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Repressing Feminist Activism Online

In 2017, UAF-Africa started working with Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) from Tunisia and Egypt, to explore their experiences with online activism.

We conducted a research through which 15 WHRDs were interviewed to explore their experiences of violence online. Looking at how are they using the internet in the promotion of and exercise of their rights, and what are the possible implications of online content regulation measures on this ability? What tactics have they used to avoid surveillance of their activities and to avoid the real risks and dangers that they can face online? How can we develop trust and a greater sense of certainty, when using ephemeral technology to create content, interact with others, grow trusted networks, and create safe spaces for ourselves?

Self-identified women who defend women’s human rights and are subject to gender-specific risks and threats, because of the rights they advocate for and as a direct consequence of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

WHRDs are exposed to the same types of risks that all other human rights defenders face. However, they are also exposed to gender-based violence and gender-specific risks, because they challenge existing gender norms within their communities and societies.

WHRDs use social networking platforms, as these have been essential to their efforts to campaign, mobilise, report injustice, and find safe spaces to communicate and share experiences. While it can be very useful, social media also exposes WHRDs to surveillance, harassment and threats. These platforms often also subject WHRDs to sexualised harassment from those who oppose their work.

WHRDs face on online violence due to their work in resisting patriarchal norms. Gender equality does not exist online, and gender-based violence is pervasive on the internet, where WHRDs encounter the same patriarchal values and practices they encounter in “real” life. The WHRDs interviewed consider the internet as a space that reproduces discrimination, violence and inequalities based on gender, class, race. States have an important role to play in perpetuating online violence against WHRDs.

WHRDS, face various types of online violence including:

  • Manipulating images or intimate videos and using them to blackmail WHRDs
  • Spreading rumours
  • Harassment and cyberstalking
  • Threats of rape and murder

The State play a major role in mobilising anxieties that justify persecution and violations of human rights. For example, in September 2017, Egyptian authorities carried out a large-scale campaign to arrest LGBT individuals and activists, after news circulated through a Facebook page about a Mashrou’ Leila concert attendees raising the rainbow flag. This built an atmosphere of moral outrage, mobilising support for persecution that aimed to protect the country’s moral and religious values.

Authorities targeted individuals who published online content that tied them to the concert, while other arrests took place through dating apps like Grindr – of gay men who were not aware of the concert at all. In the span of one month, 75 LGBTQI individuals and activists were arrested. Anxiety is also used to build support for calls to filter or block content online.

WHRDs take various measures, sometimes drastic, to protect themselves from online violence including deleting their accounts, ignoring stalkers and bullies, engage bullies and defend themselves against bullies’ claim, secure their devices, alert social media platforms or report online violence to states.

In order to address the impact of online violence in the work and lives of WHRDs, it is critical that feminist and women’s rights organisations, as well as human rights funders must work towards strengthening the Feminist Principles of the Internet.

Specifically: we believe in challenging the patriarchal spaces and processes that control internet governance, as well as putting more feminists and queers at decision-making tables.

  • We want to democratise policy-making regarding the internet, as well as diffuse ownership of and power in global and local networks. This needs capacity-building of feminist activists, to be able to engage in internet governance spaces.
  • Governments need to put laws in place: Laws that recognise online violence against women as a larger barrier for women and girls in exercising the full range of their human rights. Governments need to include online violence against women as part of their plans to end violence against women as a whole.
  • Governments need to ensure policies and laws are enforced: Governments need to ensure that policies and laws that are in place to counter online violence are practiced and that law enforcement agents understand the patriarchal dynamics that play out online as they do offline.
  • Availability of Arabic (or content in language that is accessible to WHRDs) content on staying safe online: It is important to have content on staying safe online, that is in a language that is accessible to WHRDs. WHRDs noted that, even when Arabic content is available, it is translated, usually from English, and reads like a “foreign language.”

As WHRDs continue to advocate for women’s human rights in hostile contexts and using platforms where they often face threats, smear campaigns and intimidation. To make it worse, this violence is often not acknowledged as serious enough to merit redress.

UAF-Africa continues to learn from WHRDs on how she can improve the work she does to support the important work of WHRDs advocating for a feminist internet.