Tackling online misogyny

How can we challenge the blatant sexism on display in the digital world? Luavut Zahid talks to the experts

Tackling online misogyny
The Last Word recently hosted an interesting call to action that aimed to take a deeper look at online misogyny in Pakistan, and get a much needed conversation started in terms of what women can do to keep themselves safe in the digital world.

The session included a discussion with Susan Benesch from The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, Nighat Dad from the Digital Rights Foundation, Nabiha Meher Shaikh from Pakistan Feminist Watch, and digital journalist Jahanzeb Haque  from Dawn.com.

The recent storm in a teacup over a few tweets by a Pakistani actress reminded many women that at times simply speaking one’s mind can lead to a witch-hunt. Women have been perpetually sitting at the receiving end of slut shaming, abuse, rape threats, and more, when it comes to the Pakistani cyberspace.

In this case the actress wasn’t just attacked by regular people; she even had her own peers to answer to. However, what was different perhaps was the reaction all over social media – while plenty of men and women continued the oft repeated pattern of losing their marbles over an opinion and branding a woman with multiple derogatory labels, many others spoke up about our society’s inherent problem with misogyny.

The events that led to the session at The Last Word made it abundantly clear that safe spaces are needed online, and a safer digital experience – though a tall order at this time – is the need of the hour.

Why is the average woman’s online experience marred with misogyny? Apart from the obvious answer about patriarchy’s link to culture, it is also important to take stock of the numbers. During the session, Haque pointed out that over 75 to 80 per cent of users online are male, effectively making many platforms a male dominated experience.

The session highlighted the fact that we as a culture endorse misogyny and all manners of abuse result from this very endorsement.

“We have seen online misogyny a lot and even experienced in this line of work. However, I think that the incidents that happened in the last two weeks were eye-openers. This was the first time people were addressing the issue, and even some of the men joined in,” Nighat Dad told The Friday Times, while discussing the events that led to the decision to organize the session.

“It was important to talk about the online space in the offline space as well. We needed to get experts to actually help define what online misogyny even is, how our society behaves both online and offline, etc. it was a small effort to initiate a conversation,” she added.

Susan Benesch at The Last Word, Lahore
Susan Benesch at The Last Word, Lahore

The session helped outline that many times things that people would otherwise not say in public become easier to dish out online. With the comfort of the anonymity that the web often provides, one can act in all manners of horrible behaviors and not have to face the consequences. The panel also helped elucidate that Pakistanis have a very poor understanding of what patriarchy is, and how deeply entrenched our society is within it.

“Just the fact that there was such a dynamic conversation, and people were willing to participant, and wanting to have a dialogue… I think that is the most incredible thing to see. Are we finally coming towards some kind of breaking point where we start to understand this as a societal problem?” Nabiha said with hope.

The gathering itself was a mixed bag, with one attendee going as far as saying that women often create situations to get attention and then complain about being harassed. The attendee went on to argue that curse words are based on women because they hold more respect in society and not the other way around. The odd and highly misogynist statement at first seemed like it didn’t fit in the session at all, but it soon became one of the most important talking points of the discussion. It gave the speakers a chance to help outline why the attendee’s statements counted as misogyny and how these perceptions often damage the conversation more than help it. In an interesting way, the session was a case study for what to do when one encounters misogyny from someone who does not understand that they are engaging in patriarchal behavior.
"Are we finally coming towards some kind of breaking point?"

“I’m not surprised that some men here still didn’t get it. I think a lot of the times men come to events like this so that they then feel victimized and they don’t have to analyze their male privilege because they heard that ‘one’ woman saying something about a man therefore ‘all’ women must be the same,” Nabiha said while talking to The Friday Times.

“It was amazing to see that even though there were men resisting the theories and the conversation, and some tried to derail it, what was also amazing was to see men responding to the men,” she observed.

At one point Susan Benesch highlighted how misogyny exists at the institutional level. She spoke at length about not only the state response but also social media itself. Policies about abuse often are not capable of actually handling the issue or produce worthwhile results. An example of this is Facebook’s abuse policy which began paying heed to the abuse women face only after its sponsors began reacting to rampant misogyny found on the platform.

Hitting misogyny where it hurts through one’s power over companies that pay in millions for advertisements to various websites isn’t the only way to fight the good fight. Haque pointed out that a quick look at the Pakistani society would show how people follow the cult of personality. Indeed, perhaps the solution lies in doing the opposite of what Junaid Jamshed does. If someone important enough began to stand up for women’s rights and stand against misogyny then would their fans follow? The likelihood is that they might.

While the talk itself helped put together a lot of problems and discuss potential solution, the efforts would need to be amplified if they are to make a real dent. One of the participants raised a pertinent question, “Where does one go if they want to actually understand what misogyny is? A large majority only understands Urdu, how can they find help?”

Nighat Dad’s initiative Hamara Internet revolves around ensuring that women gain access to understanding how to conduct themselves in the digital world. “I have been working in small towns and villages where women are not just on Facebook, they have started using Twitter as well. I’ve been trying to teach and train the women there. However, it’s important to understand the politics of the internet and break it down for our local context – and that is what Hamara Internet does,” Nighat said.

“It’s important to get women to understand that these experiences are a form of violence. Till they acknowledge it, it’s not going to be accepted at a bigger level, or at the policy level,” she added.

At the end of the day, it is evident that a paradigm shift is needed more so than anything else. This is true for both urban spaces and rural ones.

“This isn’t about banning a person, or telling someone to shut up or walk away, we need to create a mind shift,” Nabiha said while summing up the gist of what needs to be done.