Meet the influencers pushing for women’s rights in the Middle East

Selena Pinar Isiks timeline is one youd expect from a mother and writer: Its brimming with smiling photos of her child as she documents daily life.She shares snapshots of coffee shops and parks in her home city of Istanbul. Isik, better known as Pucca by her nearly 2 million Twitter followers, attained internet fame for her bubbly sense of humor and a book she created from her blog posts. And for a long time, her social media feeds lacked any trace of political commentary or discontentment.

But the Turkish influencers accounts have carried a different tone since her July arrest for tweets about the television show Narcos. Turkish officials sentenced Isik to six years in prison for promoting drug use with her tweets about the series, Foreign Policy magazine reported.

Some of Isiks followers have suggested the arrest was retaliation for her support for the opposing candidate against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2018. Since then, she has used her platform to decry corruption and injustice within the Turkish regime. Its a dangerous venture. Isik posted an emotional Instagram story following the sentencing.

If you watch the Narcos series and talk about [Pablo Escobar] here, you may get 5-10 years in prison-like me, she wrote. But dont worry if you have bad habits such as violence, rape, harassment, theft of animal.

In theory, social media is designed to let users around the world share their lives, personalities, interests, and opinions. But for women in some countries, taking part in this freedom of social media can mean pushing the boundaries of long-withstanding religious and cultural norms. Strict regimes that dominate nations like Saudi Arabia and Syria sometimes use deadly force to police political discontent or free thought. In harshly conservative regions, social media influencers must maintain a lifestyle of caution and consider every minute detail that goes into their accounts. Refusal to comply is an option, but hefty fines, prison, and death are consequences for noncompliance.

Heightened standards of modesty and sobriety are common in countries with Arab populations; moral values are strictly enforced by laws in countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, where alcohol consumption is illegal. The emphasis on modesty and gender roles is apparent especially in Irans compulsory hijab law for women and in Saudi Arabia, where there were restrictions against female drivers until 2018. Increasingly liberal nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey are less legally restrictive but still largely confined to cultural influences and authoritarian governments.

Isik stands alongside other women who have pioneered the fight for online freedom. In 2016, Iranian policearrested eight womenfor posting photos of themselves without headscarves to Instagram and other sites. Christian Iraqi influencer Tara Fares was shot dead in the streets of Baghdad in September 2018. Just weeks earlier, two beauty experts, Dr. Rafeef al-Yassiri and Rasha al-Hassan, had died under mysterious circumstances in the city. Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji blamed an unnamed extremist group for the murder of Fares, but there was never a convicted suspect. Iraqi authorities initially stated the death of al-Yassiri was a drug overdose and that al-Hassan died of a heart attack. Suad al-Ali, an Iraqi human rights activist, was gunned down in her car around the same time.