Yemen’s other warFemale politicians targeted on social media
The world regularly hears news of the war in Yemen and the humanitarian catastrophe, yet only recently have reports begun to reveal the heinous crimes being committed against women. As a result of our continuous advocacy regarding this issue, we have managed to showcase such violations. In response, the UN Security Council confirmed in its 2021 resolution on Yemen that sexual violence against women is a sanctionable act, and even named one of the country’s political leaders as a perpetrator. We have taken up the cause and are documenting the violence against Yemeni women leaders and female politicians on digital platforms, ensuring that the international community is aware and responsive.
The Internet is considered an important outlet for Yemeni women leaders, both inside and outside Yemen. Although the percentage of Internet access in Yemen is less than a third of the population by international standards, we have seen how political events can contribute to a surge in Internet users, especially Facebook. Yemeni accounts increased by 30% between 2011 and 2012 owing to the events of the Arab Spring.
Cowering behind male accounts and fake names
Statistics for the number of female Internet users in Yemen are not readily available, but we can take the 13% of Facebook account holders in Yemen who identify themselves as female as a starting point. The number is likely to be much higher, since many female Internet users in Yemen cower behind male accounts and fake names, either for fear of harassment or because of their conservative families.
By contrast, Yemen’s female leaders – especially politicians – publish their names and photos clearly on social media platforms, considering these platforms as a means of compensating for their exclusion from the decision-making process and circles of influence, which are generally men’s clubs – with khat-chewing playing a major role.
What is happening today marks a frightening deterioration from the achievements Yemeni women achieved publicly in previous years, most notably during the National Dialogue Conference.
Yemeni society wants women to remain weak, their voices subdued, while supporting those who abuse them. The exclusion of women from decision-making positions is not limited to government structures, either. Women are systemically excluded from participating in the entire political process, including peace talks, despite women clearly playing an important role in community peace and humanitarian aid efforts.
Nevertheless, we are attempting to carve out a space for ourselves in the political arena through multiple initiatives. Foremost of these is the Peace Track Initiative that – with the participation of 30 women leaders – has prepared a women’s roadmap for peace in Yemen, laying methodological foundations for achieving balance and the genuine participation of women at all levels of the political process. This map, if adopted, will make a massive difference to the reality of Yemeni political women and arguably accelerate the achievement of a just and sustainable peace in Yemen. But adopting such an initiative will require a mental shift on the part of current political leaders and an acceptance of the role women have to play. What we demand are firm decisions against hate speech and gender-based violence online; those responsible must be held to account.
As I write this, Yemeni female politicians are being systematically targeted using bots, e-flies and fake accounts. The campaigns target their private lives, searching out details and personal photos to publish them on sites using image editing and even deep fake technology. Women politicians find themselves under attack wherever they are, at home and abroad, as digital warfare knows no geographical barriers and its effects extend as far as the Internet can reach. The state of Yemen must adopt digital protection policies to combat digital violence, hate speech and incitement against women, activating judicial institutions to deal with those digital crimes that have become weapons of war.
From digital harassment to digital warfare
Social media platforms are fast becoming a toxic, repellent environment for Yemeni female politicians. In retrospect, I can say that the backlash we experienced following our campaign denouncing the government formation in 2020 (which was devoid of women for the first time in twenty years) featured the worst online activism directed against Yemeni political women to date. The attacks levied at activists behind the #NoWomenNoGovernment campaign were vicious. Male celebrities were called on to join in, accusing the activists of unethical behaviour or questionable careers. They even took to rehashing the past, scrutinising earlier statements in an attempt to use the activists’ own words against them. Seemingly women are to be held accountable for anything they have uttered in any past situation, yet this practice does not apply to male politicians; they are forgiven for previous posts – their history does not count.
The problem with those who incite public feeling against Yemeni women politicians is that they do not talk about their political ideas or the issues they defend, but rather target the symptoms, turning any discussion into a barrage of accusations, their sole aim being to cast the women in a negative light. It happens all the time. I am frequently attacked by fake accounts accusing me of immoral behaviour and encouraging prostitution, simply by virtue of my political convictions. One fake account was supported by several male politicians and even some women, yet when I respond I am judged for not staying quiet and taking the beating in silence.
The appointment of Judge Sabah Al Alwani is good step towards improving gender quality however our Director @RashaJarhum highlighted how #Yemen-i women are still facing discrimination everyday. Reported by Mr. Abdullah Ali https://t.co/SAQmzI2mfK
— Peace Track Initiative مبادرة مسار السلام (@Peace_Track) September 16, 2022
The social media platform administrators are no help either. If you report an abusive post, nothing happens. Either those running the platforms don’t understand the Yemeni dialect or the artificial intelligence systems involved are not sophisticated enough to capture such violations in Arabic.
I am also subject to pressure from my family. They have asked me to stop appearing in the media and defending the issues that are important to me. Yet the pressure extends beyond my family and social environment. I frequently receive "advice" from fellow male politicians asking me to remain silent and not engage in strong discussions. They refuse to defend me when I am being attacked, allowing themselves and even encouraging other male politicians to make controversial posts on the Internet, regardless of the consequences.
The vicious campaigns against Yemeni female politicians have pushed many women leaders away from the world of social media activism. Today, most female activists are reluctant to participate in sensitive or controversial topics on social media for fear of a backlash. Although there are hundreds of Yemeni women who are not in immediate physical danger owing to their location abroad in the USA or Europe, the ferocity and violence on social networks has seen them stop engaging in human rights campaigns, or even defending those in Yemen who may be subject to physical persecution and actual abuse.