Technology-assisted flirtation

A 2004 study of mobile phone use among Moroccan students neatly laid out the etiquette of mobile-phone-flirtation: numbers discreetly slipped from girls to boys after lectures or at family events, such as weddings; men texting women to see if they are up for a call; followed by conversations and real-life meetings in “safe” places (that is, safe for her reputation as a muhtarama, “respectable” girl—on college campus, in groups at a Western-style café, not a traditional ahwa, or coffee shop, which remains a largely male preserves), preferably away from the curious eyes of relatives or neighbors. While men were relatively free to receive calls from young women, ostensibly on homework or school matters, even in front of parents, young women were more tightly constrained, resorting to considerable subterfuge, and extensive whispering, to disguise the identity of any caller who was not a family-sanctioned male.

As the authors observe, by privatizing the public space, mobile phones give young women access to a sphere in which their participation is still largely circumscribed, all the while maintaining at least the appearance of tradition. Those traditions, however, extend to long-distance liaisons as well, as one Tunisian man discovered in 2008 when he was charged with rape by the family of one young woman who deflowered herself during the throes of phone sex.

Several governments in the region have moved to control mobile communication of a sexual nature.  In Egypt, where upwards of 14m texts are sent a day, the government announced in 2009 that it was considering amending the penal code to include sexual abuse by mobile phone—no moves as yet.

In Saudi Arabia, where there are regular calls by religious authorities to ban Facebook because of “inappropriate” contact between the sexes, prison sentences are increasingly handed down to those caught engaging in e- blackmail by net or mobile phone which usually consists of compromising photos of women—either unadvisedly posted by the women themselves or unwittingly captured by someone else on a mobile—then used to solicit favors inn exchange for keeping the photos out of wider circulation.

Aside from such flagrant abuse, however, sexual content on mobiles, as on the internet, is often a convenient pretext for governments to clamp down on other officially undesirable forms expression, such as political dissent.