Marching to a tune of hatred

February 27, 2022

Hate campaigns on digital and social media platforms against Aurat March and its organisers have been particularly vile

Marching to a tune of hatred

For nearly five years, the arrival of spring has coincided with the start of another season. February is also now the season of expressions of hatred against feminists and feminism. Predictable in its general appearance, it can be surprising in its increasing viciousness. The hatred against Aurat March and those who support it should be seen as an indicative symptom of patriarchy twisted and strengthened by opportunistic references to culture and religion; and by affirmation from some of those in power.

While the mainstream media plays its part in perpetuating hate against the participants of the march, certain actors on the digital and social media have been exceptionally vile.

Online criticism of Aurat March falls into three generic categories. First, there is a narrative of the Westernised women who have hijacked the women’s rights agenda. Second, there is an attempt to delegitimise the demands by framing them as inauthentic and removed from the reality in Pakistan. Finally, there is an attempt to present the march as a part of a global conspiracy against Islam and Islamic values.

In each case, some of those opposing the march rely on misinformation and disinformation to spread their message of hate. Malicious and structured disinformation or mal-information has been used frequently as a tool to incite violence against the organisers of the march.

In 2021, shortly after the march a morphed video appeared online, in which audio edits had been made to a slogan raised at a march that was then condemned as blasphemous. The video was tagged with provocative hashtags, directly accusing the organisers of the march of blasphemy. As the video went viral on Twitter, hundreds of accounts joined in calls for mob violence against the organisers. With threats piling up, the Women Democratic Front (WDF), the main coalition behind Aurat March, released the actual video and the clarification that the blasphemous video in circulation had been doctored. These clarifications did not make much of a difference immediately. Based on the fake video, legal proceedings were initiated against the organisers following an order by the Peshawar High Court. The investigation itself went nowhere and eventually the cases were dropped. However, the organisers continued to face a serious risk to life. The morphed video was an extreme demonstration of false narratives constructed around Aurat March.

The fact that someone took the trouble to doctor a video and worked to make it viral, demonstrates the dangerous agenda of those opposed to the cause of feminism who feel threatened by the public demand for it.

Sexual slurs, objectifying comments on looks and threats of sexual violence are another tool frequently used by Twitter and Facebook trolls. There have been several instances of women’s photographs from the march being photoshopped with sexual innuendos and being widely distributed. Such incidents are not just traumatic for those targetted, but can also create potentially violent and dangerous situations. Faced with such overt threats, many choose to leave the digital platforms and spaces. Hate speech of a sexual nature is also used to build the premise that women supporting the march are inherently ‘characterless’ and focused only on promoting Western values around sexuality and sexual conduct.

Over the last two years, significant hatred and criticism have focused on the slogan mera jism, meri marzi, used to voice women’s right to exercise agency over their bodies. Every year, at the march and online, various women attempt to deconstruct the slogan, highlighting statistics and incidents of violence inflicted on women. However, a willful ignorance continues to pepper the digital discourse around women’s agency. A dismissal of stated objectives of the march, in favour of skewed and faulty interpretations of the demands, has been commonplace. In the digital hate campaigns, mera jism meri marzi becomes synonymous with direct threats to social and family systems.

Such misleading readings of the demands and manifesto of the movement are not limited to Twitter trolls.

On February 18, 2022, Federal Minister for Religious and Minority Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri wrote a letter to the prime minister, asking him to ban Aurat March for mocking Islamic values. In a TV interview regarding his letter, the minister repeated various false and hateful narratives in mainstream and digital media discourse. The minister also asserted that the march is not concerned with the ‘real’ issues of women.

This accusation of being disconnected from real issues, has also been one of the fundamental arguments used in an attempt to discredit the march. The constant effort to brand vocal, progressive feminists as outsiders appears to be intentional. This constructed distance between activists and the community is an attempt to discredit the discourse of women’s rights, and to present it as a fringe movement.

Journalistic investigations into trending hateful and inciting hashtags have uncovered evidence of structured and inauthentic activity. Based on Twitter informatics analysis, these investigations demonstrated that trending hashtags against Aurat March did not constitute organic content and were fuelled largely by fake, anonymous or bot accounts mobilised to push inauthentic content and hate speech. These investigations show that the hate speech against Aurat March isn’t coming from a group of Twitter trolls alone but is part of a planned, organised and possibly funded effort to discourage women from taking vocal, political stands for women’s rights.

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

Marching to a tune of hatred