Women and the Internet: Between the Freedom of Use and the Right to Protect

Women are still exposed to discrimination and violence although we have passed the new millennium in fast steps and aim to achieve gender equality, sustainable development, and poverty eradication. In order to meet the sustainable Development Goals, governments must do more to respond and make the global situation of women an issue of more interest. And if the global situation of women is problematic, this means that it is even more complicated in the MENA region and especially in Arab countries.

Although the internet isn't a physical reality, it has the same challenges as real life, so we must discuss what we need as women to be able to use the internet without restrictions, without control, but still with safety.

For a long time, we have heard about the violence that happens to women online and read more and more articles or research that blame women victims. Some of these articles described most women as only using the internet for games, chatting, or asking for advice, which led to them becoming victims of violence.[i]

Women may have been hopeful when they found the internet as a space that enables them to freely express their opinions and ideas, but they ultimately found that all of the supposed space is narrow, because the internet isn't different from the real world. There are some women activists and bloggers who use the internet to discuss very vital issues (for example, Nadia Hashem[ii]).So, the claim that women use the internet just to play games, chat, or shop is not only a stereotype but a form of gender discrimination meant to downplay women.

I found it very strange that the 2015 Arab Internet Governance Forum didn’t have a gender perspective, meaning that there wasn't any workshop related to women and the challenges they face. However, there was a workshop for youth and one of its speakers tried to discuss issues related to women, but they didn't offer any solutions to change the present situation.

Some speakers stated that religion or behavior is the main way for women to protect themselves while other speakers and some of the attendees believed that women need to raise awareness about their role on the internet. But there was an even stranger opinion that does not agree with the right to access information on the internet, freedom of expression and thought, or the right to freedom of choice, this opinion called for filtering and controls to block any content or website that may pose any problems or danger for women.

I agree with the need to raise awareness for women to know how to use the internet, especially in areas where there is a very high rate of illiteracy among women (for example, in Egypt, it is 32.5% in 2012, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics).[iii] But I can’t believe that filtering or control is a good solution to protect women. So we must help women by raising awareness and making efforts to build capacity for all human rights and internet governance stakeholders interested in women’s issues.

Women and the internet is a very sensitive issue in our community, so we decided to make an online campaign to change the thoughts of people towards women using the internet without restrictions, to achieve the right to use the internet without discrimination, and also to give women some of tools, opportunities and online policies to protect themselves. We have launched this campaign with the slogan, “Women and the internet: between the freedom of use and the right to protect.”[iv]

The campaign is using social media websites and will be in parallel with several building capacity trainings and forums to discuss women’s rights, which is a part of human rights without gender-based discrimination and anti-violence campaigns. After this first phase is completed, we will ask the parliament to enact a law to protect women and stop online violence against women. This comes as a result of the huge importance of the internet and its role to reach development and poverty eradication by achieving gender equality.

Author: Oumaima ElSherief