Breaking the Silence: Protecting women’s freedom of expression online and offline

Breaking the Silence: Protecting women’s freedom of expression online and offline - Civic Space


On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the power of women’s voices, and call for more to be done to strengthen them online.

The most telling measure of the power of women’s voices is the lengths that others will go to silence them.

This reality has been brought home this week listening to the powerful testimony of women attending the Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia, Spain. The IFF began as the Circumvention Tech Festival but has now become one of the most diverse gatherings of digital rights and technology activists working to preserve a free and open internet. The IFF provides not only a platform for women to share their challenges, but more significantly to highlight the drive, creativity and at times humor they and their allies employ pushing back against the silencing of women’s voices and claiming back space in the online environment.

Creativity and drive are definitely needed. In the first two days of the IFF, women journalists, activists and human rights defenders have spoken powerfully and eloquently about the threats they face for the simple fact of being women speaking out.

Typically the first point of attacking a woman journalist is to discredit her, and one of the tried and true ways of discrediting a woman is by overtly sexualizing her, calling her sexist and derogatory names, or stating at she does not have the capacity to be an expert on the issue. This often leads to or is accompanied by rape and death threats. Rape threats are very common, and in many cases normalised, as a frightening number of women journalists view such threats as the reality of doing their jobs.

For example, take a look at this portion of an interview[1] published with female Azerbaijani journalist Arzu Geybullayeva:

“When someone calls you a whore or a bitch, or imagines the many ways they want to rape you, that’s one thing, but when this imagination extends to your parents and the things that they imagine doing to your mother, for instance, I really think that’s borderline.”

Not only are these sexualised attacks and rape threats common to her, which is shocking enough, but the attackers thought nothing of extending the rape threats to her family. Threats on family members of women journalists are actually common tactics to silence them. Experiences were shared at the IFF of harassers threatening their children or putting pressure on families to disown them.

Less well understood is that these attacks don’t always stay in the online domain. While it is not a well-researched area, women at the IFF spoke about how online threats are often part of the intimidation they face in the “real world”. Some spoke about being followed, or having their personal phone numbers or addresses published, which puts them at risk of harassment, stalking or physical attacks. Often, companies that run the social media platforms where these online threats are prevalent fail to understand the serious offline consequences for women, particularly those from more conservative countries.

In another session on protecting the right to protest and dissent, ARTICLE 19 staff from Brazil and Mexico called attention to the specific gendered form of harassment that women journalists and activists face in their interactions with police during protest, including documented cases of sexual assault.

Is it really a surprise that in the face of such constant threats of violence to themselves and their families, some women choose to walk away or stay quiet? Make no mistake that that is what the attackers want:  not to merely harass or scare women, but to silence them.

“Men in formal and informal networks are engaging in targeted speech with the express intention of silencing women,” said professor Joanne St. Lewis, member of the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa and lecturer at the University of Southern California CREATE Executive Program on Counter-Terrorism in an interview with Vice[2]. “They are not willing to subject their ideas to the challenges posed by women’s advocacy. Instead, they target and intimidate women.”

This is the thing that women want male allies to understand: women’s gender is constantly used as a weapon by those who want to attack us and our expression. It is an integral part of our experiences, not a separate incident that happens from time to time. In tech parlance, it is not a bug, it’s a feature.

On the perversely positive side, inherent in the quote from Professor St. Lewis is the notion of the power women hold to challenge the status quo. Much like the closing of civic space around the world is a reaction to the success of civil society and democratic forces, the efforts to restrict and remove women’s voices online are a reaction to threats some see in the potential power and the gains women have achieved.

In this regard, the digital rights movement is an interesting space. Unlike pure technical fields, women’s leadership is well represented in the community. From the courage of women cyber activists in Bahrain[3] to the cutting edge work of Rebecca MacKinnon’s Ranking Digital Rights[4] project, women have been at the forefront of protecting rights online. This presence is beginning to be felt in the way gender-based challenges are being discussed and addressed, notably at the IFF. Gender considerations are being mainstreamed across the various discussions and workstreams, not simply given a token number of “women’s issues” sessions. Awareness in the community is growing about the interplay of the online-offline threats. As Courtney Radsch of the Committee to Protect Journalists noted, people are realising that silencing women journalists in general is even more effective when you silence them online as well, often using gender tropes and religious norms. This means we need to address the social issues at the base of gender discrimination, and not think that technical solutions alone will solve the problem. While a huge amount of awareness raising and change still needs to happen in the community, the doors are at least open.

As one longtime internet activist at the IFF said, “We thought the world would become more like the Internet, but the Internet has become more like the world.” The gendered issues and challenges in the offline world haven’t disappeared online; they have followed women there. Our responses need to be equally interconnected to unlock the full power and potential of women’s voices in the future.