Interview: Yara WHRD Center
Zaina Erhaim is a well-known Syrian journalist and feminist who has been active in the fields of gender, media, and communications. She has reported on the Syrian civil war from within Syria, focusing specifically on women’s issues. In this interview, Zaina talks about women who are active on the ground and fearlessly confront extremism in the real world, but how when it comes to digital space, they do not dare to post their views because online smear campaigns may sometimes become so personal and affect all aspects of their lives to a degree that they cannot confront and resist them. She explains how online violence leads to increased invisibility of women and male-dominated and otherwise toxic digital spaces. Erhaim is the recipient of multiple international awards. She lives in England as a refugee.
I would like to discuss online violence against women human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa with you. The first question is about the prevalence of these attacks and how they target women activists in the region. How do society and public opinion view these online attacks? Are they taken seriously and recognized as violence against women, both by the community and the targeted activists themselves, or are they being overlooked?
Primarily, it is important to note that this issue is not exclusive or limited to the Middle East and North Africa. Although the consequences of these attacks on activists in the region may have unique aspects, similar consequences are observable in other parts of the world. Due to political crises, prevailing conditions, social environment, and the justification of violence against women and gender-based violence in these societies, the experiences of online attacks in the region and their consequences can vary. It is not only women activists and human rights defenders who face these attacks; in my article, I wrote about the experiences of some well-known figures, but all women who dare to be present, active, and assertive in the public sphere are expected to be prepared for bullying, harassment, and in online spaces and to endure it.
in general, the society believes “if you want to protect yourself, why would you deviate from traditional gender roles that confine you to being a housewife and choose to be present in the public sphere? So, if you decide to be active in this domain, it’s not wrong for us to target your body and make you feel ashamed, and it’s not wrong to express opinions about your body, appearance, beliefs, or even your family.” Therefore, the public approach is that if you’re not bound by stereotypical gender roles and you do not restrict yourself to the confines of your home, you deserve any harm that comes your way and you will be the one responsible for it. It does not matter if you are a journalist, politician, activist, or an ordinary online participant; as soon as you put yourself in the public eye, it seems that you’ve given any man permission to say whatever they want about or to you. Hence, the first thing we hear is that you, yourself, are the reason for these attacks and sexist comments. If you don’t want to become the target, then why do you share your pictures on social media, showing your hands? Even if you are talking about honor killings, it doesn’t make a difference, because it’s the person that becomes the target of attacks, not her words, ideas, or beliefs.
You are right; this issue is not exclusive to feminist activists and human rights defenders only. However, in this discussion, I’d like to focus on the impact of these attacks on feminist movements and activism in general, and including marginalized groups. I believe that activists and ordinary users may have different experiences in regard to online violence. For instance, political and civil society activists in certain regions may face cyberattacks from government agents and actors as well as from “normal” users. This means they are targeted by both society and the government. What do you think about this? The question is whether these attacks are more directed towards activists from the society, which opposes their feminist views, or from their oppressive governments? Have you ever encountered organized state-backed cyber attacks against activists in the region?
I have faced both types of attacks. Regarding dealing with organized government attacks, we have learned from the experiences of the Arab Spring survivors, and unfortunately, we have become accustomed to these attacks. It has become normal for us. We have learned ways to protect ourselves from and confront systematic government attacks through various guides and widespread support from organizations and allies. These attacks continue to happen in different forms, and I still receive Google notifications about government accounts attempting to access my email and steal my password, etc.
Personally, I am less concerned about government attacks compared to attacks from individuals or opposition activists. It’s disheartening to see some activists, who were once our allies and comrades, resort to sexist attacks against women who voice opinions they disagree with. They may identify as women’s rights defenders on the surface, but when a woman says something that they don’t like, the first word that comes to their mind is “whore,” rather than an attempt to engage in constructive dialogue and debating about her beliefs and statements.
So, I can say that for me and the women I know and have worked with, feeling safe and secure is indeed a significant concern, whether being targeted by state forces or non-state actors, which can be extremely terrifying and pervasive in the region. Sometimes, it’s difficult to determine precisely whether an attack is from a government or a non-government entity. For instance, a woman human rights defender was shot in a street in Libya, and no one knew exactly which side was responsible for the attack. Similarly, many cases of abduction and killings in Iraq, Syria, and other regions remain unclear in terms of the motivation and identity of the perpetrators.
Physical safety is undoubtedly a crucial concern, as digital violence and physical violence can be interconnected. Online violence can spill over into real-life situations unless activists are working abroad – in this case, the violence may be confined to the virtual space. Online smear campaigns that target individuals are the most harmful type of cyberviolence that I have witnessed. These attacks have the power to force women activists out of public spaces and compel them to halt their activities or even withdraw from online activism and advocacy.
Women may have survived government-initiated physical and online attacks, but they have not been able to withstand organized societal online attacks. Not because they lacked resilience or energy, but because these attacks do not solely target the individual; they also affect their families, neighbors, and …. These hatred campaigns can become deeply and intensely personal. For instance, state-initiated attacks usually spread false accusations of spying or other similar allegations, but when the attack is initiated by users on social media, perpetrators may go as far as targeting a person’s autistic child or commenting on a neighbor’s clothing choices on a specific day, and more. The intensity of these personal attacks becomes so overwhelming that it becomes almost impossible to confront and resist them.
You highlighted an essential point. I have also heard from numerous Iranian feminist activists that dealing with government accusations and attacks is often much easier to handle compared to these kinds of personal attacks. This is because government accusations may lack credibility and are directed towards everyone and are mostly not believed by the public, while personal attacks target your identity and character, causing deeper trauma. You talked about the impact of cyber violence on civil society activists and how they have managed to marginalize and silence human rights defenders. Looking at your own encounters, experiences, and reports, can you discuss the consequences of these attacks for women and other marginalized groups in more detail? How do women react to such violence in the region?
Regarding the effects of online harassment on women and other marginalized groups, there have been numerous cases where women have been forced to leave the online space altogether. But in Egypt, a teenage girl committed suicide after a fake video of her was circulated on social media platforms. She was only 17 years old. In Syria, another woman was killed by her own brother because of a photo of her that was shared in a Facebook group. Many women face similar situations, and they either intentionally become invisible, hide behind anonymous identities, or completely leave online spaces to protect themselves.
We have witnessed a decrease in women’s presence on platforms like Facebook, with many migrating to Instagram, which is less hostile with more everyday interaction. This is disturbing because it reinforces the stereotypical image of women as superficial, passive, and inactive, sharing photos instead of participating in political discussions and engaging with social issues. Facebook’s policies also contribute to this, as they do not adequately support women who face online violence. There are so many cases to mention. As a result of cyber harassment and exclusion of women, social media platforms become increasingly male-dominated and toxic, and women-friendly public spaces are drastically shrinking. Young women, through our past experiences, have learned to be cautious. I have seen several women who are active on the ground and fearlessly confront extremism in the real world, but when it comes to digital space, they might hesitate to publish an interview on Facebook due to potential hurtful comments. They are not sacred by the fear of terror attack or death – they are ready to die for their beliefs – but the fear of a mother-in-law calling and saying, “Someone called you a whore,” or “A fake nude photo of you has been posted,” is different from the fear of physical danger. Thus, these forms of violence contribute to the increase of invisible women and male-dominated and otherwise toxic digital spaces.
You mentioned self-censorship, hiding behind fake names or identities, and leaving virtual spaces as strategies that women adopt to protect themselves. But please tell us more about the legal options to combat such violence, specifically looking into laws in the region supporting victims of online sexual and gender-based violence and whether these laws comprehensively cover various forms of online harassment. Indeed, the legal capacities to address online violence vary from country to country. For instance, in Lebanon, laws against cybercrimes may be misused by the state to suppress activists and critics. But what do you think can be useful in general?
Now, let us discuss a specific case in Egypt. Sexual harassers in Egypt may attempt to silence and intimidate their victims by using laws actually meant to protect women’s rights activists and advocates against sexual violence. We have witnessed cases where a well-known film director faced allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and when journalists and writers chose to support the victims by sharing their stories and raising awareness, the director used defamation laws regarding online space to take them to court. Even though one of the journalists won the case, the director took it to a higher court, and ultimately the woman was forced to pay a fine for her Facebook post. This situation stands in stark contrast to the desired outcome, as those who bravely challenge the system and hold harassers accountable are instead being suppressed, and the legal system supports the online repression of these activists.
Let us talk a little about collective action and feminist organization in relation to online violence, and about the feminist groups and organizations of the region that are active in this field. Are you familiar with these groups and their activities and projects?
I am not an expert in this field. However, I do follow multiple feminist pages and groups from the region that share diverse content related to existing legal support capacities and strategies to combat extortion, online violence, revenge porn, etc. Especially after the tragic suicide of a 17-year-old Egyptian girl, we have seen a significant increase in these activities. Various awareness-raising campaigns have been launched. Recently, a man in Egypt was extorting his fiancée, threatening to share private images of her. She filed a complaint against him, and she won the case in court, and the defendant was obliged by the court to pay fines. Such cases bring important discussions into the public sphere. Feminists publish numerous texts about ways to confront gender-based digital violence. However, I am uncertain if their activities are structured and organized or not.
As feminists, what kinds of individual or collective actions can we take to make the online space safer? Do you think putting pressure on companies like Meta (formerly Facebook) and Twitter to change their policies can be effective? We know that these platforms have been criticized for not adequately supporting victims of online harassment and for their lack of transparency in addressing reports of abuse. When reports are made, they often go unanswered, or the response might claim that the reported content does not violate their policies. We are uncertain about how those policies are enforced. Do you think pressuring these platforms to take the issue seriously and implement more comprehensive and effective policies would have an impact?
A few years ago, we made efforts to pressurize platforms like Meta and other social media companies to adopt more inclusive and effective policies. However, we are aware that these are commercial entities, and they might not prioritize the safety of women in the online space as much as they should. While so many contents shared on these platforms threaten the lives and safety of women, the companies’ responses have not always been fulfilling. To be honest, I am not optimistic about this approach. Yet, there have been different responses from international organizations in addressing the needs of women who are victims of online violence, such as deactivating abusive accounts or disabling messaging functions. However, it is essential to acknowledge that these actions alone are not a solution and cannot entirely eradicate the root of the problem. They can only contribute to reducing the harm caused by online violence.
To truly combat online violence in the region, we need effective and deterrent laws that recognize digital violence and its potential consequences. However, we are talking about the Middle East and North Africa region, as many of its countries enforce the laws of dictatorial regimes that suppress, rather than support, women’s voices and freedom of expression. We need meaningful and practical policies, not superficial and slogan-driven actions like “Don’t attack women” or “Stop spreading hate.” For instance, statements that abusive accounts must be suspended or shut down.
According to your experience, what is the impact of virtual attacks on feminist activism and women’s movements in the region?
At the individual level, these attacks have led many feminist activists to stop advocating in the digital space. However, this situation has also had some positive outcomes, as activists have redirected their efforts towards in-person gatherings and activities. On the downside, their audience becomes more limited, and they might lose access to virtual resources and opportunities. But these attacks have also fostered a sense of feminist solidarity across borders, where feminists from different countries support and defend each other, especially those who face organized virtual harassment. This sense of solidarity emerges because all feminists have experienced such violence and are familiar with its consequences, especially feminists from Egypt.
In general, online violence distracts us and disrupts our focus, draining a considerable amount of our energy. Instead of planning for projects and activities, we often find ourselves in a defensive mode. For example, once I was discussing a project with a colleague and we realized we had a lengthy conversation about how to respond to hateful comments after launching the project, leaving ourselves only 15 minutes of time to discuss the project itself. This example illustrates the challenging environment in which we operate. Nevertheless, feminist solidarity and support is our one and only essential tool for resisting online violence.
Last question: do you think as feminists and for the sake of our movements, it is important to insist on our online activism and advocacy and to not give up the digital space?
It is crucial to prioritize our well-being and mental health as feminists. Encouraging someone to persist in an exhausting and distressing space merely because they are a feminist is not appropriate. Each woman’s safety, peace of mind, and mental well-being should be the top priority. If an individual has the energy and capacity, they should not relinquish the online space, but they should not persist in it at the expense of their mental well-being.
The priority is the energy, capability, capacity, and mental well-being of each woman. Encouraging someone to stay in an exhausting and distressing space merely because they are a feminist is not appropriate. A sense of safety, peace of mind, and mental well-being is more important than anything else. If we have the energy and capacity, we should not give up the online space, but not at the expense of our mental well-being.