IIt was August 19, 2020, and we, a group of women journalists, were gathered to speak before the Standing Committee on Human Rights of the National Assembly. As journalists who have been in the business long enough to know exactly what happens to promises made by our leaders, we knew better than to be truly optimistic. But to tell the truth, we do dare to hope a little. We had issued a statement about the hatred and abuse that was constantly spat at us and we were here at a special hearing of a parliamentary committee chaired by Bilawal Bhutto. We were heard.
Truth be told, we were hoping, that day and beyond, that we would see some action and have some breathing space. We knew we were just hoping against all hope.
And yet it was a powerful experience to see this group of men and women, the most powerful in the country, wear an air of unease. They squirmed in their chairs and avoided eye contact, shaking their heads or nodding their heads in affirmation as the women, one after another, gave their testimonies documenting the horrors they faced just to have an online voice; pages and pages full of hateful vitriol, threats of rape and calls for violence. Away from the committee room, virtually joining the audience, I watched the women on the verge of breaking up as they verbalized words we hadn’t said before – threats of sexual violence, in detail, in using the crudest language possible. More than once, lawmakers have verbalized their discomfort, telling reporters they got it, that they had heard enough. Some journalists stopped halfway, unable to continue, others, determined to show the extent of the hatred they faced, continued, making sure that this bloody, incredibly obscene and violent words were heard. within the committee.
Over a year ago, at the hearing, we dared to hope that seeing the extent of the hatred and emotional violence inflicted on us would prompt action, or at least lead to self-reflection. . The glimmer of hope persisted even as government members of the House sprinkled their recognition of this if-and-but violence. Hope was misplaced. Over a year later, the digital space is as toxic to female journalists as it was. While some have blamed the nature of digital media for this toxicity, the truth is that digital space is only a reflection of physical space.
Online hate campaigns against women journalists are not simply a reaction to their online presence. These campaigns are unleashed as a deliberate attempt to silence their journalistic voices and discredit their journalistic credentials. Unfortunately, such attempts to silence women, who are vocal and professionally visible, are all too common.
As a digital media specialist, I have seen the same strategy unfold against women over and over again. From women activists and government officials to celebrities in the entertainment industry, visibility, voice and power appear to be factors that make them vulnerable to violence and hatred. The more a woman expresses herself and is visible, the more likely she is to become the target of activists gathering for the sole purpose of pushing her out of public space. Using sexualized hate speech and threats of sexual violence is apparently the easiest way to deport women.
Once those who collectivize against women find a target, they don’t bother to talk about their work and their opinions, but instead focus on who they are. The character of women and their bodies become a ground of contestation. They are called ugly and hideous. They are bombarded with threats of sexual violence, often including graphic details of how that violence would be inflicted. Dealing with sexual threats in public spaces is not easy for any woman, and women in our society, living in a space that takes all mentions of sex and sexuality away from public spaces, are much more likely to find it. insupportable. Many choose to leave (their spaces or positions), self-censoring or limiting themselves to ensure that they are not exposed to this public humiliation.
When the targets of hatred are women journalists or feminist activists, this self-censorship comes at a high cost, it means silencing a discourse on women’s rights and equality. Over the past three years, during the Aurat March, we have seen a demonstration of efforts to bring the narrative of women out of the public eye. This year, the march’s organizers, feminist activists and human rights defenders, have become the target of a sustained hate campaign based on a transformed and fabricated video, broadcast to accuse them of blasphemy. The campaign was so successful that a Peshawar court ordered the registration of an FIR against the organizers of Aurat March Islamabad.
Violence against women has traditionally been understood to be primarily physical. This understanding focuses on individual incidents, or at most on widespread cultural practices that threaten the physical safety and freedom of women. However, what we are seeing online is also a form of violence; it can be inflicted virtually, but it leaves real wounds. At the hearing more than a year ago, as I watched our leaders squirm in discomfort, I dared to hope that their recognition of this violence would give us some support. I had dared to hope that if nothing else, we would at least see efforts from their own circles to be kinder, more tolerant, and more aware of the violence they joined. Hopes have vanished. We will have to keep screaming through the chaos, despite the abuse, despite the threats, until our voices are heard and recognized.
The writer is co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy and editor of Digital Rights Monitor. She tweets @nuqsh