The Mediterranean of Women. Evolutions and new Opportunities for Design in the Network Society

Abstract This article examines and documents the emergent phenomena, wich in the countries of southern Mediterranean coast manifest a grater awareness by women of their role in society. Those phenomena can be considered as the effects of convergent actions like investment plicies in education programa, promotion of artistic practices and the widespread use of social networking media, enables by ICT. We can note a growing tendency towards democracy that is expressed in various ways on artistic and productive activities by women. So much so that today a new Mediterranean can be told through observating of the women’s practices that are a clear reflection of the growth of talents, skills, ideas and projects. All the more so if we consider art and design, not only the mirror of social change, but also as an agent of socio-economic development.

Key words mediterranean design, gender study, social web, communication technologies, crowdfunding.

Only 15 months ago The Arab Spring proposed some democracy scene, that were unthinkable. Apparently, it seemed that the process towards democracy, that had started slowly, had suddenly sped, thus giving voice to bottom-up phenomena, to the needs of  minority and discriminated poor classes, to the demand for freedom and respect of human rights. Whereas on the other side, on the North side, the awareness of the decreasing Western influence was developing more and more, although such an influence was considered as a necessary condition for a more balanced relationship between the two parts.

The rebirth of North Africa had represented an incredible opportunity to reevaluate the social role of women. The events of those days, with protest marches, were characterized by a heavy participation of women asserting their rights, showing a great need for coming out and widening their limited horizons in the participation to the social, economical and cultural development of their countries.

Nowadays we are going through a period of regression. The expected change has occurred not according to the principles of democracy and reformation that had inspired the Arab Spring, but in relation to the success of the conservative Islamic parties. The scene is still confusing and the outcomes of the transitional process are even more uncertain. In general, the situation has been worsened by the Syrian question and the economical crisis spreading in the Euro-Mediterranean area.

Despite disenchantment, in this particular moment, it is crucial to talk about Mediterranean design. Above all if we consider design as that act of design culture that is the expression of social changes and of lifestyles. The designer’s attitude to ‘catch’ the meaning of changes and to turn them into plans and therefore in product/service shows that it’s possible to play a role in the transformation of society: leading the smallest and the most important social and behavioural changes to the system of objects, then to the dimension of every day makes any transformation concrete and comprehensible to common people, thus avoiding the arise of fears and social oppositions, but, most of all, avoiding the passive acceptance of the new [1]. Art and design are innovation factors and can become instruments for the social and economical development, if associated to production activities.

The above-mentioned theory has been shown by the history of fashion design, a developing sector in the South coast of the Mediterranean, that has involved a stance on the women role and on its interpretation, by claiming the dignity of the body and of the gender  in the visual communication. Design understands style, renovates expressive languages, signs and products, by promoting great changes in the daily life of women or showing its disapproval for some emerging positions. Often, who works in this sector is an avant-garde figure, but his creativity is not separated from what happens in common life, what can be observed on the street, what  happens in young and artistic fields.

In Europe, the periods of rapid social changes have provided artists with the opportunity to open new perspectives in fashion trends; such trends have encouraged important changes in the women’s role. Let’s take Coco Chanel, for example, who acted in the limits of fashion industry; she managed to create a new style, responding to the social changes that were occurring at that time.

Nevertheless, fashion also means social control, as it belongs to the group of mechanisms developed by every collectivity in order to avert the deviance from a certain kind of attitude. The social group holding the power exercises control on the ability of the citizen to conform to the social and civil prescriptions (Merton, 1983).

Even more crucial, at the moment, is to talk about the ‘The Mediterranean of Women’, by gathering information on professional and research activities of women operating in the area of creative, artistic, business, architecture and handcraft project [2].

To support this theory, we’ll refer to Griselda Pollock, the design protagonist of the Cultural Studies, who in the 1970s stated that a feminist approach is neither a side-issue nor a novel historical perspective – it is the main concern of contemporary history design… “we are involved in a contest for occupation of an ideologically strategic terrain” [3].

Despite the debate generated by the Design Cultural Studies in Anglo-Saxon countries, that has shaken all the certainties about historiographical methods, thus unmasking the ideologies laying behind the lack of valorisation of women designers and opening new ways to research,  such a theory has not been very successful in the Mediterranean countries. The reasons are the ones just mentioned by Cheryl Buckley during her interview, concerning the particular historical-political conditions of each country, that have blocked or inhibited the diffusion of ideas deviating from the official behaviour.

A rebuilding of the problems and motivations that have affected  the lack of valorisation of women’s role is essential in each of the Mediterranean countries, such as the one carried out by Cheryl Buckley. As it would be impossible to face such a wide subject here, we will state our theory through some statements.

1. “When women change, everything changes. And women in Muslim world are changing radically.”

The sentence of the famous feminist writer Naomi Wolf (2011) represents the starting point to state that, despite the barriers created by political issues and predominant ideologies, world is continuously evolving, sometimes with original elements that escape from stereotypes.

Among the predominant stereotypes in Western world about Muslim countries, the most popular are the ones concerning women, that are seen as veiled and victims, exotically silent, closed inside their strict gender roles.

Such a stereotype does no longer respond to reality. The participation of women to the manifestations of North Africa of last year is an evidence of this theory, together with the work of many Arab women involved in the art field. Education represents one of the most important changes occurred.

Among the countries of the South coast of the Mediterranean, Tunisia represents the most significant example of  a politics of investments in education (the highest investments in the world) that, started in 1956, has been successful so far. In 2000, about 92% of children from 6 to 12 years attended school. Thanks to this change, women in Tunisia represent a vital part of the qualified work force.

Two generations ago, only a little minority of élite daughters got university education. Nowadays. Women represent more than 50% of Egyptian university students and more than 60% in Iranian students (Esfandiari, 2003). Many investments on education have been done also in Israel and Palestine.

Another great change has occurred in the art field, where women belong to a developing artistic independent movement; also they are among the biggest patrons and collectors of Middle-East.

Currently, in the Arab world, there is a huge space for art, exhibitions and artists’ rewards: festivals, meetings, competitions, galleries, auction sales are organized more and more often and new museums, such as Abu Dhabi and Qatar (wanted by Sheik Mayassa Al Thani) have been opened. Finally, even Western world starts to get interested in this ‘stranger’.

Women find in art the ideal terrain to express themselves freely, to fight against stereotypes and to start a career on their own, even staying at home.

The true art is a crucial part in the dialogue with society and it can change it from the inside. Quoting the critic Lucy R. Lippard (1995): “women’s art is not a style … , it’s a system of values, a revolutionary approach and a lifestyle”.

Also in the Mediterranean, as in the Anglo-Saxon world, renovation originates from art and from acknowledgment  of women work and it belongs to the feminist movement. As we learned from history, after women’s education, it is difficult to stop the tendency towards democracy.

2. There is a link between the use of ICT and the tension towards democracy.

We have learned from media how crucial the role of ICT (telephone nets, cable TV, Internet and social network) was in the recent manifestations of North Africa, both for the diffusion of Western lifestyles and as an instrument of dissidents. It has led to the awareness of being part of the world, by encouraging the confrontation of Southern and Northern coasts populations with different identities and lifestyles.

Mobile phones has developed really quickly. And, although some surveys (carried out by teenagers) show that girls are less likely to be up to date with technological developments and communication technology items, nowadays, more and more women, who are interested in their interactive and aesthetic dimension, use technology to get in touch with people who are geographically distant (Virpi Oksman and Pirjo Rautiainen, 1997, p. 148) and to know better the different ‘faces’ of the world.

In the Middle East, women are very active in social networks, with a high participation, about 70%, of which 34% connecting at least 10 hours a week on their spare time (Qudoos, 2010)[4]. The desire to chat, share information and contents, talk about themselves on the web is increasing. Women have been among the first ones to use the net as a space for dissidence.

Sondès Ben Khalifa, journalist for Radio Tunisienne and blogger says: “New technologies have given women the strength to fight against men. They have helped them communicate, to express themselves quite openly. And all their efforts have turned into a virtual reaction that has become real” (Manfredi, 2011)[5].

Ehab el-Zelaky, Egyptian journalist of the independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm has stated that “The manifestations of Maghreb have distant roots … since 2004 the voices of dissidents and of minorities on the net have risen, above all women voices…some bloggers have started to tell about their life experience, thus  uncovering taboos and reacting against solidarity among criminals”. On the internet Egyptian women have started to talk about female homosexuality and homely violence.

Social media, because of their technological nature, enable men and women to share their thoughts, understand differences, have a dialogue, express their needs, by means of different communication codes. Social networks encourage women to take part actively to the building of society, politics and culture in full consciousness.

As pointed out by Naomi Wolf (2011), women, if not trained to manage power, can have some difficulties in dealing with leadership and protest, traditionally conceived, because these involve a technique that is ‘unknown’ to women body, such as standing on a stage, under the search-lights or  challenging the crowds, actions that are usually associated to young activist men, holding a megaphone. Social networks, instead, and Facebook in particular with its interface, imitate the women attitude towards the social reality: in fact, they base their attitude on the relationships among people, according to links that are also instruments of dominance and control.

“On Facebook you can be a simple human being, but also a powerful leader, without having to be an authority or having to state your dominance, only by creating a great ‘we’.“(Wolf, 2011).

3. New technologies create new models, systems and projects.

Many professional women are experimenting new the ways towards self-affirmation and professional developments thanks to the communication system, that is more and more fluid and changeable, by creating new instruments and languages, opening new ways, thus starting a process of global personal interaction that is turning around the social web.

Let’s take for example the crowdfunding. This is a means to detect funds to be used for the start-up of projects and businesses that is based on the global cooperation through the Internet. The idea is not new at all: we still remember the ‘money collection’ usual among students or in the church for charity, or the so-called tontines, that is to say the modality of self-organised micro-credit very common among the women of North Africa in order to overcome the difficulty in reaching finance, as they cannot offer much in terms of guarantee. This practice is typical of all communities and associations created spontaneously for the mutual interest of all participants, by paying a very small share that raises a mutual fund that is regularly used to achieve initiatives and projects.

Nowadays the number of specialized crowdfunding platforms for technology businessmen, for journalism and also for creative professions and for arts (cinema, television, music, photography, etc.) is increasing.

This instrument is particularly efficient for all those projects that would never get the institutional and political support; these projects can be realized thanks to a fund collection among people that are interested in the project proposed on the platform. A real shared society is then created, besides classical economy, based on independent rules.

Iraqi photographer Tamara Abdul Hadi has presented on the crowdfunding  platform for journalists an interesting project: a real challenge to the western stereotype of all Arab men that are likely to be terrorists. She has taken some pictures of Arab men and has collected them in a presentation that portraits reality for different and unexplored points of view.

In Italy, Naba and Domus Academy design school, the latter being one of the most prestigious in the world, has started a cooperation with Eppela platform.

The first Arab crowdfounding portal will be launched on the 2nd July. The portal, called Aflamnah, aims at encouraging the proposal of projects for the Arab world in different fields: cinema, television, art, music, photography and fashion.

According to Vida Rizq, the main founder of Aflamnah, the initiative aims at changing the way of conceiving creativity in the region and hopes to encourage a new generation of  directors, software programmers, artists and designers to pursue their hobby and realize their ideas.

4. The Mediterranean will be told through the development of talents, competences and projects.

Marinella Ferrara, Politecnico di Milano, INDACO department.



Buckley, C. (1986, autumn). Made in Patriarchy: Toward a Feminist Analysis of Women and Design. Design Issues, Vol. 3, n. 2 pp. 3-14.

Esfandiari, G. (2003). Number of Female University Students Rising Dramatically in Iran [WWW page]. URL

Lippard, L. R. (1995). The Pink Glass Swan: Essays on Feminist. New York: The New Press.

Manfredi, A. (2011, March 15th). Rete, blog e social media. Voci di donna dal web alla piazza. La Repubblica esteri. Extracted from

Merton, R.K. (1983). Teoria e struttura sociale. Bologna, IT: il Mulino.

Oksman, V. & Rautiainen, P. (1997). Il prolungamento della mano. Il rapporto di bambini e adolescenti col cellulare in Finlandia. In L. Fortunati, J. Katz, R. Riccini (Eds.), Corpo Futuro (pp. 144-154). Milano, IT: Franco Angeli.

Qudoos, M. (2010, giugno 14). Arab women score high in Internet use online. Khaleej Times online. Extracted from east_June452.xml&section=middleeast. Wolf, N. (2011). The Middle East Feminist Revolution [WWW page]. URL

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In 2008, in occasion of the exhibition “Design and Elastic Mind” Paola Antonelli, curator of the design section of MOMA of New York, claimed that the role of design consists of “catching” the meaning of changes occurring in the fields of science, technology, social attitudes and turning them into projects concepts, by tracing the achievements back to the human dimension and to daily life. Therefore, one of the fundamental aims of design is to be between revolution and daily life and to help people understand changes.
  2. It has been done in other occasions. See: Ferrara, M. (2009). “Donne dal Mediterraneo”, Disegno Industriale-Industrial Design. 40. 34-39.
  3. Pollock, G., (1982). “Vision, Voice and Power: Feminist Art History and Marxism” Block 6. Estratto da: Buckley, C. (1986).”Made in Patriarchy: Toward a Feminist Analysis of Women and Design” Design Issues, Vol. 3, N. 2 (Autumn, 1986), The MIT Press, p. 4. “Griselda Pollock has stated, a feminist approach is neither a side-issue nor a novel historical perspective – it is a central concern of contemporary design history. As she has pointed out, “we are involved in a contest for occupation of an ideologically strategic terrain.”
  4. Journalist for Khaleej Times, Mohammed Qudoos, reports the data related to a survey carried out by YouGovSiraj in April 2010, commissioned by, portal devoted to Arab women, created by Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC). The survey has been carried out in order to understand the evolution of behaviours in the women of Middle-East and to turn them into opportunities for a dialogue. It has pointed out that “Arab women are highly involved in the social networking space, with Facebook ranking as the leading social networking site among Arab women: 91 per cent in Lebanon, followed by 80 per cent in Egypt, 78 per cent in the UAE, 70 per cent in Jordan, 68 per cent in Kuwait and Qatar each, 66 per cent in Bahrain, 64 per cent in Saudi Arabia, 55 per cent in Oman, and 45 per cent 
in Syria.” Cfr. Qudoos, M. (2010).“Arab women score high in Internet use”, Khaleej Times online, 14 giugno 2010, online on east_June452.xml&section=middleeast.
  5. A. Manfredi, “Rete, blog e social media. Voci di donna dal web alla piazza”, La Repubblica, 15th March 2011, online on intervista_sondes_ben_khalifa-13634909/.
About the author(s):

Architect MsD and PhD in Industrial Design, Marinella Ferrara is a senior researcher of Politecnico di Milano (Design Department) and an assistant professor at the Design School of the same institution. Her research are directed to the relationship between design and technological innovation. She is the author of several books and essays that link micro‐stories to the macrostructures for rethinking of the relationship between design and materials as a dynamics of the socio-technical innovation process.She is investigating in order to define the strategic role of design as driver for innovation trought interdisciplinary process. She has opened a personal focus on Mediterranean Design considered as emblematic expression of the contemporary geo‐political complessity. Other topics are: self-production design, relationship between design and crafts, the women’s Design in the mediterranean countries.

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