, “we talk about it so much we make it bigger than what it is.” While problems may exist, embedded problems from culture can be changed. Women must thus be more vocal in defending themselves at their home and create a reasonable venue for approval and understanding. After all, more women than ever hold corporate positions in Bangladesh, and this could not have been gained without achieving understanding between families and communities.

“This isn’t a golf-playing, beer-drinking homogeneous culture,” Naina Lal Kidwai, Group Managing Director and Country Head of HSBC in India once said in an interview regarding corporate women in South Asia. “Women could join the workplace on their own terms…You still have to network; you still have to work hard, but that made it easier” (HRM Asia).

Appearances, its judgments, and why it may matter to a woman’s employment

The Bangladeshi corporate woman can instigate all kinds of images. You have the one who wears stylish, trend-setting saris and comes to work with her designer bag and always perfect hair and flawless makeup. On one hand, she embodies professionalism with her clean, clear cut modern image. On the other hand, she is seen as a bit too much — a bit too modern, a bit too smart, a bit too out there. Who does she think she is, better than all of us?– a common Bangladeshi sentiment arises. The leading corporate woman can also wear a simple sari or shalwar kameez, with visible dark circles under her eyes and non-flashy shoes and I-care-more-about-my-files bag. This can generate a nod of approval from those who want to see a hard worker, but she can also be subjected to being too simple, too sloppy, and too intelligent. Either way, no matter how she dresses and presents herself, a negative perception and related typecasting can, and most often does, follow.

With slow economy worldwide and higher competition among job seekers, men and women alike are facing new challenges in the market. Interestingly, in the array of research, articles and advice blogs written to aid women, there has been a particular assertion: looks matter.

“If you want to get a raise or a promotion, you might want to throw on a pair of heels and suck in that belly. Your looks can help (or hinder) your chances of getting a well-deserved promotion, regardless of qualifications, especially in a sour economy when advancements are few and hard to come by,” recently wrote journalist Laura Sinberg for Forbes, one of the leading publications for corporate America. According to the Journal of Labor Economics,attractive people earn about 5% more than their average-looking colleagues.

A 2009 study by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that 73% of women felt a “youthful appearance” played a role in getting a job, promotion, or getting and keeping clients. Many in the study cited difficult economic times as the reason for such a sentiment; the better-looking are the ones advancing in their careers where competition has become even more rigorous.

Such statements and studies may seem anti-feminist and anti-women’s movement. It certainly can be seen as offensive. But given the recent economy, women are certainly taking the looks-factor into consideration.

In Bangladesh, the number of working-women who are in the rising stage of their careers, between the age of 25-45 are visiting the parlours more than ever, opting for work-appropriate looks ranging from haircuts to subtle manicures. New boutiques and fashion houses are offering more and more “work-appropriate clothing” specifically created to make a woman feel and look more serious. Young women employed in major business and banking industries in the city are increasingly “looking the part.” It is not that one should ever not look work-appropriate; rather, there is a conscious decision made by many women to have to look attractive in the workplace, beyond just being “presentable”.

“The first lesson I learned as a South Asian woman is, I don’t have to compromise my values, but I really need to understand how I articulate them,” said Shahla Aly, a general manager at Microsoft at a conference at Harvard Business School in 2005 in a discussion about South Asian women at work. “My need to dress modestly can be articulated in dress that is more pervasive. At that point [when she first began her corporate job], I had not yet earned the right to be different.”

Countering stereotypes as women increase their visibility in corporate South Asia

South Asian women in business sometimes endure stereotypes exclusive to Asian women; on one hand, they are deemed as very intelligent, sharp, and able to think from varied angles. However, they are also often labelled as passive and submissive, and unassertive. In the corporate business world, these perceived qualities can hamper a woman’s professional growth. Additionally, there is a massive disconnect between an educational system in Bangladesh that now produces a large quantity of female graduates and a business climate that has not yet included this talent pool. Even if a woman is hired for a higher-end position, she will earn less and have lower chances of a promotion than her male counterpart.

A recent survey by Catalyst found that companies with female board directors consistently outperform corporations without women on the board in areas such as return on equity, return on sales, and return on invested capital. Another study posted on the Harvard Business Review cites such trends to qualities such as women invest more on preparation before board meetings and have higher attendance rates. They seek to broaden the scope of discussions and bring in a different set of characteristics that makes any corporate board unique and all-encapsulating. Given the recent economic climate worldwide, such characteristics are needed more than ever for struggling or expanding industries.

The discussion of what inhibits female growth and entrance into professional roles in Bangladesh (in an age when we have become focused on addressing gender gaps) takes place in the light that more women than ever are indeed advancing their careers in South Asia. Let us take India for example: foreign banks (e.g. HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS) and the country’s ICICI Bank and Axis Bank are all run by women. Half of the deputy governors at the Reserve Bank of India are women (HRM Asia). Even though the traditional Indian society is patriarchal like Bangladesh, modern women in the region do not need to act like the stereotypical male banker to advance their careers.

Increasing the representation of women on corporate and governing boards is not singularly a women’s issue — it is a gender issue, for both men and women, and a professional concern. It is often asserted that putting women in leadership positions can broaden a company’s perspective on social welfare issues and “counteract the ’empathy deficit’ on corporate boards” (World Economic Forum). While these studies certainly place attention upon women, it is time women take on more active roles and be seen not just as female leaders, but as leaders. Women, whether they choose to dress for success and maintain traditional norms are certainly able to also juggle a career. Both women and men must make a conscious decision to champion diversity and open the path for other women — it is not impossible unless it is tried, experimented and fought for.

Olinda Hassan is a graduate of Wellesley College, and continues to discuss various musings in her blog atolindahassan. wordpress.com.

Published in the Daily Star: “Trans-nationalism and Identity: The multinational Bangladeshis”

I wrote this piece reflecting on my own personal identity and struggles to integrate into the Bangladeshi society when I first arrived in September 2010. I talk about the multinational identity that many have these days with Bangladeshi origin, focusing on its cultural and economic implications, with globalization in mind. Pick up a copy of the Daily Star or read online by clicking here, or below.

Trans-nationalism and Identity: The multinational Bangladeshis 

OLINDA HASSAN observes the struggle between personal and nation-imposed identities.

With globalisation catching the attention of economists and policy makers worldwide, cultural anthropologists are much more concerned about the shifts in culture and the development of the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. This is certainly true for Bangladeshis, both living abroad and in the country with dual citizenships. A good number of individuals with Bangladeshi roots have complemented their lives abroad (usually in a Western nation) to their ethnic heritage to create an identity of dualism. In this century of globalisation, this idea of identity as well as citizenship is particularly interesting.

A few months ago at immigration at the airport, I remember one gentleman in the “foreign citizen” line yelling at a woman who had mistakenly entered the line. He exclaimed to her, “This line is not for you, you see, do you have one of these? I am British, you are not.” He said this in heavily Bangladeshi-accented broken English, holding his British passport firmly in front of her. The bewildered woman did not say anything but walked away. I remember this scene in particular because the gentleman (as I later found out from the expressive immigration officer) had just returned from only his second visit to the UK and had never actually lived there.

The fact that acquiring a non-green passport raises eyebrows cannot be ignored. Having a Western passport can immediately put the individual in a different, heightened social category, which in Bangladesh still continues to play an important role. This can be compared to education as well: putting aside personal connections, if one is able to acquire a foreign degree even if it comes from a no-name university (of which there is an abundant number across Canada to the US to all over Europe, often specifically targeting international students with a sizable bank account), he or she will get an upper hand in various job positions in Bangladesh over candidates with local degrees. Similar can be said for multiple passport holders and their place in the ‘social ladder’ of Bangladesh.

However, over time, passports have become less and less testimonial of a citizenship, let alone an individual’s loyalty to a nation. Rather, passports have become claims to participate in different economic markets. The numbers of dual citizens living in Bangladesh rather than abroad are increasing; as one businessperson who asked for anonymity explained, his claim to a British passport was mainly for economic and social purposes: it got him the contracts he wanted, entrances into the right clubs and a swift immigration clearance at the airport. He chose to live in Bangladesh because the luxury that Dhaka offers as result of his dual citizenship is incomparable to what his life would have been in the UK. The acquisition of a Western citizenship is still highly coveted in Bangladesh as it serves in many ways that are not necessarily related to defining one’s identity.

As for the many Bangladeshi-origin individuals living in the US, for example, citizenship is just one of the complexities of this particular group. Unlike the UK where South Asian descendents transcend to generations, Bangladeshis in the US is fairly new. Bangladeshis did not migrate to the US in high numbers in the 1980s when debate concerning poverty, social exclusion and the growing incidence of criminality among third generation Bangladeshis dominated conversations in the UK (Oxford Development Studies, 2002). It was only in the 1990s that Bangladeshis began to migrate to the US, and this group itself was mixed in terms of education, class, work experiences, etc. Nevertheless, Bangladeshi Americans in general are of the middle class to upper middle class range, with more than average education levels and income. Additionally, a sizable pocket of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh are also noted in urban cities, such as New York and Detroit.

Because of the relative new migration pattern, the attempt to hold on to a root culture continues to be practised by parents upon their children. The idea of parental expectations of success once they arrive in America, a country even further away from the UK, resonated alongside expectations for their children. The two areas that have been specific to Asian culture that guided parental expectations are: children taking on the responsibility of enhancing family pride, and using education as a way to advance in the social classes and achieving the ‘American Dream’, (research has shown that education has, and continues to be viewed as the highest valuable asset and the sole tool to achieve goals. Since education is available for everyone, this is seen as an opportunity for parents and children). Combine this with many parents’ determination to connect their children to Bangladeshi culture, whether through the food, language, or dances and music as commonly witnessed in larger cities. The identity of these immigrants and their children are exactly what they are titled: Bangladeshi and American, or Bangladeshi American.

There is a popular concept in the US: the American Born Confused Desi, or ABCD. This type of identity is not very confusing, actually. These children basically are American by birth and upbringing, but are also Bangladeshi through their parental connections to their homes. They are like any other Asian American in this sense, and whether an individual of such a categorisation chooses to emphasise one or the other part of this identity makes it just as fitting for “America” where the history of the country is rooted in the basic idea of immigration and mixing of different cultures, ethnicities, religions and languages.

The notion of the Bangladeshi American can however get confusing when they are confronted with a homogeneous Bangladeshi society that takes over the former component of their identification. For example, let us take Mr. X, a Bangladeshi American who visits Bangladesh and is then asked why he calls himself an American, when he looks just like a Bangladeshi. He is charged with that just because he holds an American passport, it does not give him any right to claim to be American. For X, is physically looking Bangladeshi, eating Bangladeshi food with his hands, or speaking Bangla more important in defining himself as Bangladeshi than his experience of growing up in an American society, attending an American school and speaking English as a native language? Does X’s majority of life spent in America not count?

During the process of citizenship, immigrants are naturally subjected to a particular nation-state’s norms and attitudes. The state, family and economic conditions and or opportunities direct these transnational relationships. Cultural anthropologist Aihwa Ong considers citizenship as a cultural process of “subject-ification”, in the sense that much of the process is self-made and also forcibly-made through the power relations that take place between the new nation and the original “home”. For Bangladeshi migrants, this is especially true as they bring with them a set of norms and values that complement and challenge their migration, as well as their children.

Furthermore, these notions of identity and citizenship are compounded by the fact that today, many dual citizens, especially from Western nations, are returning to their ‘original homes’. In recent years, many Bangladeshis who lived and have had children abroad are returning and resettling, mainly in Dhaka. The most common employment areas for this population are family businesses, new enterprises and positions in multinational companies. They bring with them years of experience living abroad to Dhaka where they must now balance the two or even three histories. Ong argues that as a result of such events in an era of globalisation, individuals as well as governments develop a flexible notion of citizenship and sovereignty. These flexibilities act as strategies to accumulate capital and power, which is essentially what the ‘returned migrants’ are doing. They have a flexible citizenship, which refers to the “cultural logics of capitalist accumulation, travel, and displacement” which induces such individuals to “respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political-economic conditions” as witnessed in Bangladesh (Ong, 8).

With most of the population under the age of 30, the images of the West combined with the hunger for modernisation is rapidly changing social behaviour in Bangladesh. As a nation in transition, the placement of ‘returned migrants’ makes the process particularly compelling. In today’s Bangladesh, the multiple-passport holder is a contemporary figure. He or she represents the differences between nation-imposed identity of Bangladesh and personal identity caused by migration, changing global markets and exposure to a very different lifestyle. In modern times, national and ethnic identities become distinctly different entities, while at the same time, international boundaries become increasingly insignificant. As a result, Bangladesh and Bangladeshis are shaping new relationships not only with traditional norms and customary ideas about the family, but also to capital mobility.