Today I learnt a new statistic. 95 per cent of aggressive behaviour, harassment, abusive language and degrading images in online spaces are aimed at women. This is a global phenomenon but one that can be, and is, overlooked. After all, when we think of violence, it is physical assault that comes to mind. What takes place in the worldwide web does not immediately seem as destructive as a blow on the head. Think again.
The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (VAW) defines VAW as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life". The virtual world, or reality as it is called, can be quite real. Let’s not forget that the definition of virtual is ‘being such in power, force, or effect, though not actually or expressly such.’
An example of virtual violence that comes to my mind from Pakistan is of a campaign launched a few months ago on Facebook and other sites on the internet targeting a few female television news presenters. The intention was obviously to discredit these women as journalists by making insidious insinuations about their ‘characters’. The campaign ran its misogynistic and racist life for a few months after which it fizzled. What endured was the performance of the women who were being attacked. They remain as successful and empowered.
I must confess that I too have faced similar harassment. All of this year, any time I was mentioned, interviewed or featured on a website, including my own blog, there was a barrage of abusive emails and comments that followed. It was a recurring message addressed to me and my hosts reminding me of my responsibilities as a Muslim woman. Another charming fellow chooses to maintain a site, kakitv.com, that discusses the physical attributes of women who appear on television. I mention the website knowing it could bring it more traffic, but also hoping that someone can help shut it down.
Thankfully, there are people who are addressing this issue. The disturbing statistic I mentioned in my opening came to my attention through a campaign called ‘Take Back The Tech!’. According to the website, this is a collaborative campaign that takes place during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence (from November 25, the International Day of Violence Against women, to December 10). It is a call to everyone, especially women and girls, to take control of technology and end violence against women.
In Pakistan, this dynamic group is led by Jehan Ara (president of Pakistan Software Houses Association), who believes that while technology can be employed by abusers, it can also be used by victims and survivors to connect, to organise and to speak out. On her blog, ‘In the Line of Wire,’ Jehan tells you how you can use technology to create awareness and participate in a type of activism that is available to everyone, even when at home. She shows you how an act as small as sending an SMS, something that is part of our daily lives, can make a difference in ridding the world of violence against woman. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got my phone in my hand.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 26th, 2010.