KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 16 ― When it comes to online bullying and harassment, the viciousness cares not what a Malaysian woman's ethnicity, religion, political affiliations or even sexuality may be.
A report titled “Voice, Visibility and a Variety of Viciousness” to be launched by women’s human rights group Empower Malaysia today has revealed the tactics used by parts of Malaysian society to harass women into silence online ― sometimes through bandwagoning, and at other times, with sinister intent to cause harm.
The qualitative study involving 15 women found that in most cases, bullying and harassment often started with an individual or group of main antagonists who generate offending data or image, which was then amplified by secondary perpetrators by retweeting, downloading, forwarding, liking, and sharing the contents.
The study also found that while most respondents were harassed by individuals who acted of their own accord, some were aware they were victims of coordinated campaigns, with one target believing her harassers were being paid to do so.
Religion as driving force behind harassment
The study revealed that faith influenced the social media experience of many respondents, with eight explicitly mentioning religion as a force they encounter online, similar to the increasing encroachment of religion in their lives offline.
One of the case studies involved postgraduate student Maryam Lee, 25, who was variously condemned as a “bad Muslim” after she asserted the right of Muslim women to eat in public during Ramadan at times they are forbidden to fast.
Among others, she was berated by the chairman of a local Muslim group that was seen as progressive, who labelled Maryam’s action as “unnecessary and unethical”, while trivialising her action as “mere social experiment”.
In another case, a blogger calling herself Shida Amal, 26, was goaded towards killing herself by a group of harassers and fat-shamers who sought to discredit her work and popularity, sometimes on a daily basis, culminating in a depressive and suicidal state when her private photos were spread to the public during Ramadan.
“This phenomenon has negatively impacted the social media experience of women in this study. Based on the interviews, the most affected are those who identify as Muslim, and those who identify as queer or trans,” the report said.
A woman working abroad called Maimuna Zikri, 36, was flooded with unsolicited “advice” on how to be a better Muslim when she decided to be make her life as a queer woman more visible, while her wedding abroad attracted a lot of attention back home.
Sometimes, even a woman’s decision on a single piece of attire is enough to trigger an online barrage.
The headscarf, also called “hijab”, was a common feature in the harassments. Kadazan celebrity Daphne Iking, 39, was repeatedly questioned for not wearing one after she converted into Islam.
Maryam was called a deviant and a threat to Islam, and some even declared that killing her was permissible, when she became vocal about her personal journey to no longer cover her head based on research by progressive Muslim scholars.
Ironically, Maimuna admitted that the public became angry with her partner because the latter was depicted wearing the hijab while also openly lesbian, leading her to feeling partial regret over not concealing that fact.
Under fire just for being themselves
In several cases, the women were harassed simply due to their prominence, as in the case of Iking who has over 130,000 followers on Twitter and over 170,000 on Instagram, Shida (over 79,000 on Twitter, 36,000 on Instagram), and e-commerce executive Nalisa Alia Amin (over 13,000 on Twitter, 5,000 on Instagram).
Nalisa, 28, was conscious of her public image and refrained from posting any photos of her full body, until a group of harassers stalked her accounts and found one from a private party and fat-shamed her.
She said she has since learnt to accept her body and, through connections with other plus-sized women, is now an advocate for body positivity.
Meanwhile, a non-Muslim trans woman calling herself Rihanna, 22, was harassed by fellow Malaysians in the comment section of a travel video by a foreigner after she criticised it for stereotyping the country. Some later dug up her old photos of her living as a boy in order to insult her.
There were also at least two women who were harassed by those of their own gender, including a woman called Leslie, 40, who was criticised for sharing a photo of her carrying the LGBT pride flag during the Bersih 5 rally for free and fair elections last year.
Another recurring theme was how women were mocked for expressing opinions seen as challenging male-dominated institutions, and how some men were shielded from criticism even when they make the same arguments.
How to ensure justice for victims of online violence?
Among the major consequences of online bullying and harassment online highlighted by the report were the deterrence to women exercising their freedom of expression and participation in public space, especially after witnessing the trauma faced by victims ― which caused some to completely erase their existence on social media.
Additionally and citing research by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), this report highlighted a culture of impunity stemming from the legal system, leading to a lack of trust and confidence among women in seeking redress.
In its statement to the 57th Commission on the Status of Women, the APC had noted that gender-based violence was on the rise and “becoming part of women’s experience of violence and their online interactions.”
This comes as a United Nations (UN) Broadband Commission report in 2015 highlighted that 73 per cent of women and girls have been exposed or have experienced some form of online violence.
Citing consultants Networked Intelligence for Development, the UN report said women are 27 times more likely to be abused online compared to men, while online harassers are more likely to be men, comprising 61 per cent of them.
A recent report by local civil society groups to the UN also revealed that law enforcers not only made light of online violence against women as reported by victims, but treat these incidents as “normal.”
In its report, Empower suggested that the government recognise gender-based violence as a form of targeted violence with roots in discriminatory treatment against women.
“Government must also recognise that gender-based violence online brings about the same, if not greater, harmful effect and impact on women, and perpetrators cannot be allowed such impunity,” it said.
Besides urging government and lawmakers to consult the civil society in drafting the laws, the group also calls for efforts to make legal recourse accessible and affordable to women, and a long-term plan for a respectful online citizenry.
Empower also conceded that the biggest challenge would be to tackle the imposition of religious morality that many women face in their lives, which would require immense political will.
“For as long as the country’s ruling party and its contenders use religion as a vehicle to advance their political agenda, people’s lives will continue to be impacted and women, Muslim and others, will continue to face violence on the internet while perpetrators continue to enjoy their impunity,” it added.
The study was part of Empower’s work on internet rights under the APC-Impact Project, a regional initiative with partners also in India and Pakistan, to address internet restrictions and promote freedom of expression.
Its methodology included interviews between March and July 2017, ethnographic observations on social media, discourse analysis as well as the use of secondary data, with emphasis on applying feminist theory to understand women’s experience from their own point of view.
The report will be launched and published in full today during a forum at the Arts for Grabs event in Jaya One, Petaling Jaya. Find more information about the event here.