What will Twitter's feminine Arabic option mean for MENA
On June 15, Twitter launched a new language setting that allows Arabic language users to choose the feminine form in what they said was a bid to champion inclusive language. The company also initiated a campaign titled #FeminineArabic for people to join the discussion as well as partner with brands including Adidas, Microsoft, Mastercard, and Samsung.
Where the Arabic language settings on the website were previously in male form, for example, the words "tweet" or "gharrid" (Arabic) and "explore" or "istakshif" (Arabic), will now be able to be viewed in feminine form, "istakshify" and "gharridy".
Last year, the company changed some problematic yet commonplace programming language to remove references to slavery from the programming community. This included replacing "master/slave" with "leader/follower”, as well as swapping "man-hours" with "person/engineer-hours”.
Twitter has said it’s the first social media platform to add the Arabic (feminine) language form to its settings
Carla El Maalouli, Head of Business Marketing, Twitter MENA said, “At Twitter, every voice can impact the world, and the conversations that happen on our platform are defined by the people having them. With this update, we’re hoping to provide Arabic-speaking women with an option to share their unique voice and participate in an inclusive conversation, while being addressed based on their preferences.”
Arab-Islamic societies, like most societies, are predominantly patriarchal and based on a space dichotomy: men being associated with the public space and women with the private space which is also reflected linguistically.
The grammatical rule in Arabic always favours the male form over the female form. For example, in French, the female plural “mesdames” meaning “women” (or “sayyidat” in Arabic) is an option in addressing a group of men and women, but in Arabic grammar, the masculine plural form, “al sadah”, suffices.
Twitter’s announcement was positively received by many people globally including Saudi businesswoman and activist, Muna Abu Sulayman, co-founder of The Arabic Digital Reform Institute (ADRI), who tweeted with the #FeminineArabic hashtag and said, “In love with the new option of feminine gender language pack on this site. Finally, women will be addressed easily with the right gender conjugations. A form of inclusion that means a lot”.
When asked why the setting change was important, Abu Sulayman said, “I like having the choice and it shows inclusivity and would appeal to people who love the language as well. It also helps repopularise Classical Arabic and might even help people learn to spell better, as we have all made mistakes in adding the “y” to words to feminise them instead of the “kasra”.”
Rami Ismail, the Dutch-Egyptian independent video game developer and advocate for diversity in the gaming industry, tweeted: “Arabic is a gendered language, which means Twitter adding #FeminineArabic as a display language option is kinda great”.
Among the majority of Twitter users who were in praise of the initiative, Nashwa Al Ruwaini, CEO of Pyramedia and Egyptian media personality, responded with concern about a linguistic error and the harms for young women who are learning the language.
Al Ruwaini told The New Arab, “So you know they [انتِ (“you” feminine) and انتي (“you” feminine)] are both pronounced the same but written differently. As an Arabic speaker, I promote classical Arabic as it’s our roots. It’s the language of our Quran as Muslims. When you support women you don’t support them with a misspelling of a pronoun.”
“They [Twitter] deviated from initially supporting women to presenting a conflict between using colloquial Arabic (which have different dialects) as opposed to classical Arabic.”
However, Al Ruwaini stressed that she is in favour of all initiatives that support and uphold women and that representation of Arab women online is not enough, “I would like to see more positive highlighting of Arab women across different fields on Twitter.”
In 2018, Amnesty International produced a report named Toxic Twitter which documented the failures of Twitter in keeping women safe on their platform. Of eight countries, 46 percent of respondents had experienced online abuse and harassment. Although Amnesty didn’t survey countries from the MENA region, Abu Sulayman mentioned that “there is a level of toxicity that needs to be dealt with on some kind of legal level where what women face is taken a bit more seriously by all platforms”.
Twitter has said it’s the first social media platform to add the Arabic (feminine) language form to its settings and is working on future developments to introduce the feminine form in more languages.
Many young people across the MENA region have embraced social media platforms to get their voices heard and speak more freely - an occurrence that largely drove the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011
“The Arabic (feminine) language setting is a continuation of our work around inclusive language. We know there’s more work to be done for our service to reflect the variety of voices around the world,” El Maalouli said.
Many young people across the MENA region have embraced social media platforms to get their voices heard and speak more freely – an occurrence that largely drove the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. Where traditional media fails to uphold political elites to account, representation and freedom of expression online are just as important as ever.
Sahar Amer is a freelance journalist based in London. She holds a master's degree in Human Rights, Culture & Social Justice from Goldsmiths, University of London and her research interests include technology and digital rights.