“If Your Dreams Do Not Scare You, They Are Not Big Enough”: On Women Revolutionaries, Technology, and Social Change

by Claire Robbins

On October 7, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gwobee and Tawakkul Karman “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work” (see the Nobel Committee’s press release).  In a time of unprecedented social change in the Arab world, Africa, and beyond, this year’s award signals a number of victories — for women and youth, for grassroots social movements, for democracy, and above all, peace.

As I cheered for the laureates and contemplated the larger meaning of the award, my thoughts turned to technology.  The role of social media and related technologies in bringing about the global social and political changes of the past few years has become a matter of great public interest and debate.  On one end of the spectrum, Clay Shirky believes contemporary social movements are fundamentally different than the past as a direct result of social media.  Anchoring the other end, Evgeny Morozov (author of The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World) argues that the internet is not “inherently emancipatory” and that social media have become a powerful tool not only for grassroots organizers, but authoritarian regimes.  Further, as C. W. Anderson quipped in a January Atlantic essay, “Malcolm Gladwell has stirred the pot in the manner that only Malcolm Gladwell can do.”  Unlike the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, however, these three thinkers are Western intellectuals — not activists — and, of course, they are all men.

So, when the Peace Prize winners were announced, I wondered what I could learn from Sirleaf, Gwobee, and Karman about the role of technology in bringing about social change.  I already knew a bit about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (in fact, when I have to do that “what famous person would you invite to dinner?” icebreaker, she’s usually at the top of my list).  The day the Peace Prize was announced, I heard an interview with Leymah Gwobee, and now Sirleaf will have some competition for a spot at my dinner table.  If you don’t know much about either of these women, please, please take ten minutes today to read up on both — and prepare to be profoundly inspired.

I knew nothing, however, about Tawakkul Karman, even though the Yemeni uprising is ongoing.  I went back and read her April Guardian editorial and her June New York Times article, and of course, her Wikipedia page.  What I learned about this extraordinary woman is that she has risked her life time and time again — not only to overturn President Saleh’s corrupt regime; not only to fight for women, youth, and democracy in Yemen and the Arab world — but to demand a free and open global society where freedom of expression is unerringly protected.

And that’s where technology comes in.

In 2005, Karman founded Women Journalists Without Chains, a Yemeni NGO “that seeks to advocate for rights and freedoms, especially freedom of expression” (more here).  For years, she has led weekly protests in the capital city of Sana’a, drawing attention to journalists who have been silenced.  When the Saleh government banned the use of SMS by journalists —  a move targeting Karman’s weekly SMS bulletins about human rights abuses in Yemen — Karman led journalists in weekly sit-ins to protest the ban.

“After more than five months of continuous protests,” Karman began her New York Times piece, “I stand today in Change Square with thousands of young people united by a lofty dream. I have spent days and nights camped out in tents with fellow protesters; I have led demonstrations in the streets facing the threat of mortars, missiles and gunfire; I have struggled to build a movement for democratic change — all while caring for my three young children.”

When I think about Karman’s devotion to social change in Yemen and the Arab world — a life or death matter for her and her family — the “Did Tweeting topple Tunisia?” question starts to feel more than a little inconsequential.  Long before the internet, women activists and revolutionaries were using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, and they were creating both new tools and new houses.  It’s not about the tools; it’s about what you do with them.

Thus, I believe Morozov is right to caution us not to get swept up in Facebook fever and forget how power works.  But let’s not lose sight of the bigger point: revolutions can’t happen without revolutionaries.  Whether in Tahrir Square or Zuccotti Park, in the free speech zone on campus or on your office or organization’s Facebook page, it’s what you do that matters.  And that’s what we need to emphasize in our conversations with students and colleagues.

Dream big (in the words of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, “if your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough”).  Do your student affairs colleagues practice what they preach when it comes to diversity and inclusion — and do you?  Do students with children feel unwelcome on your campus?  Do transgender students have on-campus housing options that meet their needs?  Do African American, Latina, Native American, and multiracial students drop out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics majors more frequently than their peers?

Dream big.  Do something radical.  And for heaven’s sake, send me a tweet when you do.

“If Your Dreams Do Not Scare You, They Are Not Big Enough”: On Women Revolutionaries, Technology, and Social Change