Online gender-based violence: What scenario for the MENA region?

Newsletter, Women’s rights and gender justice

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The 2011 Arab uprisings kicked off a decade of online activism in the MENA region. Blogs and social media became tools of resistance for marginalised people, such as feminists and women. Still, structural gender inequalities prevail, finding resonance in what has become an extension of the public space. Authoritarian and illiberal regimes censor and keep a watchful eye on online contents to curtail any popular campaigns defying the established order.

Online violence is on the rise, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent report, EuroMed Rights mapped the diversity of online violence situations faced by women in the MENA region. The report shows for instance that 60% of Turkish women have been victim of at least one form of online violence. In Jordan, 80,8% of respondents have experienced at least one form of cyber sexual harassment, while in Egypt 41.6% of participants to a study declared having experienced cyber violence in 2019. Finally, one third of Palestinian women revealed having been subject to sexual violence and harassment online. With the recent surge in violence, Palestinian women’s voices have been suppressed online through censorship and the ban of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Along with other Palestinians, they were shedding light upon the systemic oppression and discrimination, and alleged war crimes, Palestinians are subject to by the Israeli authorities.

Online gender-based violence is heightened for public women, such as human rights defenders and journalists. Similarly, LGBTQI+ people, present on social media are more likely to become targets of online violence.

Governments lag to counteract the phenomenon. To date, only the Tunisian stand-alone law on Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) is comprehensive enough to be used in online violence contexts. In most countries, the people who should act to protect women from all forms of violence appear to perpetrate online VAWG, as in Egypt in 2020: at least nine women social media influencers were prosecuted for “violating family principles” for videos posted on TikTok. Our report notes a widespread use of “cybercrime laws” to silence dissent under the guise of national security protection.

But feminist activists and associations remain vocal, using digital tools to foster solidarity and resistance. Online initiatives are multiplying, such as #EnaZeda, a Tunisian MeToo, or #guardianship_myright in Egypt, against the appalling draft law on the personal status. For young women in the region, the digital world still provides spaces where gender norms can be bypassed and reinvented. Protecting their rights and safety on these platforms is thus more than ever needed.

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