Islamabad, November 29, 2012: “The easiest and most common tactic to win a discussion with a woman activist over the Internet is to tell her to ‘Make me a sammich’,” says Sidra*, an activist for women’s rights in Pakistan. Implying that a woman’s “place is in the kitchen” is perhaps the most over-used tactic meant to discourage and embarrass women human rights activists into submitting. The “Make me a sammich” retort has become quite popular with many men (and women) who use it to cast down and degrade women who dare to discuss important issues such as their rights in the society. The unsaid implication is that women are too stupid to understand or be able to present reasonable arguments about any topic.
“Almost every time I talk about taboo issues on Facebook, Twitter or my blog, I receive hundreds of hate comments. Most of these involve calling me an atheist, an evil woman and an agent of the West. Most of them tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about and should ‘go back to the kitchen’” she laughs. “I’ve learned to take these in stride over the years.”
It wasn’t always easy for Sidra.
“In the beginning, when I started using social media, it really hurt me. I used to feel embarrassed and often went through months of inactivity to get over the hate and indecent remarks. Someone even created a fake profile on Facebook and Twitter to spread malicious rumours about me insinuating that I slept around with men to get funds and donations. It was all quite painful and difficult to face. But my family and friends were very supportive throughout that phase and I pulled through. ”
In Pakistan, women activists, who venture into the online world are often targeted by people who consider them a threat to their religious and cultural values. And they aren’t just attacked by men. Women also form a large share of the online harassment and seem as adamant and vicious, if not more, as the men.
Harassment of women human rights defenders and activists can take many forms. From vulgar tweets to outright abuse, online harassment of women Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and activists is becoming a chronic problem as the use of social media grows.
Gulalali Ismail is the chairperson and founder of Aware Girls, an organisation that works for the empowerment of women and gender equality in Pakistan. In an interview with AWID, she described some of the ways in which she has been harassed in order to discourage her from her work.
“Young women activists are seen as women who don't have any values or ethics, a recent example of this, are the false accusations I faced in an online propaganda campaign, where I was wrongly accused of being an atheist, working to corrode the Islamic values of Pakistani society,” she told AWID.
This manipulation of religion to influence people’s thoughts and impressions of women HRDs is one of the most common and dangerous forms of harassment and violence.
In a country like Pakistan where the sole reason for shooting a young child Malala Yousafzai is: “She was pro-West, she was speaking against Taliban and she was calling President Obama her idol,” it can prove to be quite dangerous for anyone to be accused of being an atheist, anti-religions, anti state and/or an agent of West.
The harassers realize this quite well and also recognize the effectiveness of such an accusation in a country like Pakistan. This is probably the reason why more and more of them are beginning to use this tactic to cast down Women Human Rights Defenders and activists.
Another tactic used by online harassers is tracking down women’s phone numbers and addresses and taking the harassment to a whole new level.
“I started receiving threatening calls and messages because I’ve always been very vocal about the harassment of women on Twitter,” says Mrs. Malik*. “Some men started calling me, my husband and even my brother-in-law claiming that I was spreading false information about people and helping women to become shameless, anti-religion and speak about ‘bad things’. It was all too stressful and if my husband hadn’t been so supportive, this incident would surely have ended my marriage.”
Others have not been so lucky. Zubeida*, who has been working as a women rights activist for the last ten years, was the target of a similar defamation campaign. Her family was not very supportive and the fear of “What will people say” got the better of them. They ordered her to stop writing or speaking about such issues.
Zubeida disagreed and moved out. She received a divorce notice after a few days and now lives on her own.
“At first I was devastated,” she says. “But then I realized that I had been living with a man whose frame of mind was exactly what I was fighting against. That realization was enough to make me review my life decisions and give it all a second chance. I guess I have the harassers to thank for at least one thing. The whole incident showed me who my true friends were and has given me a whole lot more freedom to fight against those who want to keep a woman’s mind in chains.”
The world has changed; advancements in technology and its tools have given women HRDs and activists a wider canvas to work on and the possibilities of reaching far more people than was previously possible. However, just like all tools have their good and bad uses, there will always be those who will seek to use these same tools to discourage any efforts for the welfare of women and malign the human rights movement especially the part, which is led by women.
The Take Back The Tech! (TBTT) Campaign in collaboration with the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence aims to empower women by returning the power of the internet and technology to them so they can use these tools to fight and end violence against women all over the world.
Here’s what you can do:
- Map It. End It. Report such incidents at Take Back The Tech Mapping Platform;
- Use your mobile phone. SMS such incidents and report with location on 0345-5567877. Someone will help you;
- Raise awareness by joining and starting you own TBTT campaign;
- Write and blog about the issue;
- Teach other women how to be safe online;
- Share your own experiences with other women to help, encourage and empower them;
- Some more steps you can take are listed here
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of few individuals
Rabab Khan contributed this story for Take Back The Tech Campaign and Bytes for All, Pakistan. She is a social media guru and blogs frequently.