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Essential for the Future

Safe and Empowering Digital Spaces

By Ohaila Shomar

In a post-COVID-19 world, it is clear that online spaces are key to full participation in all aspects of life, including education, work, political and social activism, and social life. The halt to much public activity during the pandemic, and the forced isolation, further underscored this, as communications technologies allowed those with access to them to continue education and work, to keep in touch with friends and family, and to continue vital discussion of larger issues.
In Palestine, where restrictions of movement as a result of the occupation well pre-date COVID-19 restrictions, online spaces are especially important. Though mediated by the screen, these spaces share much in common with physical public spaces – including many of the dangers. Gender-based violence (GBV) such as verbal and nonverbal sexual harassment, assault, and rape, affects women and girls going about their business, socializing, and expressing themselves in the nondigital world. As the same patriarchal values and assumptions that prevent women from taking strong roles in offline public life carry over online, it is no surprise that women find themselves facing gender-specific risks in the digital world, too.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, as of 2019, 9.6 percent of women in Palestine reported that they have been exposed to some form of violence online in the year preceding the interviews for the survey. Likely due to differences in access, this kind of violence was reported at a higher rate by women in the West Bank (11.5 percent, as opposed to 6 percent in Gaza). In 2022, UN Women reported a worrying statistic: in 40 percent of cases, online violence results in further violence offline.
Harassment, stalking, hacking, and blackmail attempts are alarmingly commonplace. Harassment can include repeated unwanted friend requests and messages, unsolicited explicit photos, and inappropriate comments on posts. Hackers may invade female users’ accounts to steal private photos or pose as someone they are not in order to obtain material they could not otherwise access. The perpetrator may threaten to publicly post stolen images unless the victim sends more pictures, or even money. Similarly, a man who feels rejected, such as an ex-fiancé, may threaten to make public those pictures shared with him confidentially during a relationship. As in offline life, those who experience harassment, hacking, or blackmail attempts often do not trust law enforcement to protect their rights and safety online. Although the law guarantees protection from harassment, and while the Palestinian police force includes experts on digital crimes, those subjected to online GBV usually opt to seek help from family, if they seek help at all.
An insidious factor in limiting women’s participation in public life online is self-censorship resulting from women’s and girls’ fear of the reactions of others. Family, especially parents, may insist on being connected on social media, or even use software to track the online activity of a woman or girl. Self-censorship prevents women not only from socializing openly but also from expressing their political views, whether they relate to Israeli policies and practices or to issues internal to Palestinian society. Like men, women fear retaliation from those in power, which might mean their own arrest or that of a family member, or other measures. There is also backlash against women speaking out, as they may face accusations that they are doing it for disingenuous reasons, such as for attention. Such activism is seen as “transgressing” too far into the traditionally male-dominated public sphere.
Online safety has long been a concern, especially when it comes to vulnerable groups that are hoping for a seat at the table. Attackers get to hide at a distance and are less easily held accountable, even as online discourse and participation increase in importance.
Sawa Organization’s recent conference “The Double Pandemic” examined how COVID-19 restrictions gave rise to an increase in online gender-based harassment. As people spend more time online, gender-based attacks have moved further into that space.
How do Palestinian feminist organizations fit into this? First, activists – individually – face all the risks and barriers outlined above. They may be exposed to individual personal attacks based on their gender and/or their commitment to ending gender-based discrimination and violence. They and their organizations are also subject to efforts to intimidate them into withdrawing from the fight for social change that is presented as disruptive or divisive. They may feel the need to circumscribe their own speech in digital spaces out of concern for their well-being and that of their colleagues, their movement, and their families.
Fortunately, digital spaces and tools for protection and empowerment also exist. Technology is, in itself, neutral and available to everyone. There are also strong and sustained efforts under way to encourage technological knowledge and savvy among women, girls, and other marginalized groups.
Sawa Organization includes in its mandate the use of technology to arm vulnerable people who seek help and protection and to help them express themselves. The organization’s helpline uses technology to document and follow up on cases of violence, through the caller information database, which securely collects anonymous information on all calls for case follow-up, planning, and awareness raising. Sawa shares information and strategies with other organizations and coalitions that come together to exchange knowledge and skills and to set common standards, seeking to end violence against women and children, including the UN Child Protection Working Group and Child Helpline International, a network of helplines across the globe. Sawa and its partners understand that violence inflicted through electronic means will continue to present a threat to those who depend on Sawa and similar organizations for protection and information. The best way to tackle such threats is to keep each other up to date and come together to ensure an evolving and accurate understanding of what works.
The new Sawa app not only gives survivors the opportunity to report their cases to law enforcement and to obtain medical, legal, and psychosocial support, but it also allows them to pinpoint on a map the location of an incident of harassment or assault. This allows authorities to see where increased patrolling might be necessary and gives the average citizen access to information about areas that are less safe. Sawa is also establishing an online platform to make it simpler for survivors to access multiple complementary services: organizations working together according to similar streamlined case-management standards.
At the same time, Sawa seeks to strengthen digital literacy and spread awareness about possible online dangers, especially among young people. Workshops for children and youth include discussions on common-sense steps that everyone should take to stay safe online. Emphasis is placed on practical measures, such as not posting sensitive identifying information publicly, where unknown people can see it, not assuming that online contacts are being truthful about their intentions, and being aware that harassment and bullying, scams and blackmail exist just as much online as offline. An important component of digital literacy is knowing where and how to report those who abuse others online, in order to have abusive accounts removed and to pressure social media platforms to ensure a respectful environment for users. Sawa is a Facebook Trusted Partner, able to convey users’ safety concerns to the company, and similar partnerships are slated to be forged with other social media platforms.
The situation for women and girls online is worrisome and complex the world over, including in Palestine. But it is far from hopeless. Digital spaces belong to everyone. They can be beneficial to women, girls, and their allies just as much as they are used as a tool for oppression and intimidation. We must engage in further study and make stronger efforts to realize a vision of safe and available spaces and claim human rights for all.

  • Ohaila Shomar is a human rights activist, expert trainer in gender-based violence, developer of anti-violence programs, and author of research works and manuals. She has established five helplines for women and children survivors of violence in Palestine and the MENA region and consults with organizations working on women’s and children’s issues and against violence. Ohaila was part of the advocacy taskforce of Child Helpline International (CHI) and currently serves as the Middle East and North Africa regional representative in CHI’s supervisory board, a member of the advisory committee of World Vision Jerusalem West Bank Gaza, a board member of the ECPAT International, and a member of the first TikTok MENAT Safety Advisory Council where she helps guide best practice and policy.

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