The rise of the internet and social media brings with it new platforms for freedom of expression as well as a place for harassment and violence. Today women not only face physical abuse, but also violence in the online world. In order to gain a better perspective on this matter, we talked to Faranak Amidi, BBC World Service Women's Affairs Producer, whose Instagram account has become a true inspiration for Iranian women from all over the world.
1. How does online gender-based violence against women in Iran differ from the rest of the world?
Violence against women is not unique to a certain geographical area or culture. Based on UN statistics 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced some sort of physical or sexual violence. However, it must be said that women in certain cultures have it worse than others. Social media networks exist as a virtual public space where people’s behaviour resemble how they act in physical public spaces. In a relatively conservative society like Iran, markets and streets are still male dominant spaces. When women want to enter these spaces, they are expected to dress modestly and behave in certain ways as to not attract male attention. The burden of the decency of society is mostly on women’s shoulders. If women fail to do so, they shall pay the price. The same rules apply to the online space; if a woman posts a picture which some believe doesn’t comply with the rules of modesty then there is a collective agreement that she is responsible for the violence and bullying against her. I have witnessed how both men and women have justified online gender based violence based on these arguments. Like in physical public spaces in Iran, women don’t speak out online about gender-based violence in the virtual world. This is because they fear harassments and abuse by male users, the same behaviour in traditional public spaces.
2. Tell us about #MyBody. Why did you start it and what kind of impact do you think this had?
It all started after my coverage of the Iranian election in May 2017. The majority of the comments I received on Instagram were about my appearance rather than what I had actually reported. I can’t really say I was shocked by it, but what surprised me was the flood of comments telling me to be ashamed of my body. I believe that there is way too much emphasis on how women should look and not enough on women’s health. Based on WHO statistics in 2015, an estimated 303 thousand women have died during and after childbirth! From 1990 to 2015 the number of maternal deaths per 100 000 live births declined by only 2.3% per year! This shows how underrated women’s health is. Equally we see how women are more concerned about beauty procedures rather than vital medical tests. I created #MyBody so that people could share their experience of verbal violence against their bodies. To my great surprise, thousands of people tweeted their experiences. I don’t believe that a single hashtag can bring about a major change, but it can be a starting point. #MyBody was just a starting point for a conversation on this important issue, but by no means is it enough. NGOs and activists need to raise awareness on these issues.
3. Do you think #MeToo movement had any impact on Iranian woman facing violence on social media?
It is really hard to measure the impact of that hashtag on Iranian women as a whole. However, I was surprised by the flood of comments and private messages I received after sharing my own experience of sexual harassment online. Men were also participating in the debate, though not always in a supportive manner. I think the hashtag sparked something.Talking about such issues has always been taboo in Iranian culture. Despite Iran’s culture of silence toward sexual harassment, I believe that things are starting to change. Women are coming to the realisation that silence is not going to make sexual harassment vanish and that we have a responsibility toward the future generation and our silence at times can be of compliance with the perpetrators. The more socially and economically active women become, the more they will demand an equal share of safety and security in the society and this means they will not stay silent.
4. How do you see men standing up for women's rights in Iran online?
Men are part of the problem when it comes to gender discrimination and they certainly are part of the solution. In online campaigns like My Stealthy Freedom and White Wednesdays, we are witnessing how important it is for male allies to join these campaigns. Yet, as I mentioned before, our culture still fears feminism and equality. Many men still believe that women’s equality comes at the expense of men’s rights. Many men are still under the impression that if women become equal citizens, families will be destroyed. This fear of the unknown and the tireless state propaganda against feminism stop men from supporting women’s rights campaigns. I personally would like to see more men supporting women’s rights. An equal society benefits everyone and men need to understand that gender discrimination affects them as well. If they join the cause and the fight for equality, they will win too.
5. What does the future look like for Iranian women online?
The Iranian society is changing rapidly. We have a generation which is growing up on social media along with women who are educated and working. The Iranian society is at the crossroads of tradition and modernity and that is why it looks and feels confused. I personally believe that work needs to be done to harvest the amazing potential this new found freedom women have online, if not this whole thing can turn into a Frankenstein monster and bite us where it hurts. These are sensitive times. We need to be aware that our online and offline worlds are merging together more and more and if one is not working properly the other will most probably suffer as well.
Are you interested about GBV in online world? Sign up to our course “Recognising and responding to online gender-based violence” by APC. And if you have any ideas and comments about this matter, you can always tweet us at @Advocassembly.