Internet is an open space where all are equal. Not so, say gender activists worldwide. The on-line world mirrors the roles and restrictions of offline society, and women are sometimes much more vulnerable than men when they are active online.
“Some women backed off from participating in street protests, because of threats and incidents such as virginity tests and violence from security forces,” says Yara Sallam from the Egypt-based group Nazra for Feminist Studies , “they thought that they were safer online. But even there women stay more vulnerable to acts of intimidation.”
Sallam was one of the speakers at the ‘Gender and IT’ session at the Internet Governance Forum that was held in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, last week. The actions of the Azeri regime are a telling example of how specific forms of intimidation can be used against female activists.
Journalist Khadija Ismayilova received a package while she was working on a sensitive investigation about property owned by the Azeri president’s family. The content: video footage of her and her boyfriend having sex, recorded by cameras that had been hidden in her own bedroom. It contained a note calling her a ‘whore’ and asking her to ‘behave’.
“They expected me to step back from my investigations because I would be ashamed,” Ismayilova tells RNW. “Or worse, that angry relatives could do something – we live in a country where honour killings are still taking place. The last option for them was making the video public, so people will hate me for breaking moral rules.” But Ismayilova decided to step forward and look for publicity herself. She received support from several sides, “including the Islamic party”. But even now, six months after the event, government media are still portraying her as a ‘porn star’.
Click to watch Ismayilova talk about her experience. Article continues below.
Reputations easily damaged
“For a woman in our societies, it is just not as easy to be politically active as for a man,” says Sallam. “People or groups trying to silence them have various methods. In Egypt, they sometimes threaten to call girls’ parents to say that their daughter is politically active – depending on the family, they might be sensitive to that. Or they can damage their reputation by spreading rumours like they did during the protests at Tahrir square, that ‘people are sleeping together in tents’.”
“The harassment sometimes results in self-censorship,” says Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan. Dad faced online harassment and threats herself when she wrote about Malala, the young girl who was shot by the Taliban because of her campaign for education for girls. “At first, I was scared and stopped using social media for a while,” she tells RNW, “but then I reminded myself that online harassment is another form of violence that does not result from my action but from patriarchy in our society and social system, where we see discrimination against women on a regular basis.”
The Facebook censors
The moderators of the Facebook campaign  ‘Uprising of Women in the Arab World’ had a hard time countering all the aggressive comments from both men and women that they received on some pictures that were placed on the page. “Whenever we post a picture of a woman that doesn’t cover herself, it is immediately plastered with comments claiming that her appearance is weakening the cause!”
The summit of controversy was the picture of a Syrian woman, Dana, who had removed her veil ‘because for 20 years I was not allowed to feel the wind in my hair and on my body’. The post was removed by Facebook and then restored after an online support campaign.
“They look at me as if I am an alien”
As well as the concern about direct attacks, many women face another limitation when it comes to digital rights: the basis issue of accessibility. The lack of internet access can be a problem for men as well as women, but when the technical possibilities – such as having internet at home- are limited, it is the women who lose out the most. “When I walk into an internet cafe outside the capital, they look at me as if I’m an alien,” says Azeri blogger Arzu Geybullayeva in a video interview with Nighat Dad. “Internet cafes are mostly used by boys and men – women are really not welcome, and being there somehow affects their reputation.”
From November 25th to December 10th, Nighat Dad and others from the APC WNSP  women’s network are involved in an online campaign to ‘take control of the technology’ and end violence against women: ‘Take back the tech ’.