The COVID-19 pandemic has forced countries to confine themselves and quarantine. Trapped at home, many people have turned to the internet en masse to continue their daily routines from shopping, working, and learning to communicate and socialize. It is likely to have a lasting impact after the pandemic ends.
However, offline, gender norms and violence are amplified online, which means that women are less likely to benefit from this digital transformation as much as men. In the Middle East and North Africa region, online abuse and harassment have forced some women to self-censor and withdraw from public discourse.
The Internet is a double-edged sword. The online world is a reflection of offline realities. New technologies replicate the limited environments in which women navigate offline. Virtual spaces extend and perpetuate inequalities offline in terms of power dynamics and patriarchal gender norms.
Online abuse of women increased in March 2020 during confinement by 50%, similar to the increase in domestic violence, according to the office of the Electronic Security Commissioner in Australia.
Forms of violence against women online
Online violence against women can take different forms, including hateful and offensive messages, physical threats, sexual harassment, trolling, spreading intimate images without consent, and receiving unsolicited images with sexual content.
Most of the abuses against women occur on major social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube, according to a 2017 Amnesty International report.
In conservative societies where women bear the brunt of so-called family honor, having a woman's image made public can have devastating consequences. In Yemen, women fear retaliation from their families and therefore rarely show up on social media.
Dawla, a Yemeni human rights activist, told Global Voices:
There is a strict segregation of sex and men should not see women’s appearance. Women don’t usually post their photos online. If a woman shares intimate photographs in a private conversation – which can be something as mild as a picture showing her face without the full traditional black cover – there is a risk that someone will use it to bully or blackmail her. If known it could ruin her reputation and bring shame to her entire family.
There is a strict segregation of sex, and men should not see the appearance of a woman. Women don't usually post their photos online. If a woman posts intimate photos in a private conversation – which can be as slight as a photo showing her face without the traditional full white cover – there is a risk that someone will use it to intimidate or blackmail her. If he made himself known, it could ruin his reputation and bring embarrassment to his entire family.
Online violence against women leaders
Activists and journalists are particularly the target of attacks in attempts to intimidate, generate disinformation and discredit their work.
Recently, Tawakkol Karman, a prominent Yemeni human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said she was subjected to what she describes as “widespread intimidation” and a “slander campaign” The campaign, led by media affiliated with the Saudi Government and its supporters on social media, attacked Karman after he was named to the Facebook supervisory board that set up the company for content moderation for two platforms – Facebook and Instagram.
(Thread) 1 / This one is on the campaign “Facebook Caliphate”, which is a mostly Saudi-led protest against @TawakkolKarman . What was striking about the hashtag is the number of clearly suspicious accounts tweeting on it. Read on for more #disinformation
– Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) May 17, 2020
(Thread) 1 / This is about the “Facebook Caliphate” campaign, basically a Saudi-led protest against Tawakkol Karman. What's impressive about the tag is the number of clearly suspicious accounts tweeting. Read to know more.
According to a global survey conducted in 2018 by the International Media Foundation for Women and Troll-Busters.com, “online attacks have become more visible and coordinated in the last five years, especially with the rise of nationalism across the world. world and the use of digital networks to thwart political processes. ” The survey concluded that “physical, sexual and online abuse is part of the daily work of journalists”:
Online attacks against journalists have become more sophisticated in nature, more insidious in their damage to the news enterprise and more dangerous for journalists, both online and offline.
Online attacks on journalists are more sophisticated in nature, more insidious to their detriment to the news item, and more dangerous to journalists, online and offline.
Withdrawal and self-censorship of women
As a result of a hostile online environment, women often self-censor and even withdraw from the online environment and often withdraw from public discourse. The United Nations Human Rights Council identified widespread online violence against women as a significant reason for the global digital divide that divides men and women.
In the Amnesty International study, a large majority of women said they were concerned about using the internet after being attacked. Some closed their social media accounts, and others refrained from posting specific kinds of content.
Palestinians also complained about the “watchtower,” that is, the social watchdog that monitors and intervenes in online activities and interactions, resulting in more pressure for self-censorship.
“Your parents being online has its effects. You start to rethink the posts you want to write or the photos you want to post or the people you want to connect with, ”said Susan, a Palestinian from the West Bank in a 2017 report on online gender-based violence by the Arab Center for Development of Social Media, 7amleh and the Swedish foundation Kvinna.
Online violence: ignored and unreported
As with domestic violence, the true extent of online violence against women is often unrevealed and unreported.
A 2019 Moroccan study revealed that only one in ten women reported gender-based violence online to authorities.
Although the United Nations has recognized cyber violence as “as dangerous for women as physical violence,” the phenomenon in the Middle East and North Africa remains unrecognized and overlooked, despite the adoption of various laws that criminalize cybercrime. and online bullying in recent years.
Advocates for women's rights say those laws often fall short of what is needed to protect women online. The Brotherhood is Global Institute, a Jordanian human rights organization, said that it is not enough for women to know the new law because they still do not report harassment.
In another example, despite Tunisia passing a law on the elimination of all forms of violence against women, prosecutions for online abuse and harassment remain few. Although in an unprecedented provision, on May 8, a Tunisian court issued a restraining order in favor of online harassed victims before the offline harassment begins.
Civil society lacks capacity
In general, civil society lacks knowledge and capacity in terms of what exactly constitutes cybercrime and related rights. As women's rights groups in the region focus on advocacy efforts for pressing issues affecting women offline, they may not have sufficient resources left to safeguard those rights online. Social norms can also prevent women from reporting.
Furthermore, there is often a lack of knowledge of the technology among legal professionals and authorities. Police tend to trivialize online violence and abuse against women.
In the study by 7amleh and the Swedish Kvinna Foundation on Online Gender Violence in Palestine, more than half of the women surveyed said they fear reporting and do not trust the police to handle abuse cases online. Instead, many said they addressed the problem in personal circles.
Online violence restricts freedom of expression, self-development, economic empowerment, civic and political participation. In an era where the internet is increasingly a critical space for exercising fundamental human rights, more needs to be done to ensure the safe participation of women.