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Using Violence and Mobilising Anxiety: Repressing Feminist Activism Online

At Urgent Action Fund-Africa (UAF-Africa), we work to support women’s human rights defenders (WHRDs) who face incredible odds in doing their work. From emergencies related to their security, the security of their groups and organizations, or emergencies involving their loved ones who are targeted because of the activism of WHRDs; to unexpected events that arise during times of political, social and economic crises and upheavals.

We know that social change takes brave actions and people who are willing to stand up for justice. And so we work to support the brave African women activists and activist organisations that are standing up for women’s rights, always in the face of great hostility and violence.

The violence that WHRDs face changes with the kind of activism they do, the tools they use, and certainly, where they operate. One of the tools WHRDs use to disseminate information, advocate, mobilize, organize and advance women’s human rights is the internet. And they face an especially daunting environment there. The nature of violations continuously evolves, from trolling to stalking; “revenge pornography” and image manipulation to receiving online threats; and the constant usage of new tools for surveillance and censorship.

absence of a feminist lens of online harm and the inability of WHRDs to influence strategies for internet governance and regulation; coupled with a lack of awareness of how much private and sensitive information WHRDs give out using the internet, including social networking sites in particular, have meant that we are being ever more affected by online forms of violence and harm. In addition to its very real effects on our ability to organize, mobilize, and stay safe, online violence also causes us to censor ourselves or refrain from speaking up at all. This ultimately hinders our momentum in the various movements and communities we are part of.

We have been tracking the forms of violence that WHRDs report to us through grant reports and during convenings we organize. From their input, we gathered that there are two major areas of work that warrant our attention when thinking about online activism and violence: 1. Violence against WHRDs, which can take many forms, including cyberstalking, image manipulation, trolling, harassment, threats, and blackmail that are used to punish WHRDs who occupy the online public space and use it to advocate for, mobilize, and organize for women’s rights; and 2. Creating moral anxieties to obstruct women’s ability to organize online. Culture and morality are constantly being used to control women’s bodies and behaviors. They are used to justify state interventions that restrict the rights to privacy and freedom of access to information. In September, 2017, for example, Egyptian authorities carried out a large scale campaign to arrest LGBT individuals and activists, after news of concert attendees raising the rainbow flag circulated. Authorities targeted individuals who published online content that ties them to the concert, building an atmosphere of moral outrage to mobilize support for persecution that aims to protect the country’s moral and religious values.

The strategies of violence that WHRDs report to us have grown more complex over the years, from receiving threatening messages on Facebook, to the usage of governments of various tactics to mass produce their own content to distort the digital landscape in their favor without making the sponsored nature of the content explicit.

In July 2017, we organized a convening, with our Urgent Action Fund sister funds, on the closure of civil society space. 60 WHRDs from across the regions in which we fund came together to discuss the manners in which they are experiencing the closure of civic space. The North African activists in the room spoke at length about the internet as an important avenue for mobilizing and sharing their ideas. They also spoke about the grave dangers they experience on the internet, and the very real “offline” threats they are facing because of their online activism. They expressed the need for resources to be available in Arabic (including trainings, research, and manuals) that would enable them to be safer online. They also expressed the need for platforms and spaces where they can share their experiences, and learn, about the different ways in which they are being monitored, threatened and manipulated online. They also want to speak about internet governance issues and spaces that they need to be engaged with to influence the manner in which the internet is experienced by feminist activists. Most importantly, they want these spaces to be Arabic-speaking ones. No instantaneous translators present, or the need to translate often complicated manuals to Arabic.

We found the opportunity to provide Arabic-speaking spaces through the support of the African Women’s Development Fund Leading from the South grants, a funding initiative created to resource women’s rights activism in the global South over 4 years. Through this grant, UAF-Africa will be will be working with WHRDs from Tunisia and Egypt to explore their experiences with online activism. How are they using the internet in the promotion, and their own, exercise of their rights and what are the possible implications of online content regulation measures on this ability? Is the internet still a transformative public and political space? What tactics have they used to avoid surveillance of their activities and from 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?

Check back here regularly to read – in Arabic and English- about the experiences of WHRDs in resisting online violence.

As feminists who are active users of the internet for our personal use and activism, this project will work with the following principle from the Feminist Principles of the Internet in mind: “The attacks, threats, intimidation and policing experienced by women and queers are real, harmful and alarming, and are part of the broader issue of gender-based violence. It is our collective responsibility to address and end this.”[1] Our struggle for safe online spaces is one that forms part of a continuum for our resistance in other spaces, public, private and in-between.

This piece was written by Masa Amir
Learning and Innovation Officer, Urgent Action Fund-Africa.