Nora Al-Jarawi (@Noorajrwi) is a Yemeni political and human rights activist.

Yemen’s other war
Female politicians targeted on social media

With more than two hundred thousand followers on Facebook and about 54 thousand followers on Twitter, I am one of the most prominent Yemeni politicians on the ground and online. Yet not a day passes without me having to fight in the virtual world because I decided to have a voice. Activist Nora Al-Jarawi gives a personal account

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.

Activist Nora Al-Jarawi (source: womensolidaritynetwork.org)
Yemeni women activists fight on: statistics for the number of female Internet users in Yemen are not readily available, yet the 13% of Facebook account holders identifying as female is a starting point. Many female Internet users in Yemen cower behind male accounts and fake names, either for fear of harassment or because of their conservative families, hence the true number is likely to be much higher. By contrast, Yemen’s female leaders – especially politicians – publish their names and photos clearly on social media platforms, as a means of compensating for their exclusion from the decision-making process and circles of influence

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 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.

A digital threat to reputation – "I personally find myself under pressure"

In many situations violence may transfer from the digital world to real life through incitement, even resulting in death threats for those women on the ground. Systematic online attacks have forced women activists abroad to refrain from supporting Yemeni women inside the country because the attacks extend to them and they fear accusations of complicity with the politician in question. Whereas once upon a time, women leaders abroad used to be the line of defence for their fellow activists at the mercy of Yemeni political dictatorship and patriarchy, the latter are now at risk of digital isolation.

The toxic environment on social media is also affecting ambitious young women who have yet to start their careers and are looking for role models. Distorting the image of women leaders is deliberate policy, aimed at limiting the ambitions of young girls and tampering with their dreams.

Those political women with a strong presence on social media are a source of concern for elite men; they are therefore excluded from appointments and promotions. This may mean ending an active woman’s professional career by so-called ‘political execution’, or at the very least marginalising and depriving her of career development opportunities and open positions, whether in the political party or in state institutions. Society considers her a problem because she is loud and not afraid to wade into a debate. From the patriarchal point of view – I hear this all the time – a woman who refuses to remain silent is considered difficult to manage. Best not involve her in the future of the party, then, say the male leaders.

 

Consequently, many Yemeni women leaders, fearing defamation and exposure to digital violence, currently favour appeasement and peaceful discourse. Many of them no longer take a stand on the many issues affecting Yemen. They have disappeared from the scene while the voices of men become louder. After all, men always have the right to express their opinions, even if they are calling for violence, thereby undermining the security and safety of society.

Society is happy to blame a woman for publishing a post expressing her opinion while standing by the man who targeted and falsely accused her. Dr. Olfat al-Dobui, for example, is facing a vile campaign because of her demand that women have the right to obtain a passport without guardianship. In this campaign, with the aim of inciting society against her, she was accused of blasphemy. Even when she defended herself by taking her accuser to court, the hate campaign continued, supported by a number of state officials. When I expressed solidarity with Dr. Olfat on my Facebook page, the post received 100 comments, 94 of which were offensive responses, accusing me of being complicit with her in her heinous acts.

Yemen’s digital platforms are in urgent need of transformation: from a repellent toxic environment to a safe zone that encourages advocacy, thereby increasing the number of women activists and ensuring a diverse representation of women’s voices across social media. If we are serious about addressing the issue of digital crime, we need to work together in an atmosphere of collaborative partnership.

Nora Al-Jarawi

© Qantara.de 2022

Nora Al-Jarawi (@Noorajrwi) is a Yemeni political and human rights activist. She is the president of the Salvation Movement, chair of the Women for Peace Coalition in Yemen, chair of the Association for the Protection of Abused Women and Survivors of Houthi Prisons and director of Kony Watan Organisation for Development. She is also a member of the Permanent Committee of the General People's Congress and holds the position of Assistant Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Civil Society Organisations. Al-Jarawi is passionate about the issue of female detainees in prisons and succeeded in releasing many of them through local and international mediations. A member of the Women’s Solidarity Network and a recipient of the Peace Track Initiative Feminist Leaders Fellowship, she is an advocate for women detainees, internally displaced people, and those affected by the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

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