A different kind of violence

December 19, 2021

Some blame the nature of digital media for violent toxicity, but digital space is merely a reflection of the physical one

A different kind of violence

It was August 19, 2020, and we, a group of women journalists, were gathered to speak in front of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights. 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 really hopeful. But truth be told, we did dare to hope a little. We had released a statement on the hate and abuse that were consistently spewed at us and here we were, at a special hearing of a parliamentary committee, chaired by Bilawal Bhutto. We were being heard.

Truth be told, we did hope, that day, and the ones following, that we would see some action and have some respite. We knew we were simply hoping against hope.

And yet, it was a powerful experience seeing this group of men and women, the most powerful ones in the country, wearing an air of discomfort. They squirmed in their chairs and avoided eye contact, shaking their heads or nodding in affirmation as the women, one after another, gave their testimonies documenting the horrors they face for simply having a voice online; pages and pages full of hateful vitriol, of rape threats and calls for violence. Far from the Committee Room, joining the hearing virtually, I watched the women on the verge of breaking down as they verbalised words that we hadn’t said out before – threats of sexual violence, in detail, using the crassest possible language. More than once, the legislators verbalised their discomfort, telling the journalists that they understood, that they had heard enough. Some journalists stopped mid-way, unable to go on, others, determined to show the extent of hate they faced, carried on, making sure that these gory, insanely obscene, violent language gets heard in the committee.

More than a year ago, at the hearing, we had dared to hope that seeing the extent of the hate and the emotional violence that has been inflicted on us would prompt some action, or at least lead to some self-reflection. The shimmer of hope persisted even when MNAs from the government ranks peppered their acknowledgement of this violence with ifs and buts. The hope was misplaced. More than a year later, the digital space is as toxic for women journalists as it was. While some have blamed the nature of digital media for this toxicity, the truth is, the digital space is merely a reflection of the physical one.

The online hate campaigns against women journalists are not simply a reaction to their presence online. 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 too common.

As a scholar of digital media, I have seen the same strategy deployed again and again against women. From women activists and public servants to celebrities from the entertainment industry, visibility, voice and power, appear to be factors that render them vulnerable to violence and hate. The more vocal and visible a woman, the more likely it is that she will become a target of campaigners coming together with the sole purpose of pushing her out of the public space. Using sexualised hate speech and threatening sexual violence is apparently the easiest way to force women out.

Once those collectivising against women find a target, they do not bother to talk about their work and opinions, but focus on their identities. The women’s character and their bodies are made an area of contestation. They are called ugly and hideous. They are bombarded with threats of sexual violence, often including graphic details of how this violence would be inflicted. Facing sexual threats in public spaces is not easy for any woman, and women from our society, living in a space that pushes all mentions of sex and sexuality away from public spaces, are much more likely to find it unbearable. Many choose to leave (their spaces or their positions), self-censoring or limiting themselves to ensure that they are not exposed to this public humiliation.

When the targets of hate are women journalists or feminist activists, this self-censorship comes at a big cost, it means silencing of a narrative for women’s rights and equality. For the last three years, during Aurat March, we have seen a demonstration of the efforts to push women’s narrative out of the public eye. This year, the organisers of the march, feminist activists and rights defenders, became the target of a sustained hate campaign that was based on a morphed and fabricated video, circulated to accuse them of blasphemy. The campaign was so effective that a Peshawar court ordered registration of an FIR against Aurat March Islamabad organisers.

Violence against women has traditionally been understood as largely physical. This understanding focuses on individual incidents, or at most prevalent cultural practices that threaten physical safety and freedom of women. However, what we are witnessing online is also a form of violence; it may be inflicted virtually, but it leaves real wounds. In the hearing, over a year ago, as I saw our leaders squirm with discomfort, I had dared hope that their acknowledgement of this violence will lend us some support. I had dared hope that if nothing else, we will at least see some effort from their own circles to be kinder, more tolerant and more cognisant of the violence they were joining in. The hopes have died down. We will have to continue shouting through the chaos, despite the abuse, despite the threats, till our voices are heard and recognised.

The writer is a co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy and the managing editor of Digital Rights Monitor. She tweets at @nuqsh

A different kind of violence