Woman's role in Internet Governance over the Years: How to be Protected Online?  

3 March 2017

In the MENA region, women are not only empowering each other to survive or to guarantee their socio-economic and political rights, but they are also bridging the gap between genders to have a decent education. It is subtle that there exists an urgent need for more research studies in the field of gender Internet governance in order to map digital rights and gender challenges that help stimulate women active participation in various Internet governance platforms.

Since women are still digitally illiterate, ensuring their online safety is necessary to implement a counter-narrative to the threat women may endure on the web as to prevent 'doxing' which is the Internet-based practice of researching and broadcasting private or identifiable information (especially personally identifiable information) about an individual or organization. The methods employed to acquire this information include searching publicly available databases and social media websites (like Facebook), hacking, and social engineering. It is closely related to Internet vigilantism and hacktivism. Doxing may be carried out for various reasons, including law enforcement, business analysis, extortion, coercion, harassment, online shaming, and vigilante justice.

In the Arab world, women are becoming technopreneurs, entrepreneurs, and managers of IT technology as well as active civil society leaders who command IT skills. For example, Mentor-nations move to rural areas to teach children one hour of coding concepts. Moreover, Django Movements for IT engineering aims to empower women IT skill. At the international scale, the Tech-Women Scholarship offers IT internship for young girls to widen their knowledge on technology and to keep them updated with technological advancement.

Exploring Gender Internet Policy Gaps in the MENA Region:

1. Illiteracy:  There is still a lot of work to be done so that women stand at the forefront of the key drivers of Internet governance development. Still, more than 30% of women in Egypt suffer from digital illiteracy.

2. Poverty and disabilities:  Even though women social entrepreneur have succeeded in marking a footprint in some countries, women in the MENA region continue to lag behind when it comes to business start-ups. Poverty, then, is a huge challenge preventing women from using the Internet, especially the cost of computers, mobile phones, and Internet services.

3. Discrimination:  Social norms, customs, culture and gender-based discrimination are factors that inhibit women from an active social, economic and political participation. Since they are always busy with work, child care, and home duties, most of them don’t have time to learn how to safely use the Internet. Add the online violations that women may be exposed to. Our societies are facing social and cultural barriers that prevent women of using the Internet.

4. Geography:  Few women in rural areas can access the Internet. They can be a strong economic growth engine, yet they have to overcome personal and societal challenges and barriers that may prohibit their entry to the job market and long-term success. Women are using social media and online platforms to advocate for women entrepreneurial rights, seeking to increase women’s social and economic opportunities at the local rural area. For this reason, huge efforts must be provided to protect women online.

Threats to human rights online are growing and expanding. Governments in the Middle East and North African region are using any precedent set at the global level or in other countries, particularly democratic states, to push for more restrictive legislation. That is why it is critical to be aware of the trends and see how they can influence the situation in the MENA region. States are learning how to deal with the Internet but not always for the benefit of their citizens and especially women and girls.

How Online Threats make Women feel?

Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube make women who use the Internet feel anything but free. Social media companies fail to respond to complaints and requests from victims of online harassment and frequently turn to individuals who can publish their cases. Yet, Facebook is doing more than most companies to address online harassment against women.

We have heard from young women that they feel constantly being watched and that their privacy is completely invaded and controlled. Quite often, it prevents women from seeking help as they fear that their ‘boyfriends’ will discover that they have run a helpline, looked at a domestic violence support website or spoken of the abuse to their friends, family or colleagues in an email or text.

When it comes to national security, many governments in the MENA region are expressing interest in cyber security and pushing for more control of the internet, using the justification of defending their national interest or fighting cybercrime, as well as, more recently, confronting online extremism. On the other hand, numerous states are enacting legislation in fields like the media, telecommunication, and so on, impacting directly on the digital rights of Internet users in the region.

Technical Security Tools:
  • Check online protection and privacy settings on the desktop and mobile apps
  • Take charge of your 'online reputation' as women through the use of reputation-monitoring service
  • Review your Facebook privacy settings to make sure you are not sharing anything you would rather stay private, such as your phone number.
  • Check Google privacy settings and never forget to turn off Geolocation, Wi-Fi tracking.
  • Search for an Engine Optimization
  • Check Google Alerts
  • Seek for legal help or counseling in case of a cybercrime issue

Add to research and advocacy on the digital gender gap, non-profit NGOs, governments, and private sector actors have also to undertake programmatic work to address the gender gap in the MENA region. Often, programs focus on finding ways to alleviate the cost of using the Internet, as affordability and access remain major challenges for many women in the MENA region.

Governments are stressing for more control through either censorship or surveillance. They still consider the economic value of the Internet as a means for development or responding to rampant unemployment. The Internet is increasingly becoming an ever more important aspect of the daily life of many users, in particular, the youth within the MENA region. This encompasses a wide range of aspects such as civic participation, information via social media and online media, and even the economy, through e-commerce and online services.

Zohra Dhaouadi is a student engineer at the University of Esprit in Tunis. She has completed the iGmena-DiploFoundation Internet governance capacity building course in August 2016.