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Online Voices for All? Women's Marginalization Online and What It Means for Internet Freedom

03/12/2013 01:21 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2013
  • Courtney C. Radsch Exploring the nexus of technology, media & activism with a focus on MENA

The core principals of internet freedom include the ability to access the internet and freely express one's opinions, but there is a large online gender gap that materializes both in terms of access, ability to freely express oneself, and in terms of online representation. These gaps limit access to the internet for many women and other marginalized groups, such as LGBT, ethnic and linguistic minorities, and other as well as their ability to freely and fully express themselves, leading to inequality based on identity. On Friday I participated in a panel entitled 'Online Voice for All' at the Tech@State Internet Freedom conference to discuss the specific gender dynamics related to women journalists and cyberactivists, particularly in the Arab world. Drawing on my study of cyberactivism but women during and in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings, as well as research in the US, UK, Africa, my contribution focused on outlining some of the key security threats women face online, and the particular gendered dimension of cyberthreats against women and homosexuals. These include reputation assassination and defamation campaigns, online stalking and trolling, technological attacks and the hijacking of identities through fake social media accounts, online harassment and false accusations that often revolve around a woman's sexual activities or allegations regarding her sex life, and threats of rape. For as psychoanalyst Susie Orbach has noted, "The threat of sexual violence is a violence itself, it's a complete violation and it's meant to shut the people up," and thereby restrict their freedom of speech.

Women face specific threats and violence that their male counterparts
for the most part do not, and they have paid a steep price for the
online activism, facing those who would use sexual violence in an
attempt to silence and intimidate them. Gender-specific threats, threats
of sexual violence, and character assassination specifically exploit
cultural taboos in which female victims are seen as having brought
dishonor upon themselves. Sexual assault, including rape, has become a
defining feature of the ongoing struggle in Egypt, and thus threats of
such violence cause real psychological harm to the recipients.

Online
defamation campaigns against women cyberactivists have been seen
throughout the world, and in the Arab region, where they have come to
play a central role in the uprisings, even becoming memes online. In
December 2011, amateur mobile phone videos captured the beating of a
woman by Egyptian security forces, who tore off her abaya and exposed
her blue bra. Video and photos of the assault quickly went viral and the"blue bra girl" became a symbol of the continuing military repression
and violence against women as people tweeted and Facebooked the attack.

Women, sexual minorities, and others often limit their engagement and use of social media and blogs because they are aware of stalking, filtering and monitoring, and fear the harassment, intimidation and defamation campaigns that are far too commonly levied against outspoken cyberactivists, journalists, and bloggers in an attempt to disenfranchise and marginalize them.

And indeed, there is a disturbing gender divide
on Facebook in the Arab region, with women making up only one-third of
users in the region, whereas women make up one-half of users globally.
The third Arab Social Media Report
found that regionally, women used social media during the revolution
about equally to raise awareness inside their countries about the causes
of the revolutions and to share and spread information with the world,
whereas men focused more on the former. Cyberactivists used social
media networks to strengthen their networked links with each other,
journalists, and transnational rights groups, providing a measure of
protection and publicity when the regime attempted to arrest or harass
them, meaning if that they are underrepresented they risk not having
access to these support networks and being outside the mainstream media
influence loop. The Arab Social Media Report attributed the divide to
social and cultural constraints based impressions gathered from survey
participants, but my interviews indicate that access and technological
literacy is a greater barrier to social media use among women.

The Tech@State panel, which coincided with International Women's Day, sought to to address this inequality and engage in an open dialogue to discuss methods and techniques to create an online environment that will allow women, LGBT, and other underrepresented groups complete and unrestricted access to the internet and to provide them the ability to express themselves and their identities fully and without censorship. Along with myself, Yahoo's director of the Business and Human Rights Program Ebele Okobi-Harris, RFE/RL's, Golnaz Esfandiari, and Ivan Sigal of Global Voices.

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